This spring, as Shepard Fairey prepped his solo show at Deitch Projects, the designer of the Obama campaign's iconic "Hope" posters collaborated on a mural with graffiti legend Cope2. The gesture was a sort of truce between the not always amicable worlds of graffiti and street art. But two weeks later graffiti writers bombed Fairey's main mural on Houston Street at Bowery; so much for truces. It wasn't always like this: two new exhibitions in Chelsea suggest that graffiti and street art, rather than competing for the same turf, are converging from distant origins.
A much better Fairey piece than those in his solo exhibition appears in Shred at Perry Rubenstein Gallery (through August 27), a show of collagists that doubles as a survey of street art stars. "This exhibition is about an attitude, not a style," curator Carlo McCormick writes in the accompanying manifesto, "and we'd venture to suggest that our roots are far more about collage as a dilettante hobby of the 19th Century than the formalisms of the Cubists or the decorative dreck of Matisse." Jack Walls' five precisely disbanded black and white photo portraits come close to formalism and are indeed vaguely Cubist. McCormick offers Dada-influenced pieces by Bruce Conner and Jess as precedents for the likes of Elbow-Toe, Fairey, Leo Fitzpatrick and Judith Supine. Faile's superb "Never Enough" (2010), created by pasting, layering and tearing paintings, suggests with its embracing female figures Picasso's "The Kiss" by way of Lichtenstein-ian Pop art. An air of loss hangs over the piece—is one figure trying to resuscitate the other?—with long shreds revealing layers below, like claws creeping in from the edges. Another embrace, the late Dash Snow's "I'd Rather Be Back in Hawaii" (2006-07), features what could be a romance novel cover illustration torn and fixed to a rainbow-striped souvenir card. The combination of exoticism and eroticism makes for an aggressively pessimistic little piece. Among these gems, works like Mark Flood's reassembly of Robert Pattinson's face, "Twilight Feelings" (2010), and Bec Stupak and Malcolm Stuart's colorful laptop camera play "KC Abravanation" (2010), feel slight. They offer unimaginative responses to McCormick's dictate that "we have more than enough pictures out there, so let's just fuck with what's around us already and make something that is our own."
Here, perhaps, is where street art and graffiti diverge; while the former appropriates and subverts received imagery, the other creates new icons as a form of rebellion. That distinction is rooted in dramatically different experiences of race and class at each style's origins, a contrast drawn out in the impressive survey show Graffiti NYC: Artists of the Third Rail at Benrimon Contemporary (through August 10). Curators Molly Sampson, Mario Ramos and Claudia Bumbac have a strikingly different thesis: as graffiti became assimilated into the art market and incorporated into academic curricula, it became street art. The show tracks those shifts with works from early-70s pioneers like Stayhigh149 and Tracy168 through more punk and comic-influenced illustrators like John Holmstrom to artists like PNUT, for whom graffiti is but one influence among many. Street photographers like Martha Cooper, Jon Naar and Jamel Shabazz provide the show's oldest pieces—covering subway cars, adorning abandoned buildings and deserted streets. Newer works continue in the wildstyle tradition, though painted on canvases and mockups of streets and trains to be better preserved (and sold).
A few artists included in NYC Graffiti hint at the encounter with street art. Jenevieve's paint-splattered streetscapes conjure visions of a Godzilla-sized Jackson Pollock dripping oil over the city's graffiti. 70s graffiti legend James Top's mixed-media collages, with stencils, spray paint and found imagery, would fit in perfectly at Shred. Such works confirm that street art hasn't grown out of graffiti; the two forms' relationship is more fluid, equally amenable to competition and collaboration.
(images courtesy the artists, Benrimon Contemporary, Perry Rubenstein Gallery)