Galleries

First Lady of NY Graffiti Traces Her Evolution

by Emily Colucci on December 2, 2011

LADY PINK, Evolution Triptych, 2011, acrylic on canvas (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

While everyone even loosely connected to the art world is in Miami this week, I want to stick up for those of us still stuck in the cold by taking a look at an artist and medium that could not possibly be more quintessentially New York: Lady Pink. In her solo exhibition at the Woodward Gallery, aptly titled Evolution, Lady Pink traces her own stylistic progress from the 1970s to now, as well as giving props to the graffiti writers that influenced, worked with and were influenced by her.

Before attending Evolution at the Woodward Gallery, I anticipated viewing brightly colored yet, after a while, tiresome canvases of different variations on her name. Even though there were works in this vain, I was surprised to find her also including the tags of a large number of other graffiti writers, from Kase 2 to Dondi to Revs to Sane.

In 1979, the artist began graffiti writing on New York’s subway cars at the age of 15. She was part of the group of writers, such as Crash and Daze, that moved from doing legendary whole car pieces into the East Village galleries of the 1980s. One of the few women who actively pursued graffiti, Lady Pink has become an important figure in graffiti because of her place as a girl in an almost all boys club, as well as her style and role in Charlie Ahearn’s pivotal graffiti film Wild Style. Today, she is predominantly known for her large scale public murals and her gallery work on canvas.

Lady Pink, "1970's Style P" (2010), acrylic on canvas

I interviewed Lady Pink for my thesis on Fashion Moda, a nonprofit space opened in the South Bronx in 1978 that showed some of Lady Pink’s first graffiti art paintings when she was 16. In our conversation, she gave me her thoughts on the difference between graffiti writing on trains and on the streets and graffiti art in the galleries, which basically boiled down to excitement and adventure versus work. Similarly, I have always had a difficult time wrestling with the concept of graffiti art canvases, which I feel are usually just a fairly unmemorable, commercial addendum to a graffiti writer’s career.

However with Lady Pink’s reference to her own and graffiti writing’s history in many of the works in Evolution, I found that I was seriously and shockingly captivated by many of the works. Some of the first pieces in the Woodward Gallery are a series of paintings of the evolution of Lady Pink’s “P” from the 1970s to the 1990s. Since graffiti at its core is entirely about lettering, not cartoon characters like much of graffiti paintings have become, I really appreciated a look at how Pink’s lettering evolved.

Lady Pink, "Ghetto Pink" (2011), acrylic on canvas

Even though the evolution of Lady Pink’s “P” was intriguing, the portion of Lady Pink’s newer work that transcended usual graffiti canvases was her integration of other graffiti tags. Since most graffiti art and certainly Pink’s art is all about the individual graffiti artist’s name, the nod to other writers who have worked alongside Lady Pink is significant, especially due to the extreme attention Lady Pink continues to get from art and graffiti historians. While I was still in grad school, Lady Pink was one of only a handful of graffiti personalities that anyone knew.

Lady Pink, Detail of "Ghetto Pink" (2011), acrylic on canvas

Looking closely at “Ghetto Pink” (2011), the tags of many different graffiti writers can be found so it almost becomes a game for graffiti fans to see how many tags you can identify. In the one section of the painting [which I illustrate above] I see Zephyr, a graffiti artist from the 1970s and 1980s who was also in Wild Style with Lady Pink, legendary graffiti writer Iz the Wiz, Lady Pink’s friends Daze, Crash and Mare 139 along with others. These tags are placed on a architectural structure that is shaped like Pink’s name, possibly representing how these writers and friends are a part of Lady Pink’s history and legacy.

Lady Pink, third section of "Evolution Triptych" (2011), acrylic on canvas

Unquestionably for me, the best work in the exhibition was Lady Pink’s “Evolution Triptych” (2011) [seen in full at the top of this post], which is an enormous work completely filled with other graffiti writer’s tags, painted trains and graffiti crews. Almost like looking through one of the many graffiti books, this triptych is a history of graffiti, displaying many of the major graffiti writers as recorded by Lady Pink.

Even though I was surprised to love Pink’s paintings on and about graffiti, the works that did not directly reference graffiti’s evolution — which surprisingly were the ones chosen by Woodward Gallery to promote the exhibition — were less memorable.

The vivid works with dragons and other fantastical creatures did not seem to contribute anything to the overall theme of the exhibition and they annoyed me. While granted they were not any worse than many cartoonish graffiti art canvases that can be seen around the city at any number of galleries, they were overshadowed by the fun and intelligence of Lady Pink’s tour through her and other graffiti writers’ evolution.

Moody, Moody Cola, America Runs of Graff, Absolute Addict, AA Games, 2011

Outside the gallery, another piece charts the evolution of graffiti. Currently, posters by Moody (aka Mutz), a member of the AA crew, created four painted fake ads, referencing his own tag, name and crew. A graffiti writer who emerged a full generation after Pink, he matured at a time when graffiti was no longer receiving the support of the East Village gallery scene. Moody’s Products seem to suggest the next step in the evolution of the lexicon that Lady Pink traces inside the gallery.

Lady Pink Evolution will be on view at the Woodward Gallery (133 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until December 30, 2011. Moody’s Products will be on view at the Woodward Gallery Project Space through December 2011.

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