New York Art, 1980s Underground
Contra Galleries, New York, NY
122 West 26th Street until March 6
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST February, 2019
They were a trinity: Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Other names have blown up since in the realm of Graffiti/Street Art – Faile, Kaws, Banksy – but the trinity stayed on its perch as the market-tested, critic-approved, museum-grade Right Stuff. Or so it was until just sixteen months ago, which was when the death of Richard Hambleton, the creator of Shadowman, set off a catch-up frenzy which lickety-split took his prices from the low four figures up to six figures, not so low, and still climbing. A brilliant show of Rammellzee, another dead and seemingly gone Street Artist, which opened at the Red Bull space on West 18th Street last May, sealed the deal. The pecking order in this genre is in a state of melt. And now New York Art, 1980s Underground, a show which will be up at the Contra Gallery at 122 West 26th Street until March 6, presents some successors.
Linus Coraggio, who curated, is a welder/street sculptor of the storied but defunct Rivington School. He has given the show a specific look, indeed feel, which to a great extent depends on its sheer reach. It’s a show that comfortably includes, for instance, a 3D lenticular fly’s eye photograph of Kembra Pfahler by M. Henry Jones, a photograph of Arturo Vega by Curt Hoppe, a drawing of a gun by Alfredo Martinez, drawings of hands by one of the graffiti maestros, Lee Quinones and several delicate graphics by Ken Hiratsuka, the Street Artist, whose intricately carved patternings on seversl paving stones will survive on the city streets when Manhattan is way underwater.
Paintings in the show include three Hambletons, a Shadowman on a sign lettered PRIVATE PROPERTY, a willowy figure on a door and a landscapey piece, surely one of the largest he ever made. It’s one of his final Beautiful paintings, and involved the copious use of one of his favorite art materials, his own blood. Work drawn from the Lower East Side and Punk includes four small paintings by Rick Prol, each electric with malignant energy, and 3 Kings, a 1981 strip-cartoony piece of story-telling by Johnny V.
This may sound like grab-bag. Actually it isn’t. A flashback moment here. Norman Mailer’s essay, The Soul of Graffiti, was published – as a book and in Esquire magazine – in 1973. That caught a wave which was just beginning to build. In the early 80s graffiti art began to appear in galleries in Uptown Manhattan but, removed from its usual placement – the subway train, the alley wall – it would often look merely decorative.
Clearly there has been a learning process and it’s there to be seen in New York Art, 1980s Underground. The work is as edgy, as punchy, as borderline legal, and as mean-minded about the mainstream art world as it ever was, but it can also look pretty strong on a wall, and not just a brick wall, but a gallery wall, a museum wall, your wall. You can pick up on this duality in abstractions, like the one by FQ, aka Kevin Wendal, who died at 55,
Or Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab Five Freddy, who is very much still with us, who is showing a piece, embellished with Basquiat crowns. Or in the piece by Angel Ortiz aka LA2, the maestro of the fill-in detail, who worked on pieces with Keith Haring. All this work is powered by both studio and street smarts.
It’s also there in the work of Avant, aka Chris Chambers. In the early 80s, Avant was on an endless, expensive round of dropping off his slides at unresponsive galleries, while working as a janitor and accumulating a mass of drawn and painted abstractions. A particularly snotty response by a gallerista impelled him and a posse of followers to take to the streets and paste up their work. Chambers was a force in Street Art’s first wave. And Avant has been a known quantity ever since.
So to Linus Coraggio, who is the curator (And, to declare an interest, my landlord). Coraggio is the inventor of welded 3D graffiti. He is also a painter, and a prolific sculptor, whose work in this show includes several somewhat threatening works based on motorbike forms. They seem to be about something. As does most of the work here. You realise that Street Art has been channeling other energy fields. Figuration, surrealism, whatever are all part of the art of the streets. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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