AMID THE stately Mediterranean and Classical architecture of the Riverside Art Museum, a 1929 building on the National Register of Historic Places, the underground street artist known as Skullphone has left his mark -- a black-and-white human skull chatting on a cellphone. The gritty images are everywhere -- on a Dumpster outside the museum, in common areas and throughout installations by other artists.
But this is no act of subversion a la Britain's Banksy. It's all part of the exhibition "Skullphone History Museum," running through the end of this month.
And it's just the latest project for the elusive Skullphone, whose stickers and wheat-pasted posters began appearing in 1999 throughout the West Coast and New York. Earlier this year, he gained more attention when several Clear Channel electronic billboards throughout Los Angeles featured inserts of his namesake image, prompting rumors on the Internet that the artist had hacked into the billboards. As it turned out, the artist paid for the ad time, which created a backlash claiming Skullphone had sold out to corporate interests. "Not many people got through the surface labels in the blogosphere," the artist says of the minor controversy.
In the Riverside show, curated by the museum's Lee Tusman and sponsored by street-wear brand Volcom and a local waste-management firm, Skullphone's work is displayed in installations depicting a gas pump, a bathroom and a parking meter, as well as throughout the building. Tusman says it's an attempt to capture the seek-and-find nature of street art -- to reflect the fact that, in the wild, Skullphone's works go up overnight on the backs of billboards, in alleyways and on electrical boxes.
Tusman says he became acquainted with Skullphone's work when he saw several giant posters peeking out from the side of a factory in New York City's SoHo district. And though many may continue to debate the nature of street art -- is it artistic expression, or just vandalism? -- he finds it to be entirely appropriate matter for a museum exhibition. (Never mind that galleries have long embraced the genre and turned it into a cottage industry.)
"For a museum to be culturally relevant, it should be thinking about all kinds of art and culture, and dialoguing on it," Tusman says, adding that street art is "something that sometimes you ignore and sometimes it's so loud and in your face you can't ignore it."
In fact, this isn't the first time the Riverside museum has showcased such works, nor is it the first time Skullphone has appeared in a Southern California museum -- albeit in the gift shop. At MOCA's museum store in downtown Los Angeles, the artist says, he used to sneak his own postcards onto the racks, which patrons then tried to buy; now the store carries Skullphone products such as Christmas ornaments and T-shirts.
Even as Skullphone enters mainstream consciousness, he insists on not revealing his name, nor does he want his face to be known like that of his friend Shepard Fairey is. Instead, he prefers to be known only by his work, more the way artists Neckface and Banksy operate.
Still, Skullphone calls his trademark image a "self-portrait" while remaining utterly cryptic about its meaning: "To me, it's a mirror, or crystal ball, which acts as both a megaphone and white noise. Overall it is a search for truth."
'SKULLPHONE HISTORY MUSEUM'
WHERE: Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside
WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; ends July 26
INFO: (951) 684-7111, riversideartmuseum.org