The 20-year transformation of graffiti, from the streets to the art galleries, has been striking. The rise in popularity of street artists such as Keith Haring, Swoon, Banksy and Judith Supine has gradually solidified graffiti's role in the art world.
Far removed from its origins, the meaning and effect of such work — which began as underground expression in public places — cannot remain as it once was. But graffiti as an art form has proven that it can grow beyond original misperceptions and acquire a new level of maturity when used in a different context.
The term graffiti has developed a negative connotation because of its street origins. It's often associated with acts of vandalism, gang violence or charged social communication. Words and images are placed within the urban skyline and left for the audience to come to terms with their messages. The very nature of the act of producing graffiti has given its production a folkloric status — the graffitist is the outlaw against an oppressive system. With this formation those unwilling to accept forced images are immediately turned away from any such message that might be offered through graffiti. The mere illegality of the act is enough for a portion of the population to ignore any truth or beauty that might come from it.
To raise the status of this form is to take it away from its original intention. But once the art is taken away from the street is it diffused of its power? In Strassen Kunst, an exhibition at Artspace Gallery, 10 graffiti artists — Ottomatik, Dr. Bastard, Hamilton Glass, Megan Mueller, Reti and others — are represented by paintings, stencils and projections in the space's main gallery. Meanwhile, photographs of graffiti in Berlin by distinguished photographer Martin McFadden are on display in the Frable and Davis galleries.
One portion of the show confines the art work of graffiti within the gallery walls. The painted, stenciled and projected creations hold the style of graffiti but not the true essence, which is lost in placement. At the same time McFadden's photographs capture the art of graffiti in its natural element while taking away the third dimension of happenstance so intrinsic in its discovery.
One piece in particular stands out: the sculpture of graffiti artist Mark Jenkins, of a new breed of artist not steeped in the older, simplified understanding of graffiti. His work falls in the line of a growing form of street art that seeks to develop beyond just a spray can. Sculptures, sticker art, wheat pastings, installations, performance and kinetic images are created to interact with viewers in a public space.
The overall effect offers a new wonder to your surroundings. Jenkins uses packing tape to create life-size molds of human bodies, then dresses and places them in scenarios contradictory to reality. The use of street art in this manner allows for the general public to discover a new perception of its patterned world. In a sense all of these artists, whether on one side of the law or on one side of the wall, are creating ephemeral ripples in a community pond. S
Strassen Kunst is on display at Artspace, 0 E. Fourth St., until Sept. 19. For information call 232-6464 or go to artspacegallery.org.