Behind the Seen
Ad Hoc Art December 13, 2007 – January 20, 2008
I’ve always found the term ‘street artist’ somewhat suspect. Yes, the label is apt for someone who paints graffiti on building walls or places paper sculptures on city sidewalks, and yet we don’t go around calling artists who show in galleries, ‘gallery artists.’ Those people are just artists. They don’t need a descriptor, a qualifying moniker. Street artists, as the perpetual redheaded stepchildren of the art world, are forever stuck with one.
What Behind the Seen at Ad Hoc Art does beautifully is remind us that the creators of street art are just as talented as their “fine art” peers; it reminds us that street artists are simply artists, too. For the show, Michael De Feo asked a number of friends and other street artists from around the world to submit uncharacteristic, unseen work. The result is an exhibition that combines street art’s inherent lack of pretension with the intimacy of a gallery setting—or, a room full of art that it’s hard not to want to bring home with you and display all over your apartment.
Because of their chosen venue, street artists are normally under a certain amount of pressure to catch the attention of passersby—to force people’s eyes away from their Blackberries or iPods or other gadgets. A gallery, though, with its white walls and singular focus on the art inside it, alleviates much of that pressure. In turn, the artists in this show were able to explore the styles and motifs that interest them without worrying about finding the appropriate context or making the appropriate public statement. Some contributors used the opportunity to jump into territory that seems completely unfamiliar, such as De Feo with his self-portrait sculpture made out of firecrackers. Others, like Ron English with his Cathy Cowgirl hologram, chose to hold fast to the images for which they are known but find new modes of presenting them.
It’s worth noting that even when these artists leave the streets, the streets clearly do not leave them. These are people forever interested in street life and styles. The change comes, rather, in the way the street adopts a new role; no longer a vehicle for the art, it becomes the subject. For instance, Swoon departs from her usual life-size cut-outs by displaying small photographic prints, but her pictures of kids on bikes or doing handstands in alleys in Cuba reveal her perpetual fascination with the kinds of spaces that her work would normally inhabit. Aiko presents a display case filled with miniature paintings, but she covers everything with spray-painted stencils, a classic marker of the street aesthetic. Both of these artists’ entries read like celebrations of the street in some form, attempts to capture and express its wonder in a new way.
Ultimately, what works best about Behind the Seen is its honesty. A show like this could have easily ended up a forced plea for streets artists to be recognized alongside their gallery peers. Thankfully, it feels instead like a number of world-class artists taking a collective deep breath. And by not attempting to prove anything, they succeed in proving entirely their enormous talent.
JILLIAN STEINHAUER writes about art and culture, lives in Brooklyn, and is pursuing a master's degree in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU (firstname.lastname@example.org).