Beyond the Gritty Streets

Text by Franklin Melendez

Visceral, raw, combative – these are the terms that dominate our concept of viable “street art.” Whether it’s the guerilla tactics of KAWS or the defiant gratuitousness of Larry Clark, street’s encounter with art seems inextricable from an incessant drive to shake up the status quo. This aesthetic of transgression has produced a series of recognizable figures: the outcast, the loser and more recently the skater, each a reflection of steadfast and confrontational rebellion. In its present manifestations, this stance favors two key lineages: on the one hand, the graffiti interventions of the ’80s (the brashness of early Basquiat or the playfulness of Keith Haring), and on the other, the uncompromising scrutiny of raw photography as pioneered by Nan Goldin and Larry Clark. Currently, artists as varied as Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, Harmony Korine and Dash Snow continue this legacy and its relentless pursuit of the fringes and the underside.

However, as evinced by the revealing title of 2004’s “Beautiful Losers” exhibit, there is also a tendency to romanticize all that is grit – perhaps to the point of listless posturing that inadvertently neutralizes an initial fervor. Thankfully, this is far from the whole story because a number of contemporary artists whose work and practices completely redraw the look and significance of street art. No longer the privileged site of transgression, the street emerges as a protean space of traffic, circulation and flow. These artists dispense with the need for rebellion, opting for new models of engagement that underscore our need to navigate globalized space. Overtly politicized practices seek out alternate, older lineages, and rather than the rebel, we encounter the aimless idler – re-invoked to negotiate complex global networks. But make no mistake – this is a far cry from the French poet Baudelaire’s rarefied dandy who strolls in reflective detachment. Instead, these age-old flaneurs circulate through the cities, actively seeking out productive encounters with the disparate elements of street life, its occupants, debris and varied currents – for each provides a nexus that opens onto new, unmapped spaces.

From their initial venture, 1997’s “Charcoal Dance Floor,” to their current contributions to the Whitney Biennial, the collaborative team of Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla has made street movement integral to their aesthetic, and not as mere coincidence, since the work of the international duo has developed as a sustained exploration of our relations to global space. But rather than unilaterally rejecting an encompassing world order, the American-born Allora and the Cuban-born Calzadilla propose a complex negotiation of its multiple economies: “Globalization is a condition of our world. You’re part of this whether you want to be or not, but our work is not anti-globalist. Rather, we want a different idea of globalization, one that suggests new ways to confront, respond to and act in the world.”

And what better place than the street to test these possibilities? Repeatedly drawn to public sites, the duo deploys artistic projects that strategically intersect with traffic, giving it a political charge. This is the idea behind “Charcoal Dance Floor,” which consists of intricate chalk drawings rendered delicately on pavement. The import of the piece emerges when these drawings are dispersed by all-too-real traffic that leaves behind ephemeral traces of chalk, imprints of footwear and the consumer logos they brandish (Adidas, Nike, etc.). Staged multiple times, the piece has informed subsequent works such as “Landmark (Foot Prints)” (2001-2002) and the ongoing series, “Chalk.” The latter features oversized cylinders of chalk (reminiscent of minimalist sculpture) placed in squares or plazas to coincide with charged events, such as the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, or a 2002 workers’ protest in Lima, Peru. At this initial staging, the cylinders, adjacent to the parliament building, allowed the Peruvian protesters to voice their dissent in the form of slogans and messages scrawled on pavement – until government police seized the area and washed it clean. But the entire process reflects a core practice. “For us the potential of art is to insert something into a situation to stir things up, cause a catalytic change, or detonate a chain of events.” By documenting this clash between art, activism and politics, the two promote a “proactive engagement” that endows the street with new vitality.

This spirit also manifests itself in the work of Thomas Hirschhorn, who readily proclaims, “I don’t make political art, I make art politically.” This is evident in the Swiss-born artist’s sculptural installations, which deliberately spill onto public venues – for instance, an early series of altars erected in honor of four enigmatic artistic figures: Raymond Carver, Piet Mondrian, Ingeborg Bachman and Otto Freundlich. The altars of the former graphic design student echo the makeshift memorials we often stumble upon on the street for victims of crimes, accidents and other random violence. Using stuffed animals, candles and flowers in combination with hand-made posters on roughly hewn cardboard, the artist constructs a familiar syntax to facilitate an encounter between historical figures and contemporary street inhabitants. The pieces, as they appear in our daily movement, prompt us to stop, rediscover and engage the historical as it manifests in our midst. This sensibility has shaped Hirschhorn’s gallery ventures, which actively destabilize spatial distinctions between private and public.

His two solo showings at NY’s Gladstone Gallery – “Cavemanman” (2004) and “Superficial Engagement” (2006) – depart from this point. In “Cavemanman,” Hirschhorn constructs a complete environment, transforming the gallery into a series of cave tunnels, complete with alcoves teeming with various paraphernalia, from posters of Tupac Shakur and Pamela Anderson, to key volumes of Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville. “Superficial Engagment” equally fills the space – this time with four large platforms prominently displaying powerful, collaged images of the current war. More than simply reflecting the current atmosphere, these pieces invite interaction and prompt the viewers to physically maneuver the re-drawn space and process the information presented. This is about re-imagining patterns of flow as potential sites of discovery and reconstitution.

And perhaps no one understands patterns of flow better than Bulgarian-born artist Daniel Bozhkov, whose objects are sent out into the world to evolve as they circulate through our varied channels of information. As Bozhkov notes, “I produce my pieces – but it takes a few years for them to assume their proper from.” This is certainly the case with 2002’s humorous “Learning How to Fly Over A Very Large Larry,” which departs from a crop circle portrait of Larry King. Or even more elaborately, the 2005 perfume based on Ernest Hemingway, Eau d’Ernest. The complex life of this seemingly absurd piece transported Bozhkov from Hemingway look-alike contests to narrow down a fitting scent, to Istanbul where a major department store decided to pick up the fragrance on the black market – where Bozhkov unexpectedly came across a counterfeit version of the fragrance while strolling through the streets. The process allowed him to explore not only the inevitable dissemination of capitalist objects, but to scrutinize how this process intersects with constructions of masculinity, national identity and authenticity.

In their works, these artists certainly draw from the contentious spirit of the street but deploy it in a much different manner. Like flaneurs, they wander the paths through which we circulate on a daily basis, but they also harbor a new consciousness, illuminating the various strands that converge in these currents. This is not blind rebellion, but a series of timely interventions that facilitate resonant encounters and much needed reflection.