by Kim Power
September 2 – September 19
When graffiti and street art leave the urban jungle, what do they become? The elements that define the genre—spray paint drips, high-chroma colors, calligraphic lines and tagging—have become commonplace and appropriated much like the fashion world’s adoption of punk. It’s edgy and subversive. It’s underground and anarchistic. It is the visual language of urban life. It represents the proletariat and is site specific. By its very nature, it is ephemeral, exposed to the elements and city detritus as well as to the threat of removal due to its illegal nature, making it a testament to the passage of time and decay. The Warhol-like marketing of Mr. Brainwash’s blockbuster exhibit Life is Beautiful (2008), threatened to turn it into an imitation and quotation of itself, transforming the marginal to mainstream to be consumed as a commodity rather than an integral part of the urban landscape.
Enter Rodrigo Valles and Melissa McCaig-Welles, curators of SUBLIME:Harlem, a pop-up show at the Art 345 gallery located in East Harlem. Valles’s own early experiences in graffiti art were put on hold when he studied to become a neuroscientist, but his love for the medium never faded and when time allowed he returned to his passion. Sampling graffiti and synthesizing it with his own vision, Valles applies broad swathes of color in both opaque and translucent layers intermixed with freestyle spray paint applications revealing a dynamic abstract topography which can be seen in his, aptly named, painting Distractions and Permutation.
When Valles met McCaig-Welles, former owner and curator of the McCaig-Welles Gallery in Williamsburg, the two quickly bonded over their mutual fascination and admiration of the urban aesthetic. The gallery closed in 2009 but lives on through the entrepreneurial, mentoring spirit of McCaig-Welles, who continues to curate for galleries on both the East and West coasts. In the beginning of September 2015, the two friends teamed up to create the exhibit Trophy Art for Azart Gallery in Chelsea and when the opportunity arose to extend the show at Art 345, they expanded the theme of urban influence and re-contextualized the exhibit under its new title.
The term sublime is not typically used in context with urban inspired art, but more to the majesty and awe of the natural world. It ties the emotional subjective experience to the rational objective experience. It causes us to be in awe to the point of experiencing our own mortality or a sense of the other. The urban landscape may not have towering peaks but in its continual expansion and elevation along with a constant barrage of information and population, it engulfs and overpowers its very inhabitants, portraying the sublime in its majestic and powerful presence, continually cycling through the abject beauty of degeneration and reconstruction.
In Ludwig Meidner’s essay, Instructions for Painting Pictures of the Metropolis, he admonishes us to “—paint the home where we live, the Metropolis that we love without reserve. With feverish, scrawling hands we must cover canvases without number, and large frescoes, with everything that is strange and splendid, everything that is monstrous and striking, about our great avenues and railway stations, our towers and factories.” (1964). Valles and McCaig-Welles have amassed thirty-six artists, both established and emerging, who answer this call to arms with serious to humorous intent.
Swoon, a cultural icon whose works have strongly influenced the psychogeography of the city, directly embodies the urban landscape in her linoleum block prints, partially painted and wheat pasted to raw wood. Her portrait, Cairo, of a woman in a black hijab is stripped down to basic design elements of line, pattern and color reminiscent of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus style intermixed with more organic and decorative patterning. It is part of a series portraying Turkish women in Berlin and speaks to the melting pot of populations present in the urban social system.
In contrast, Marshall Jones’s painting Oxen of the Sun takes a step back and displays a more complex narrative that brings to mind Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents. Viewed from the perspective of multiple observers, the narrative includes naked women on all fours, cheerleaders blithely going through their routines, a solitary nude provocatively sporting the head of an ox while another masturbates on an elevated platform, all seemingly oblivious to one another. The scene takes place on a snow-covered lot, enclosed by beach sheds (one of which is on fire), plastered with advertising and street art, overshadowed by a giant Ferris wheel. A fully clothed man voyeuristically films it all, framing it in the context of a Buñuelesque dystopian nightmare.
Continuing to explore the theme of urban portraiture, Tim Okamura’s Northern Light presents an iconic, realistically rendered portrait of a blond-haired woman in a white hoodie. Her tense fists are revealed only by the protrusion of the kangaroo pocket that supports them while she raises her watchful gaze to a scene outside of the picture plane. She embodies the alert hyper-vigilance that is second nature in the city. Just behind the figure is a complex surface structure of collage, mixed media, and applications of spray paint which actively employs a technical narrative that perfectly embodies the wall surface it represents. If you were to take this style and look at it through a zoom lens, then Liz Adams-Jones’s portrait, Jamie, would bear a close resemblance, though it minimally reveals a drip-stained neutral wall behind and has less of the conglomerate matrix that Okamura’s painting utilizes. There is a loose structure applied to the actual portrait, revealing glimpses of the under painting and reminding us that skin is just another layer. The present and confrontational regard of the subject breaks the cardinal rule of socially acceptable city behavior, meeting the viewer’s eye with a calm and steady gaze, underscored by the framing of her glasses and the tranquil, light blue pools of her irises.
Several large-scale watercolors represent the Art 345 NYC group housed in the same building as the gallery. Norbert Waysberg’s work in particular takes on the structural aspect of the city. In Warm Night, he reduces it to the bare bones of traffic and skeletal towers that imply rather than portray human habitation. The image is blurred by multiple washes, as if seen through the grimy window of a mid-floor tenement, looking out onto a narrow strip of warmly lit sky framed by the living corpse of the metropolis.
Returning to the microcosm of humanity within this superstructure, Jerome Lagarrigue’s painting The Arrest touches upon the very raw nature of urban reality, portraying police brutality that has become exposed through mass media. The loosely rendered, closely cropped image takes a minute to register but once witnessed cannot be unseen.
The playful mix of pastel colors over a screen print of Judy Garland in John Arthur Carr’s Not in Brooklyn Anymore supplies relief from the darker side of Gotham.
Finally, we end up in the belly of the beast. Gregory Berg’s Untitled C-print incites a feeling of inescapable vertigo, drawing us into the center of the tracks of an abandoned metro tunnel illumined by warm and cool electric lights.
It is a quality of making history that we cannot completely detach ourselves from the moment in which we exist and observe it at the same time. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919), T.S. Eliot wrote, “The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” SUBLIME:Harlem is referential to the graffiti and street art movement of the 70’s and 80’s while making room for new innovations through observation and interpretations of past devices. The language of the city is not dead but evolving in collaboration with artists and art curators willing to look beyond the commercial hype and relate to it as a movement that is defined by the experiences of the inhabitants themselves.