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MOCA's 'Art in the Streets' gets the big picture wrong

The stylish exhibition mainly showcases the commercial legacy of graffiti, ignoring much of the form's cultural influence and L.A.'s role.

May 29, 2011|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Graffiti is a visual wing of hip-hop. Its general cultural effect has been huge, including in fashion, video games, graphic design, advertising — even tattoos. (In 2006, the Pew Research Center estimated that 40% of Gen-Xers are tattooed.) Yet eloquence in the madhouse is rare, while inchoate raving is commonplace. Despite highlights, the show overflows with repetitive material, as if stuck in gear going on two generations now.

The sameness is wearying. And, sorry, but claiming that skateboarding is performance art, which this show does, is like saying "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" is TV theater. True, but emptily so.

So the biggest disappointment of "Art in the Streets" is its misunderstanding of history. That hits close to home.

Consider what doesn't appear in the show — not even in the catalog chronology or the gallery's information timeline.

Between 1969 and 1973, the L.A. Fine Arts Squad, led by Victor Henderson and Terry Schoonhoven, undertook an independent series of remarkable wall paintings around the city. During a period of Vietnam War disillusionment, they turned conventional expectations for commercial billboards into apocalyptic, free-for-all street visions.

In 1972 Willie Herrón, reacting to a gang assault on his brother, painted a wrenching mural in a City Terrace alley. He carefully incorporated the wall's existing graffiti, expressly to insist on its equivalence with his painting.

That same year the Chicano artists' collective Asco — Herrón, Gronk and Harry Gamboa Jr. — laid conceptual claim to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by tagging the building the way a painter signs a canvas. Gamboa photographed Asco's fourth member, Patssi Valdez, standing astride the bold graffiti.

The Squad's work was the subject of a recent show at Culver City's Cardwell Jimmerson Gallery. Photographic documentation of the LACMA tagging is in a survey of Latin American political art currently at Mexico City's National Institute of Fine Arts. And an Asco retrospective opens at LACMA in September. But none of it is at MOCA.

Nor is any of the 1981 documentary "Mur Murs" by French director Agnes Varda, which chronicled much of the prior decade's L.A. street art, including graffiti. "Mur Murs" is not included in the loop of "seminal film and video" playing at the show's end.

About as far as it gets are paintings by L.A. artist Chaz Bojórquez, whose 1970s precedent in wall-stenciling reaches all the way to London's Banksy today. Gusmano Cesaretti's photographs of Chicano graffiti are also compelling. But East L.A. graffiti artist Gajin Fujita, whose distinctive paintings merging tagging with the "floating world" of traditional Japanese ukiyo-e are the most important 21st century iteration of graffiti's influence on art (he shows regularly at L.A. Louvre), is nowhere to be found.

Mostly MOCA tells a mythic tale in which graffiti, an Expressionist art form, is largely born in Manhattan, spreads across the country and finally envelopes the world. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it replays New York School legend, long since discredited, about Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1940s. The generative action has merely shifted from 10th Street and Greenwich Village, stamping ground of Pollock and De Kooning, to the South Bronx and the Lower East Side, hangouts of Crash and Kenny Scharf.

New York was certainly pivotal in marketing graffiti, starting in the 1980s, just as it was for Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. In fact, that's the real sequence leading from Pop art to street art. MOCA's stylish exhibition mostly extends a legacy of commercial influence, which is the wrong way for an art museum to frame a show.

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