Breaking Down the Walls in Street Art: “Beyond the Streets” in L.A.
Through July 6th
By Evan Senn
In 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) held the first major museum retrospective of street art in one of the epicenters of the genre, “Art In The Streets.” Co-curated by Jeffrey Deitch, the artists represented in this exhibit were mainly heavy-hitting graffiti artists, alongside some typographic vandals, cutout artists, a couple of stencilers, and a few wheat-pasters. Simultaneously, the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) took a closer look at the local level in “Street Cred.” Co-curated by respected street art expert and author Steve Grody, this street art exhibition held directly following “Art In The Streets” was not MOCA’s copycat partner, but instead focused on the local scene and history of Los Angeles’ specific brand of street art—something MOCA lacked in its survey. These two museum exhibitions weren’t branded as retrospectives but they didn’t have to; their exhibition design was loud and clear—expressly declaring that the movement was in fact, dead, and we were looking back on all it had been.
Fast forward to May 2018. “Beyond the Streets” opens in downtown Los Angeles, independent of any museum backing or support. The curator of this exhibition, Roger Gastman, is known for his work as an art historian specializing in graffiti; he was a co-producer of Exit Through the Gift Shop, co-publisher of Swindle magazine, and co-author of The History of American Graffiti. He also was an associate curator for MOCA’s “Art in the Streets.” Gastman is one of the few non-academics to continue to watch and study street art’s movement through contemporary art history. This exhibition is the next chapter in the story of street art. In “Beyond the Streets,” we see the movement through Gastman’s attentive study of what street art is turning and has turned into. Although there is a significant historical slant to the exhibition design, making sure this exhibition is not just a colorful and eclectic selfie station, the majority of the exhibition looks ahead not backwards. Gastman and his team craft a dynamic exhibition with structure, relation, historical accuracy and story telling, and surprise viewers with innovation and creativity in design and implementation.
The work in “Beyond the Streets” focuses on immersive experiences and studio work by a range of artists that are either placed in street art, inspired by street art, or infused with street art. With more than 40,000-square feet of paintings, murals, photos, installations, recreations, posters, and unique multiples, this exhibition goes above and beyond the previous iterations of large-scale street art exhibitions. There are 100 artists, living and dead, in this exhibition. Gastman includes the legends of the first generations of writers, risk takers and vandals, like Keith Haring, Lady Pink, Chaz Bokorquez, TAKI 183, Jenny Holzer, Jean-Michel Basquiat, CRASH, Kenny Scharf, FUTURA 2000, Shepard Fairey, Banksy and SWOON, but includes the next generations as well—artists like Faith XLVII, Gajin Fujita, Craola, Maya Huyuk, AIKO, Dabsmyla, CLAW, Ron English, VHILS and so many more. Many of the younger generations are reinventing what street art is today, and with more public support for the once illegal art genre, the movement of street art has opened up and removed its walls.
This exhibition also includes the largest amount of female street artists (and artists inspired by the street) in any one exhibition in history, but goes further. Gastman included at least one of every kind of creative expression in this survey; no one is left out at “Beyond the Streets.” In this same vein, the exhibition finds a special place in helping to define what street art is. As we know through previous exhibitions, street art traditionally remained in the public sphere, or was originally created in the street, but that is not the case anymore.
We no longer see street art strictly as vandalism, but can consider the entirety of the genre a part of our American art history and a piece of our contemporary art world. The most impressive aspect of this exhibition, from a critical perspective isn’t the over-the-top recreations of historical sites of rebellion, or the reimagining of how we interact with art objects in real space and time, with and without technology. The most impressive aspect of Gastman’s “Beyond the Streets” exhibition is that, in and of itself, it is an act of rebellion. This exhibition criticizes the entire art system and market; it questions the art authority and the establishment even more than street art as a movement did. This exhibition is not in a museum, but it is museum caliber. This exhibition points out the flaws in our economic and political systems in the country simply by showcasing art. Protest art, pop surrealism, urban art, neon art, sign painting, found object sculpture and installation art, illegal art and high tech art. With giant banners by Guerrilla Girls in Spanish citing the sexist inequality in the art world, with previously censored x-rated artworks shown with pride and exuberance, with street gardening, with yarn bombing, and with fond reference to drug culture and free expression—this exhibition embraces all of the flaws our art world avoids and dismisses. The rules here are simple—respect one another, and honor your craft.
Street art has changed. It is no longer a simple act of rebellion or an illegal art form created by marginalized and youth cultures. This exhibition teaches us, the public, that street art is for everyone. Street art is all around us and represents every type of person and every type of lifestyle. It is pure and unfiltered creativity and life. More inclusive and more innovative than any other art form in history. This is art for the people, by the people—and in this terrifying time and place, this exhibition makes me proud to be a part of this world and movement; to be able to see the staggering amount of innovation and honesty through art—that is impressive and important, to show and to see.
“Beyond the Streets” is on view through July 6, 2018. 1667 N Main St., Los Angeles, 90012.