Wednesday, September 22, 2010

They Do It For Free

Nicolette Michele Caldwell
Sixty Inches From Center:
Contemporary Graffiti
C33 Gallery, Columbia College Chicago

These days street art is everywhere. Chicago is my hometown and even though street art does not possess as strong of a cultural presence as it does in other American cities, you will find many talented street artists who choose to live here. The exhibition Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti at Columbia College Chicago’s C33 Gallery attempts to foster a meaningful discussion about the importance of street art on the contemporary art stage.

As a curator, I am constantly looking for new work or for familiar pieces in a variety of Chicago neighborhoods. Sometimes the artwork remains for a while and sometimes it is “buffed” over like the south wall of Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square with work by Goons and Sonny. Street art is a continually growing artistic endeavor on the contemporary art map and has a rich and diverse history beginning with graffiti writing and tagging on subway trains in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. There is a growing community of street and graffiti artists in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, but there is also a burgeoning presence of street and graffiti artists in online communities.

Hebru Brantley, acrylic on brick wall, 2008
These street artists beautify unappealing wall facades with interesting and culturally inspired aesthetics. They hide their identity with an alias, but what should not remain a mystery is the studio practice involved in this discipline. The urban space or ‘urban studio’ that street artists work in provides a unique level of artistic freedom uncommon to other art forms.

What makes up street art?
Street art, elements of traditional graffiti, wheat-pasted posters, stencils, broadsides and ephemera are the most common form of street art in Chicago followed by spray paint, acrylic paint and stickers. You will see many current street artists working with found materials such as wood and other random scraps that make sense for their piece. Another interesting alternative to traditional street art practice is a new method called ‘green graffiti’. There are two approaches that I have come across that include moss graffiti that looks like moss growing on a wall. Moss graffiti is made from specific recipes found online and applied freehand or with a prefabricated stencil. Another material used is “ stenciled mud” and is probably one of the most ephemeral since it is the most susceptible to weather elements.

Jova El Grafista, Dumpster Diving For Materials, 2010

Skill and studio practice
Within the last two decades contemporary street art has become widely popular amongst many artists who combine both traditional studio practice and self-taught skills such as “graffiti writing”. Graffiti Writing is comprised of self-designed graphic font, text and symbols. Not all street artists have a background in graffiti writing and not all graffiti writers are practicing street artists. Participating artists in Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti are Jova el Grafista, Hebru Brantley, Brooks Golden and Blutt who all work with a variety of media and uniquely incorporate traditional elements of graffiti style. Like all the artists in the exhibition, they all work in and out of the studio.

Brooks Golden, Installation Wall, Meeting Of Styles, Chicago, Illinois, 2010
Blutt, Sticker, Possibly 2009/10

Nothing and everything compares
When I look at a piece of artwork I consider both the production and product. This is true with street art as well. Of course, all street art can be appreciated specifically for it’s aesthetic value but after learning more about street art practice I absolutely think it is important for the public to understand the production process. After having discussions on this topic with a few Chicago street artists, it is largely agreed upon that there are certain criteria that are used to critique the production and final product of the work.

1. Risk absolutely needs to be part of the process. If it seems to easy then many will not accept the work as authentic street art. It is part of the experience of working in the urban environment as a partial studio. Risk demonstrates how solid the artist’s dedication is to their artistic practice and crew who act sort of like a collective. Murals are not street art they are commissioned, legal, public art and created with ease.

2. It is also important to make the distinction between graffiti and street art as separate disciplines. The line can become blurry but it is helpful to know that street art is planned in advance while graffiti writing is done on the spot. When ‘traditional artists’ showcase a body of work in a gallery they make sure it is their best work and that it is representative of their talent. It is the same as any studio critique – there is bad illustration, bad painting, bad photography and there is bad street art. Likewise, street artists also take pride in the art they incorporate into the urban landscape - not that graffiti writers do not take pride in their work, they just work less preemptively and you can tell because the style typically remains the same. With street art there is much more variety.

Street art and the growing dialog
In conjunction with Chicago Artists Month and the Studio Chicago Project initiative the topic of street art and graffiti art could not be more appropriate. Street Art is not a common debate in academia nor is it incorporated into the contemporary dialog in Chicago. After co-curating Sixty Inches From Center: Contemporary Graffiti with Casey Champion, I was able to become a part of a slowly growing dialog. The main purpose of the exhibition was not necessarily to say, “this is street art” but to showcase street artists, highlight their talent and make the studio process as transparent as possible. My hope is to educate others on this topic and advocate for growing acceptance of street and graffiti art. These artists are contributing an important artistic voice at the contemporary art table in and outside of Chicago.

Image Credit: Hebru Brantley, acrylic on brick wall, 2008; Jova El Grafista, Dumpster Diving For Materials, 2010; Brooks Golden, Installation Wall, Meeting Of Styles, Chicago, Illinois, 2010; Blutt, Sticker, Possibly 2009/1; Video by Cristina Aguirre, student and reporter for "The Loop" at Columbia College Chicago

Nicolette Michele Caldwell is co-director of Sixty Inches From Center: Chicago Arts Archive and Collective Project. She is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago who is passionate about increasing awareness of the city’s local artists and organizations. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Art History, specializing in Modern to Contemporary Art and the History of Photography. Caldwell’s post-graduate work has served in the development of grant proposals and fundraising efforts for Roots and Culture Gallery and as a gallery operations and administrative assistant for the Averill and Bernard Leviton Gallery. Her experiences curating include the 2009 and 2010 student BFA exhibitions and Sixty Inches From Center, an exhibition highlighting Chicago street art. Caldwell has volunteered services to the Poor Farm experiment and is also a lifelong lover and maker of photography.

1 comment:

  1. The element of risk is an intriguing consideration for determining the authenticity of street art. As a street artist myself, I don't have any element of risk, because the works I do are so completely innocent, because they leave absolutely no lasting mark or damage on the public arena. (sticky notes, plastic treasure chests, bouncy balls, word bubbles attached by a single piece of masking tape)

    While I can see how risk plays a role in street art versus official murals... i suppose that's what makes it street art, that it's dangerous and edgey. Perhaps I am not a street artist. I'm still trying to find my place in the public art world in terms of the work that i do.

    But as far as the work you select here, it is meaningful work that does inspire and i'm very very appreciative and glad that it is being curated and shared.