New York's graffiti and street-art scene is becoming ever more polarized. Graffiti's extending further into the outer boroughs—Long Island City's 5Pointz will be replaced by luxury apartment buildings—and simultaneously being reincorporated into Manhattan-born guerrilla-marketing campaigns. Street art increasingly appears for sale in Chelsea galleries, but it's also the subject of a major historical retrospective, its first (Art in the Streets, coming to the Brooklyn Museum in 2012). A new exhibition in the windows of Midtown's shuttered Donnell Library brings those contradictions to a delicate, slightly sterile balance while symbolically thumbing its nose at MoMA's high- art palace across the street.
A team of curators, writers and artists, with a big boost from a Kickstarter campaign, assembled works by 33 artists for Pantheon: A History of Art from the Streets of NYC (through May 1), which both constrains and protects street art by putting it behind glass. This affords an opportunity to make more delicate and complex works, which a few participants seized, while their sturdier pieces appear on thickly wheat-pasted and spray-painted walls we pass daily—or in Stikman's case the asphalt we tread. His piece, "Hanging Around Beyond the End of August," a green and yellow painted abstract assemblage of found furniture mounted on chicken wire with a thicket of white marker lines behind it, is among the show's most complex and adventurous pieces. Vudu's untitled bicycle part sculpture, a mix of Marcel Duchamp's stool-mounted bike wheel readymade and Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International," explores the indoor street-art show's strange in-betweenness more fully.
Many participants—El Celso and Ellis Gallagher, for instance—simply apply their usual work to canvases rather than engaging this rare space. It's a shame: how often will a prime storefront in Midtown, facing the country's richest contemporary art coffers, be set aside for street artists? Pieces like 907 Crew's massive, two-story collaborative sculpture, Jordan Seiler's collaged fashion sketch-like silhouette installed in a phone booth frame and NohJColey's placard-wearing postcolonial poet engage the site provocatively, subverting the discourses of sidewalk hawkers, advertising and high-end window displays. These ambitious works are evenly matched with the less thoughtful pieces, making Pantheon more of a salon, and not as disruptive of its exclusive environment as one might have hoped.
(images courtesy NohJColey, Stikman, Vudu; photos by Kat Amchentseva)