Wandering through the cavernous, labyrinthine yet thoroughly modern galleries of BEYOND THE STREETS — graffiti and street art historian Roger Gastman’s love letter to the genre — the viewer stumbles upon a modest and intimate installation resembling an ancient Roman temple. Closer inspection, however, reveals references to a myriad of other religious traditions, including Buddhist prayer wheels and a relief sculpture of the Biblical serpent tempting Eve. It is this blending of worlds, this juxtaposition of old and new, East and West, and high and low-brow art that defines this extravaganza of an exhibition
As the co-producer of the Banksy-directed documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) as well as the driving force behind MOCA’s momentous 2011 exhibition, Art in the Streets, Gastman has chosen to stage this much-anticipated follow-up within a repurposed 40,000 square foot warehouse on the edge of LA’s trendy Chinatown. This symbolic decision signals street art and graffiti’s newly elevated status. What was once associated with street corners, vandalism, and gangs is now finally recognized as contemporary art. Inside, guests will find intriguing selections from over 100 celebrated artists, such as Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, and Gajin Fujita. However, Gastman does not intend this sprawling show to be an encyclopedic retrospective, but rather a far more nuanced homage to this inherently defiant and egalitarian artistic movement. As evidence of this democratic ethos, Gastman sourced all of the exhibition’s paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations directly from the artists themselves, revealing a conscious effort not to support private collectors.
As the creator of the Obey series, the 2008 Hope campaign, and the 2017 We The People posters, American street artist and activist Shepard Fairey perfectly embodies this exhibition-binding moral code with his inclusive and progressive murals. Undoubtedly the centerpiece of Fairey’s collection here, Street Installation from NYC immediately catches the eye with its bold black and crimson coloring and Russian propaganda-inspired design. This militaristic tone clashes with the countless symbols of peace spread throughout the work, including the lotus flower, the V-shaped hand gesture, and the iconic circle design. Further solidifying this fusion of eastern and western iconography is a veiled Muslim woman holding a spray paint can. This poignant image reveals the importance of street art as a tool of nonviolent resistance.
Similar in its synthesis of eastern and western imagery, Los Angeles native and graffiti legend Gajin Fujita’s largest work to date, Invincible Kings of This Mad Mad World (2017) is also on display here. This commanding panel tackles notions of power through depictions of a lion, crowns, as well as Fujin, a blue-skinned Japanese deity capable of controlling the wind. Fujita also blurs the line between the traditionally urbane and the urban here with a 24-karat gold leaf background covered with spray-painted markings resembling Japanese characters.
Visitors are also able to feast their eyes upon renowned Tokyo-born multimedia artist Takashi Murakami’s showstopping suspended canvas, Depicting This Purgatorial World (2017). Measuring in at over 20 feet high, this crescent-shaped masterpiece also merges religious iconography with street art. With its waves of orange-red flames engulfing multi-colored graffiti in the background, this work is a hurricane of hellfire. And yet, even with all of this chaos and destruction, the painted work offers the viewer a sense of hope. The bubble-lettered messages here are synonymous with New York City in the 1980s. Although Murakami is symbolically honoring and destroying this highly influential graffiti-style with this piece, he is also planting the seeds for creative renewal as a brand-new aesthetic will surely rise from the ashes like a Phoenix.
Brooklyn-based street art duo FAILE also speak to this idea of destruction/creation with their 2010 Temple, as the scared structure itself is partially in ruins. Artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller first constructed this half-demolished house of worship in a Lisbon town square ahead of the Portugal Arte 10 Festival, and this is only the second time this installation has been on display in the United States. Wrapping around the temple’s exterior, one finds ceramic relief sculptures deeply inspired by Florentine Renaissance sculptor Luca Della Robbia. However, all of these wall reliefs feature a modern touch as they also resemble tabloid magazine covers. In one such relief, we witness the notorious serpent wrapping his tail around Eve in the Garden of Eden under the flaming headline “Sinful Pleasures.” Visitors are also encouraged to walk through the iron gates and enter the temple itself. Lining the central aisle, guests will discover fully-functional Buddhist prayer wheels. While traditionally inscribed with Tibetan mantras, FAILE’s version features encouraging yet non-religious messages, such as “Be a warrior” and “Make it yourself.” Also, instead of an altarpiece at the chapel’s apse, we find a sculpture of a horse wearing scuba equipment. While this unconventional iconography can be jarring, McNeil and Miller here are aiming to present a new global mythology, one that fuses many sacred origin stories with our secular present.
Adding to the enigmatic aura of this installation, half of the ambulatory wall is missing, as if ripped away in some cataclysmic event. On the bottom portion of the wall, one will notice a clue: a metallic text which reads, “Nada Dura Para Siempre” or “Nothing Lasts Forever” in Spanish. This touching piece not only reminds the viewer of his or her own mortality but also the fragility of our society as a whole. Just like many ancient cities, such as Machu Picchu and Pompeii, our world will eventually crumble into dust or sink under the waves. Acting as a mausoleum dedicated to the memory of our species, Temple muses about the possibility of some alien race or perhaps even an advanced civilization of horses discovering our abandoned planet.
In this striking conceptual piece as well as the many other electrifying works on display in BEYOND THE STREETS (slideshow below), guests are able to witness the beauty of diversity. It is through this fusion of concepts and aesthetics from around the globe that genuinely stunning and powerful new ideas are brought into the world.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.