context LA

I just got from LA last week and unfortunately the surf was flat but fortunately there were plenty of other things to keep me busy. It was a beautiful day that would have left Seattle museums and galleries empty in the wake of 70 degree, sunshine and breezy spring weather,  as if here was some kind of cultural virus in the air. My visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology was a bit of a disappointment in these regards since the perception and experience in the small quirky spaces and exhibits would seem to be more appropriate to lonely wandering than filled with visitors and a gift shop doing brisk business.  I was in a bit of a hurry anyway so a return visit in heavy June gloom or other apocalyptic Southern California weather may be called for.

The second stop was the Art in the Streets show at the Geffen, the site of the infamous commissioned BLU mural that was whitewashed last year for political reasons. The replacement mural is quite forgettable and I’m sure does not offend anyone.

Once inside the show, beyond the grafitti time-line it was a clinic in how to take too many ideas and make a classic hot mess.  I’m not quite sure what actually qualified as “street art”.  A head ache inspiring walk through a black light room filled with day glow plastic detrius should have been an actual walking tour through toy town, maybe one of the most bizzare and sketchy places I’ve been in LA. The import shops filled with colorful toys in contrast with an incredible number of people with serious emotional and psychological issues wandering the street or passed out on the side walk in the middle of the day is a shocking statement on our consumer culture and maybe a too close to coffins draped in dollars.  In contrast, the Shepherd Fairley exhibit seemed more like a designer launching his spring 2011 collection, it’s dusky purple and distressed, and the Banksy pieces were completely underwhelming outside of their original context. The installation in the north east corner of the gallery may be better suited to a city further to the south.  Even work by Gordon Matta Clark was flat and disinteresting? There were mentions of the early work of Keith Harring and Basquiat but the show never made the leap from their earlier informal public work and the change into high profile established artists. In the whole exhibit, I can not think of one image that compares to the actual experience of finding and looking a big beautiful piece of grafitti or wheat paste (which were surprisingly abscent) or really great concert poster stabled to a telephone pole.  Taking it out of context completely neutered it.

However, in all of territory that the show covered the most perplexing may be the inclusion of all of the skateboarding culture and the limited coverage of local Latino murals and street art. So is skateboarding an art, or are the videos of skateboarding art, or is it just a parallel subculture of outcast and outlaws? In some sort of pretzel logic, skateboarders listen to punk rock and hip hop, show posters get stapled all over the city, therefore skateboarding is street art or is the documentation of youth subculture the art. Ask Dash Snow, Terry Richardson or Larry Clark. So where are the fantastic show posters, the Raymond Pettibon room (his show in Phili 10 years ago was amazing), something with some meat from Tracey Peralta. It just seemed a little abitrary and without adding much to the show.

The glossing over of the latino street art culture is a little more difficult to manage.
On one hand I completely understand that gang tagging with the purpose of claiming territory has limited artistic merit but think that the presentation of the photos of LA gangs and symbols was one of the more nuanced and successful pieces in the show. However there is a completely separate tradition of latino and other ethnic muralists that was completely ignored. The murals in San Francisco have become a formalized tour, a stretch of 6th Avenue in north Philadelphia has an amazing series of murals on metal roll up doors and I am sure that there are numerous examples in east LA that could have been exhibited.

For all of the faults, there were some hits. The videos of the massive works across an entire favella in Brazil showed the political inspiration of people living with little or no political voice and I really loved the hobo train markings which gave the rest of the work a broader cultural reach and sense of history.  But overall I can’t say the show captured the adventure, ambition and guts that the best street art shows us. Like this…

A missed opportunity for the curators to broaden the history and make the show “of  LA” with the inclusion of the “Pink Lady of Malibu”.  An early example of someone trying to cover graffti with graffiti of their own in 1966. During cover of darkness Lynn Seemeyer painted a 60 foot tall woman  in a very difficult and dangerous location which was subsequently removed a few days afterwards with great difficulty. It’s a great story and too bad that the show didn’t capture these kind of events that could have provided some local flavor and one less mention of Fab Five Freddy.

As an aside theres a great flick entitled “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal”   directed by Matt McCormack that somehow missed the cut.  It could have easily replaced one of the Spike Jonze skate flicks (although I do love his films).


About jim gerlach

A seasoned landscape architect living and working on beautiful Vashon Island.
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