When I entered the doors of Scope New York, taking place in the Skylight at Moynihan Station, part of the former James A. Farley Post Office, I almost walked right into a can of spray paint. Jutting with a horse head and a skateboard from the walls in French street artist Shaka’s large-scale, three-dimensional triptych at Gallery Nine 5’s booth, the spray can abruptly announced the abundance of graffiti and street-art-inspired work at this year’s Scope.
From landscape paintings of vivid, graffiti-covered walls to canvases and drawings by graffiti writers, to an entire hilarious installation by street artist and culture jammer Ron English, Scope seems to be completely inundated by influences from the streets. While I was struck by several incredible installations in Scope’s independently curated and unbelievably poorly named Breeder Program, as well as the innovative techniques of some of the exhibited mixed-media painters, I kept returning to the question of why there were so many graffiti or graffiti-like artists represented at the fair. The sheer amount of work in this vein reminded me of the graffiti-on-canvas boom of the 1980s, before the art market crashed and left artists like Lady Pink, Crash, and Daze behind for years.
San Francisco–based artist Jessica Hess, featured at her hometown gallery Spoke Art‘s booth, combines classic landscape painting techniques with representations of brightly colored, wild-style, spray-painted walls. Not a graffiti writer herself, Hess, who graduated from RISD, takes inspiration from skillful graffiti tags and those pieces that enliven desolate urban environments in San Francisco and New York, such as in her Long Island City-based painting “Davis Street” (2013).
While Hess may not get out herself, Scope contains plenty of works from writers and street artists, such as Speedy Graphito, one of the most well-known French street artists. Featured at Los Angeles’s Fabien Castanier Gallery booth, Speedy Graphito’s works combine cartoon-based imagery with the tags of a number of famous graffiti writers, including Revolt, and graffiti vocabulary like “toy” and “king.”
Another writer being shown at Fabien Castanier Gallery is JonOne, a graffiti artist from Harlem. In his numerous exhibited canvases, his splattered, multicolored strokes and delicate line work mimic the fluid and dynamic movements of painting on the streets, with a nod to Jackson Pollock.
In addition to the gallery booths, Scope is presenting a number of featured projects, mostly site-specific installations sprinkled throughout the fair. The one with the best sense of humor is without a doubt Ron English’s “Culture Jam Supermarket” (2013). Adapting the aesthetic of his ad-busting street art, English constructed an entire supermarket full of satirical products like Tupac’s “Box of Bullets” and Rush Limbaugh’s name-brand Oxycontin, which is described as “Physician Endorsed Right-Wing Heroin.” A biting commentary on consumer culture, English’s “Culture Jam Supermarket” is also an amusing distraction among the often self-serious art fair booths.
While there’s a large quantity of work by and about graffiti writers and street artists, Scope also features some amazing non–street art paintings and site-specific installations. Sophia Wallace‘s “Cliteracy: 100 Natural Laws” at the booth for New York’s Baang + Burne Contemporary combines the truisms of Jenny Holzer with the feminist activism of the fierce pussy art collective.
Wallpapered with various phrases and lessons about women’s sexuality, Wallace’s installation points out the near illiteracy of the understanding of women’s sexuality in contrast with the constant sexualization and objectification of women. The juxtaposition of the artist’s discussion of sexuality and the intentional lack of any representation of a woman’s body makes for a refreshing installation in the still male-dominated art world.
Another successful Breeder Program booth is Whitehot Presents, curated by Whitehot Magazine. The booth shows a wide variety of artists, ranging from New York collage maker Michael Anderson to Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who makes newspaper-style ink drawings on paper, to Whitehot editor Noah Becker, whose portraits are striking in their almost Warholian detachment, along with the artist’s studied attention to hairstyles.
The Quebec savoir faire section, organized by Montreal’s AGAC (The Contemporary Art Galleries Association), features 11 contemporary artists from galleries throughout Quebec. While the entire showing was enjoyable, I loved Marc Nerbonne‘s Lynchian mixed-media painting at Galerie BAC of a lone woman in a forest wearing a dress made of raccoons and other animals. Another body of work that caught my eye was Daniel Healey‘s transfer paintings at San Francisco’s McLaughlin Gallery. Using tape to extract playful images from magazines and newspapers, Healey transfers these images and the tape to paper on canvas, creating an incredible set of colors and textures.
Despite the surprising amount of work made by or inspired by graffiti and street artists, which could easily have become tiring and overwhelming, this year’s Scope is well considered, well curated, and entertaining — qualities one doesn’t normally expect from an art fair. However, a question about graffiti and street artists remains on my mind: will they continue to be high-sellers in the art market, or will these works be tossed back onto the streets in a few years as another discarded art world trend? Only time will tell.
Scope New York runs through March 10 at the Skyline at Moynihan Station (312 West 33rd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).
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