Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Let's play tag

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
The New English
Site-specific graffiti works by Demo, Dooley O, Mister Never and Nick Z
Ends Sept. 16.

If you had a big window and a big facing wall, what would you do? Cover the wall with graffiti? If you are Denise Markonish, Artspace Gallery Director, that seemed like a great idea for a summer show.

"I wanted a conversation between outside and inside and graffiti seemed a great way to do that," says Markonish. For the show The New English, Markonish invited four graffiti artists—two now based in New York who she had met when she and they lived in Boston and two from New Haven—to paint (or "tag" in hip-hop parlance) individual works on Artspace walls and also collaborate on tagging the Project Room. "I told them to 'come in and do what you do as if you have a freighter here.'"

New York-based artists Nick Z and Mister Never both have large gallery experience. New Havenites Demo and Dooley O were new to plying their art in an established gallery. By the evidence on the walls, they weren't intimidated by tagging in a highfalutin licit venue. If anything, their large works steal the show.

Dooley O's paintings ("Old School" and "Brat") are bold statements of color and stylized text in the classic graffiti tradition. In one, a male figure in the bottom left corner extends his left hand and the word "SOUL" nestles in his Afro. Demo's painting ("Interruption") is a sci-fi landscape as one might see rendered on a highway overpass. (And maybe you have!) Jagged overlapping shapes outlined in pink and filled with a greenish-yellow drift past blue and green stalactites and stalagmites. Their definitive contours are offset by fluid, soft-focus bursts of magenta.

Mister Never's untitled work uses a more restrained palette (if cans of spray paint can be considered a "palette"). He wields spritzes of black, pink and light blue paint. Curving around two walls and into the Project Room, it features a motif of text ("Kid you love to hate," "Say it to my face," "$hine" and more), hearts, dollar signs and arrows. Some of the underlying painting has been effaced with white paint.

Nick Z was the only one of the four artists to choose to work with latex paint rather than spray paint. Perhaps for that reason, his "So So Punk," while pleasant, doesn’t have the gestural energy and excitement of the other works. Floating letters spell out "So Punk" as if exhaled from a bubble machine. Figures that seem like the mutant offspring of horses and old-fashioned high button shoes spew purple curlicues of arrow-tipped smoke.

All four artists tagged the walls of the Project Room. But, according to Markonish, the idea to decorate liquor bottles and display them in the room was primarily Dooley O’s. The 40-ounce malt liquor bottles (and a few bottles of vodka, wine, gin) either have had paint poured over them or been tagged with statements like "Old School" and "Die Slow."

"The initial idea was to have a fun bodega-like twist," says Markonish. "They used the bottles as a reference to the street."

Graffiti, of course, is an outgrowth of hip-hop street culture. In the early 1980’s, a number of graffiti artists, particularly in New York, were embrace by galleries. From dodge-the-transit-police hit-and-run painting of subway trains, artists made the transition to working on canvas for collectors. But after the art crowd fashion frenzy subsided, Markonish says, graffiti "went back to the streets and back underground."

"I think all these guys started doing this on the streets, and still do to some extent," she says.

Graffiti is having its day again in the galleries. Markonish notes that the Brooklyn Museum is presently hosting the show Graffiti Basics.

"I’m always interested in works that are more immediate. In working with spray paint you’re not laboring over something obsessively. A lot of these bigger works were done in one night," Markonish says.

"It was great fun to have them here and see these walls transformed," she says. "It will be less fun to paint over it."


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