Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, October 26, 2009

They bombed in Bridgeport: Street art show with a mission

The Gallery at Black Rock
2861 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport, (203) 814-6856
Off the Grid
Through Nov. 19, 2009

According to Eileen Walsh, director of the Gallery at Black Rock in Bridgeport, there used to be a legal outlet in the city for graffiti writers to practice their art. Called "Fame City," she says it was a truck bay on Boston Avenue.

"The kids made great use of it," Walsh tells me as I check out the street art-oriented show Off the Grid in the gallery. "There was so much of it that the paint is so heavy it's literally coming off the wall. There's like 40 layers of paint."

But that location is locked now. Walsh says the Off the Grid show has something of a mission: "We want to get the city to devote some walls for free expression. There are so many abandoned buildings here," she notes. These are canvases going to waste! Walsh adds that some cities have done exactly that, creating tourist attractions in the process. (Walsh details the process of putting the show together on her blog.)

With the exception of "legitimate" artist Peter Consterlie aka "Pete from Across the Street"—Consterlie is influenced by graffiti style—all the artists in the show are "active graffiti artists," according to Walsh.

"If you're around Bridgeport, you'd recognize recurring names and recurring characters," says Walsh. She adds that a couple of them have issues of "property damage outstanding that they want to avoid dealing with."

"They've absolutely learned in the street 100 percent. There's no education in art for any of them," she says, referring to all but Consterlie.

The works are displayed in the small two-room gallery "visual assault style." The participating artists, besides Consterlie, are Sketch, Filth, Snook, Equip, Mercedes Espinoza and Greg Brown. Equip and Sketch are the standouts. Equip is from Norwalk; the other artists are from Bridgeport. All the works, according to Walsh, were created within the month prior to the show's Oct. 16 opening.

Equip's works are painted on ripped "canvases" of drywall. The torn edge aesthetic suits the spray paint-on-the-run imagery. He is notable because he works with a subdued color palette. Using stencils and layers of color he creates an illusion of depth. "Landscape" delicately balances two seemingly contradictory sensibilities—the urban and the pastoral. As the title indicates, it is a landscape, a sunrise on the horizon over a river bounded by soft green shores. But the color is built up through stencils, spray painted tags, suggesting perhaps a yearning for the garden amid the city. All of this is bordered by the ripped, crumbling edges of the drywall panel. Others of his paintings feature stylized imagery of club deejays or skateboarders; one has a convincingly rendered portrait of the rapper and actor Ice Cube.

Much of this work is graphic shorthand and self-promotional imagery indebted to a now international subcultural language. It is influenced by the goofiness of TV cartoons but with a twist of the macabre: skulls and x-ed out eyeballs are recurring tropes.

The use of repetitive elements and bold colors derive from the need/desire to grab attention quickly. This is important when your canvas is often a surface glimpsed by viewers traveling at 65 miles per hour. But a desire to snag eyeballs isn't necessarily accompanied by concessions to easy readability. The paintings by Sketch owe the most to and are most typical of iconic graffiti style. They feature both a signature recurring cartoon image of a "monster"—a head with a wide open mouth with big teeth, x's in circles for eyes in a helmet-like head covering—and almost unreadable convoluted lettering. His text features three-dimensional characters that jostle and writhe around each other like riders in an overcrowded subway car. Most often these letters spell out "Sketch" but in his Obama portrait, they spell out "hope." There is also a table in one room that displays one of Sketch's sketchbooks showing how meticulously planned his imagery is.

It's a thought provoking show even if much of the work has a distinct amateurish tinge. Graffiti is a decidedly mixed phenomenon. It is true that most of it amounts to little more than another layer of blight in districts already marginalized by postindustrial capitalism. But where the serious writers take the time to exercise their explosive craft, the work can be a bracing visual element in a decaying landscape. And much more rewarding than that other graffiti that spreads like kudzu through our physical and psychic environment: advertising. Here's hoping Bridgeport can meet these artists halfway and designate some free spaces for grassroots artistic expression.

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Blogger shon said...

I love this form of expression and think this needs to be highlighted in the community! Instead of negative views on such talent.

11:04 AM


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