[ artreviews - august 09 ]
noun: 1. pl. of graffito.
2. (used with a plural verb) markings, as initials, slogans, or drawings, written, spray-painted, or sketched on a sidewalk, wall of a building or public restroom, or the like: These graffiti are evidence of the neighborhood's decline.
3. (used with a singular verb) such markings as a whole or as constituting a particular group: Not much graffiti appears around here these days.
Origin: 1850-55; < It, pl. of graffito incised inscription or design, deriv. with -ito -ite
Taking it to the streets
Graffiti and street art derive largely from comic book illustration and mass printing technique - hard, thick line; garish cheap newsprint; saturated primary color - but also from distorted cinéma noir tableaux, cinemagraphic composition in early German Expressionist silent film and later cinematographers like Gregg Toland with their odd camera angles, stark lighting, surrealistic set design and sensational spatial distortions. But even this noir film technique derives from earlier Symbolist art, Surrealism, late Romanticism, Art Nouveau graphics, architecture and illustration, emerging from the late Impressionist movement into early Modernist experiments.
As this process of image-making evolves, popular art forms become increasingly abstract and non-representational, moving from canvas to film to cheap comic book newsprint and typography, then to architectural surfaces, like brick, concrete and steel, automobile ornamentation, even barn painting, before arriving as a complete art language onto itself. Today, there are numerous websites which instruct the next generation of aspiring graffititistas in various graffiti techniques.
Brick wall, unknown artist
Street Art is flattened out against rough surfaces using rapid application methods like spray paint and stencils, analogous to the early Impressionists confronting nature and working quickly under constantly shifting sunlight. Graffiti images, patterns, and vocabularies are set in a street language developed to facilitate rapid installation and repetition. The process often results in mundane images, because speed of application and visual sensation are the driving factors, resulting in repetitious patterns and formulaic composition. Much of late Impressionism is similarly redundant and boring, if for different reasons. Once the viewer internalises the visual sensation, the way of seeing - light transiently refracted on an object, for example - it soon becomes visually passé.
So the many decades of street art experimentation circle all the way back to the origins of Modernism; but this populist art has also evolved toward another end onto itself, a subculture of the Modernist experiment, an attempt to create the momentary, aggressive "impression" registered upon the unaware viewer, the casual passer-by; and often street art becomes an intrusive violation of landscape and architecture, as again contrasted to the Impressionist attempt to capture a fleeting, momentary "impression" of refracted sunlight on color, landscape, and architecture.
At its best, graffiti is an aggressive political confrontation. Impressionism, particularly the late period, became placating and bourgeois. Authentic street art is brash, irreverent, as much about political context as art, and most attempts to bring street art indoors, onto canvas on a gallery wall, as painting or wall sculpture, fail to my taste.
There are always glaring exceptions, of course, like Elizabeth Murray, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Banksy and others who cross the line from the curb to the uptown gallery front door. The line of demarcation is weakening, however, another indication that the official art world - a market like any other - is currently perplexed.
We recognize the social origins, sources, and impact of street art, all of which indicate widespread social deconstruction based primarily on economic class. "I was attracted to anarchism as a young teenager," urban-bred linguist and activist Noam Chomsky says, "as soon as I began to think about the world beyond a pretty narrow range, and haven't seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since."
This perhaps innate attraction to anarchism as critique and deconstruction, in the sense that all systems of authority are legitimately called into question and broken down into basic analytical elements, is fundamental to understanding the communal attraction of graffiti and street art.
Los Angeles wall, unknown artist
Street artists and graffiti subcultures almost universally evolve toward a tribal identity, a subculture marked by tattooing, piercing, incisions and self-mutilation easily recognizable in Los Angeles, Berlin, Tokyo or Sidney. Personal and permanent demarcations of social status become an act of social anarchy, a result of permanent cultural rejection and alienation, a visual symptom of cultural decline analogous to other periods of widespread social collapse - the late Hellenistic period, for example, with its elite fascination for dwarfs, torture and human deformity.
These graffititistas, permanently inscribed with body ink, piercings and scarifying, are saying, "see how much apart you and I are, we will never accept each other, we have virtually nothing in common."
Street art then becomes a very real cultural insurgency which validates the Modernist rejection of bourgeois concepts of art as platonic "ideal" or capitalist "collectible." It insists on validating the experience of the authentic expression of the innately humane in an inhumane context. This throughly postmodern social critique validates street art in the sense that Picasso once remarked, "art is the lie that makes us realize the truth." Exploration of "the truth" is obviously one legitimate objective of art.
Jason Brooks, oil on canvas, 2006
Bringing it all back home
New York painter Paul Manlove, like his mentor and friend the late Elizabeth Murray, has taken street art technique and imagery to a demanding level, in this case by reconnecting the street to centuries of traditional European religious iconography.
In his new mixed media series of drawings, prints, and contemplative large paintings, called Maverick Works, Manlove moves in the direction of Caravaggio, who inculcated religious mythology with realism by painting street people of his time as metaphors for sacred Christian figures instead of idealized platonic models.
Caravaggio was chastised, even rejected, by a convent of nuns, because the model used for the Blessed Virgin in an Ascension motif was the recognizable drowned corpse of a popular prostitute who had been the painter's lover.
Similarly, Manlove appropriates the mythology and composition of a series of Renaissance masterpieces, including Caravaggio, but he then replaces the defining icon, the Christ figure, with energized abstracted street images - discarded automobile parts, broken toys, prenatal images of the unformed, blood-stained directional signals. As a result, Christian mythology is deconstructed and reevaluated in ambiguous contemporary terms, leaving the viewer suspended in a vacuum of expectation.
If there is no Christ, what are the implications in terms of composition, history, and contemporary social values? Conversely, the insurgency in Maverick Works is to infuse the banal contemporary image with all the psychological resonance of the traditionally sacred "Christ" figure. It's like asking a religious viewer to ponder: where does one even begin look for Christ in contemporary culture? In a child's toy? Is the humanism and empathy implied in the myth of the sacrificial "son of man" even possible in the postmodern world?
Manlove provides no answers. He sets in motion this uncomfortable intellectual critique as a logical departure for each viewer confronting Maverick Works. Where the viewer's contemplative journey leads depends on one's relationship to the traditional, the sacred, and the contemporary.
While completing Maverick Works earlier this year, Manlove exhibited a few drawings, prints, and paintings in a small church in rural Pennsylvania during the traditional Christian Holy Week. "I don't think anyone really focused on the missing Christ," Manlove said.
"Perhaps, given the nature of holy week as anticipation of a resurrection, the congregation already understood the psychological tension this kind of sustained vacuum at the center of belief generates. To believers, the waiting for the risen one contains a very real sense of loss." Manlove continued. "What they missed in the work is that Christ isn't coming back, everything he represented - and that can mean different things to different people - is gone."
So Manlove says, "It's up to us, believer or not, to regenerate what that loss implies. I think we have to become Christ in the sense that we have to focus on universal human empathy, charity, trust in humanity, well beyond religious worship." Manlove said his works were well received.
Manlove's maverick works are subversive, but not as confrontational as Andreas Serrano's controversial 1987 photograph Piss Christ which was attacked by conservative politicians even as an art critic (and Catholic nun) found the work a statement of, "what we have done to Christ." Manlove elicits a similar psychological response in Maverick Works but less viscerally. There is rather a disturbing sense of permanent loss in these works.
Manlove studied ancient Persian manuscript drawings as well as early Hebrew and Christian iconography in preparation for Maverick Works. The confluence of flattened surface, subtle color modulation and Renaissance composition and figuration connects each individual work to his overall theme of a universally humane center that cannot be sustained within an essentially inhumane status quo.
What happens when this transcendent icon goes missing from the compositional center of a didactic religious painting? Socially, Maverick Works suggests the sacred role model is no longer valid, we are on our own, adrift in a postmodern world. Compositionally, in a formal sense, the viewer confronts the context presented by Manlove on the canvas: traditional, highly energized tableaux of barbarism engulfing and overwhelming even the residual memory of a "Chosen One." The compositional dynamism, carefully constructed in the traditional work, collapses into chaos absent the central organizing image of Christ. His metaphor is complete.
The series Maverick Works centers on universal themes of betrayal, sacrificial murder, and resurrection as each appears in classic Christian mythology, so a literal reading of the works implies that "Christ" is absent the picture, vanished, never to return; and in the void, we are left with the existential chaos and inhumanity that produced the historical need for a "risen Christ" in the first place. The "redeemer" appears no longer relevant in Maverick works, or perhaps yet again betrayed and murdered, only now, in the context of another waning culture, even graffititistas using high art cannot resurrect what is truly lost. This is not a departure for lamentation, however, but more a signal that something new becomes again possible. It is our responsibility to realize the difference, or not.