Now that MOCA's “Art in the Streets” exhibition has finally shut its doors, where can you go for your next fix? C.A.V.E. Gallery in Venice has the answer: this Friday, it opened “Street Art Saved My Life: 39 New York Stories,” a show curated by Brooklyn Street Art that brings work by New York street artists to L.A., and is produced in collaboration with Culver City gallery Thinkspace.
On Friday, a handful of artists were hanging out in C.A.V.E.'s sunny back yard, smoking and drinking beer on breaks from painting. Brooklyn Street Art founders Steven Harrington and James Rojo had brought several street artists out to L.A., where they created new works in Venice and around downtown. Some, such as Australian artist Anthony Lister, painted as many as eight new pieces during their stay, and others spoke at a panel discussion on street art hosted by MOCA the next day.
“Street Art Saved My Life” isn't just street art in a gallery — Harrington and Rojo asked artists to play off of their street art to contribute fine art works that use a variety of mediums and work in the no-context space of a gallery. This yielded a surprisingly thoughtful and earnest outcome: in an artistic culture known for its focus on anarchic self-expression, it is surprising to see that so many pieces in the exhibit comment on serious social issues in an immediate way.
Street art always responds to the environment and the community where it's made (think of graffiti territory lines, or painting portraits of locals). Though street artists are notoriously cagey and hard to get in touch with, Harrington and Rojo seem to have built a strong community of artists who all responded to their request for art in very personal and sometimes revealing ways.
El Sol 25, for instance, painted a psychological portrait of his parents. The show also features the first self-portrait of German duo Various & Gould, cheekily entitled, Street Art Saved OUR Lives. In this context, soul-baring seemed to be the theme of the day.
“Has street art saved my life? Well, I spend about 12 hours a day making art, in addition to working a job. So I'd probably say that it's made it worse,” says Brooklyn artist NohJColey. His piece, boldly titled Piss Pub, is a full-scale construction of a bar table, complete with bartender, booze bottle and a magically emptying glass. The work is fully hand-made, and took him two months to complete. It's a riff on the psychology of bars, he says — the bartender being the person who gets to know you at your most vulnerable.
NohJColey views his pieces as ephemeral works of fine art, often taking days or weeks to figure out and make a large, non-repeatable work. For once, Piss Pub will not be destroyed or erased, since it was made for the gallery.
TipToe, a street artist from Chicago, created a wood carving of Sisyphus to represent his understanding of making street art. “You put it up on the street and then it'll get weathered or destroyed,” he said. But as with Sisyphus, condemned to eternally repeat the impossible task of pushing a boulder up a hill, “every time he rolls the boulder up the hill, he gets stronger.” For TipToe, street art is an act of resistance, but one that gets more powerful with each new piece — it doesn't matter how many of the old ones have been erased.
Gilf!, one of the few woman artists represented in the show, creates works designed to raise public awareness of social justice. Her piece on display at C.A.V.E. is a portrait of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who has been incarcerated as a political prisoner by the People's Republic of China since 2009. He cuts a dark, haunted shadow against a muddied backdrop overlaid with delicate green and blue flowers.
In a similar vein, the street series Gilf is most proud of to date features a small Japanese girl with a rising sun as a face mask; below her, she stenciled the phrase “Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10.” Her pieces are all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, though she's never received any feedback on whether people have actually donated money. That's one of the other things about being a street artists — once your work's up, you have no idea how people are reacting to it. The mystery remains intact.
Whereas some street artists focus on raising social awareness, others, such as Adam Void, embrace a more extreme ethos and live through turmoil. Adam Void is originally from South Carolina; he now lives in New York, where he attends art school. He has been homeless for the past year and a half as part of an ongoing investigation into nomadic artwork that will eventually culminate in a thesis project. His piece, entitled Cut the Fence (above), is one of few non-figurative works in the show, because Adam is interested in creating a “literalization of the street” through his artwork.
“All my art originated with the hole in the fence — the one you climb through. In this piece, I literalized that concept,” he says. Because he is homeless, Void works with all found materials. The fence plaques and telephone pole numbers in the top right corner come from a street corner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he spent a couple of nights. During his stay in L.A., he slept under the 101 overpass by the L.A. river, where he painted a new piece of street art before leaving.
So, has street art saved these guys' lives? They get cagey again when asked this question. It certainly seems like a lot of them have been in a few close scrapes where you could say that it has. Void definitely has a story or two, but his lips are sealed. He does add, “Without discovering street art, I'd probably still be in South Carolina, with a couple kids, working a printing job. I can't say it saved my life, but it's definitely made my life a lot more interesting.”
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