For street artists, the distance between city streets and gallery walls often seems unbridgeable—see, for instance, Shepard Fairey's Deitch Projects finale last year. But London-based Sweet Toof's New York solo debut at Factory Fresh in Bushwick, Dark Horse (through May 22), powerfully integrates these two sensibilities. His trademark row of sparkly whites atop neon pink gums stretches the length of Vandervoort Place, symbolically consuming the art-filled alley behind the gallery. The work inside is similarly ambitious, and the artist takes big bites out of canonical painting genres.
The 33 oil paintings on view range from epic, ten-foot-wide battle scenes to dark, tiny portraits, always with the same dandyish horse-riding skeletons flashing fleshy, creepy-funny grins and brandishing brushes and rollers dripping with toxic-toned fluids. The aesthetic borrows not only from 19th-century Romantic paintings but also, most obviously, proto-Modernist James Ensor, surrealism, and Mexican Day of the Dead imagery. The loose narrative glimpsed in most of Sweet Toof's macabre stampedes transforms the postures and compositions of classical war paintings and aristocratic hunting scenes into a skirmish in the streets of a smoldering city. The squadrons of bony riders atop similarly skeletal mounts carry cans of paint and chemicals to apply or remove the graffiti on castle ramparts, abandoned buildings and Trojan horses. Sweet Toof paints a battle for freedom of expression by deploying tropes from revolutionary and military paintings that are at once contemporary, medieval and post-apocalyptic.
Technically the works vary from extreme precision to a looser, more expressionistic brush. In "Hold Your Horses," a partially decomposed beast's mane is painted in exhaustive detail, down to individual strands of hair. Graffiti on a tagged castle in the backdrop of "Battle of the Buff" appears in crisp focus. Meanwhile landscapes and smoke-filled skies tend to stretch and bend, sometimes even filled out a little too hastily. Many enjoyable details repeat: certain figures sport a glittering gold tooth; many have colorfully highlighted eyes, either bloodshot or adorned with glam rock mascara; the dripping paint rollers they hold aloft are given a sculptural dimensionality through an immense accumulation of pigment. Sweet Toof takes a break from chewing up the streets to serve these delicious mashup narratives about fighting for control of the urban landscape.
(Images courtesy the artist, Factory Fresh)