Following the Né dans la rue show in 2009 at the Fondation Cartier, MOCA is presenting the first major US museum survey of street art, Art in the Streets. You might be familiar with the show via the controversy surrounding Blu’s mural but, scandal aside, it is an extensive, wide-ranging exhibition and should significantly contribute to the history of street art. Unlike the Cartier, MOCA has not limited its presentation to graffiti. The show considers art in the streets in the broadest sense – skateboarding, presented in the context of a film compilation by Spike Jonze, reveals itself as a surprising graceful en plein air dance, a site-specific exercise, and a spontaneous performance that continues nearby with a skate ramp and live demonstrations. The Chosen Few Motorcycle Club is also included, represented by a gridded display of painted plaques for each member, with the club’s insignia, creators and bearers of a collective identity made for the streets. Erik Brunetti creates an unexpectedly poignant moment, gathering hundreds of lost pet signs, demonstrating the ways the street becomes a space of anonymous outreach and hope, and how that gesture is itself a kind of art. A drum set and guitar call out for anyone – trained or not – to play, giving an echo of countless unknown street performers.
There are, of course, the more obvious inclusions: Banksy drew the most attention on my last visit. Dozens of camera phones were capturing his installation, including a wry, gilt-framed sign declaring “this is not a photo op” (Photos here). Space Invader’s contribution maintained his street persona – rather than a dedicated area, “invasions” popped up throughout the show. Outside the museum, there are rumors that a recently arrested vandal is in fact Space Invader, in town for the exhibition. It’s not only Space Invader, however, who is making his mark on the city. The LATimes reports an increase in tagging in the Little Tokyo area, prompting police concern and increased security near MOCA. These inside-outside questions are at the core of any show that attempts to institutionalize the deliberately unruly practice of street art, but one hopes the discussion generated can begin to carve out some possibilities and direction for future study of the genre.
Overall, the show treads a nice balance between new commissions, recreations, and historical documentation. A visual timeline gives a limited, bare-bones sketch of the history of street art, but it does provide some useful archival documents, including the “black books” of taggers that were crucial to fostering nascent graffiti culture and cans of early spray paint, whose development in the 1960′s effectively gave birth to the practice. While coverage of the phenomenon began in the 1970s, with attention from art critics, sociologists, even novelists, street art still sits uncomfortably within art history. A few options for further reading:
Beyond the Street: The 100 Leading Figures in Urban Art Edited by Patrick Nguyen and Stuart Mackenzie, the volume includes interviews with key figures.
The Faith of Graffiti and The Birth of Graffiti Jon Naar first published his photojournalistic documentation of early graffiti in 1974 with The Faith of Graffiti. The book, which includes an essay by Norman Mailer, has been referred to as “the bible of graffiti.” His 2007 Birth of Graffiti looks back at forgotten images from that same period.
Graffiti Kings Based on artist and historian Jack Stewart’s doctoral thesis (in art at NYU), he gives a firsthand account of the movement.