Entering the hall of works by Retna (click to enlarge)

Last night’s opening of art by the LA graffiti artist Retna was more of a fashion event than an art show. Bizarrely titled The Hallelujah World Tour, the artist’s all-over calligraphic style was ill served by poor curatorial decisions like a dense hanging that reduced the lines to visual wallpaper for a posing group filled with mad-hatter-wannabes and fashionistas.

In an interview with Blackbook earlier this week, Retna suggested that the work he’s showing in New York was a special selection:

Each city gets their own batch of paintings. I think New York is a strong city so I give you the stronger shit, the stuff that means the most to me. It has to do with death, pain, and struggle. Friends of mine who have been killed or killed themselves. I give New York what I expect New York to give me back.

Unfortunately, none of that emotional promise comes through, and the canvases seems more controlled than emotive, and less developed than work he’s shown elsewhere. The group of paintings all feel too derivative of mid-20th century New York School paintings — think Bradley Walker Tomlin and Adolph Gottlieb — and their love of strong line, inspired by calligraphy, floating on atmospheric backgrounds. Retna’s canvases aren’t ambitious works to begin with, and the hanging did the paintings no favors: they were strangely lit with a blue haloing effect that made them feel more colorless than they should have.

Top, the center canvas is a detail of Retna’s “Que Dios Te Vendiga” (2008); bottom left, Bradley Walker Tomlin, “Number 20” (1949); and bottom right, detail of Adolph Gottlieb’s “Man Looking at Woman” (1949) (Retna image by the author, Tomlin via MoMA.org, Gottlieb in the MoMA collection but image via TheCityReview.com)

One of the large sculptures with rope and cans all around. (click to enlarge)

The most interesting examples — maybe the most promising — in the show were the large wooden sculptures sitting in the middle of the warehouse space. Equal parts sci-fi alphabet and Hebrew lettering, they were framed by hanging ropes and surrounded by paint cans and ink bottles that reminded me of Mr. Brainwash’s over-designed aesthetic. They look like they should be part of a store display – think Urban Outfitters — rather than part of an art installation. The works didn’t seem carefully thought out as much as accessorized, and perhaps even readied for a fashion shoot. RJ’s Vandalog sees the latest batch of works as an “definite evolution,” but I don’t see any forward movement, mostly sidestepping of any clear direction.

I think Retna is talented but this show won’t have much appeal for those beyond the fashion world, which tends to have an affinity for graffiti’s narrative-less banter, and graffiti fans, who will be drawn to the works because of their worship of linear play. The beauty of Retna’s work from my perspective is in the density of his compositions that stretch easily beyond the frame and whip across surfaces to transform fields into visual texture — see some examples at Vandalog. His collaborations with El Mac are his most well-known and they represent what he does best: offering a diffused backdrop. In the spotlight and in an art gallery-like space, they don’t really have much to say.

Retna’s Retna: The Hallelujah World Tour continues until February 21 at 560 Washington Street, Bay 37E, Far West SoHo, Manhattan

Left, Hyperallergic publisher Veken Gueyikian helping me demonstrate why Retna makes a good backdrop; right, step-and-repeat backdrop at the entrance of the exhibition that seemed absurdly related to Retna’s own work.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

19 replies on “The Fashionable Wallpaper of Retna”

  1. Good to hear your thoughts Hrag. I disagree about the content of the paintings (although I didn’t see the entire show), but I definitely think that the red carpet fashionista vibe is not the way to view art so it sounds like the opening was not the right way to view things.

    1. I would argue this show was about the party, so seeing the work in that context was part of the point. Did you get the press materials and the list of “celebs” in fashion, music, and art we were supposed to anticipate seeing? I do think things would have been better if so much work wasn’t packed in.

      1. Right. I agree. From the photos and all that, seems like the show was about the party. Which is a shame, because I really do like the art. I’d be curious to see if people would review the show different if they went back to the space today without the crowds and craziness.

        I got an email yesterday with “photos from the opening.” Before I had a chance to check out the photos myself, I just forwarded them on to Frances, who reviewed the show, and said something like “here are some more photos of the show that you should use,” assuming that they would be nice photos of an empty gallery space and perfect shots of the paintings. I looked like an idiot once I had a chance to look at the images a few hours later… It was just photos of people who might be famous I guess.

        1. I will definitely go back, because there were some strong works, but there also some very weak ones. A good curator should have weeded out the weaker works. I’ll report back.

  2. When i first read the entry earlier it seemed a bit more harsh, or maybe because the title was such a direct shot at Retna and his work. When i reread it just now to comment, it seems that most of the criticism lies in the presentation and curating of the work. I was not able to attend the show so I will take your word for your thoughts on the mistakes that were made displaying the work. It would seem more than anything you had a problem with the fashion, or trendy atmosphere of the event. Your constant reuse of the word fashion seemed to creep its way into the article over and over again. Maybe this event wasnt avant garde enough for your taste. I guess compared to liveblogging performance Art anything aesthetically appealing might seem suspicious, especially when one does not truly understand the work being presented. Your backhanded comments on graffiti are what really kill your credibilty with me as most of what you stated was either out of ignorance, or just a stereotypical reaction from someone looking from the outside in. I am not questioning your artistic critiquing merit, im sure you can spew on end about who did what when and where.

    Your examples are very weak as Retna’s work from a Aesthetic perspective might look similiar but your missing the essence and spirit inherent in the work.
    Knowing that you are familiar with Retna’s work it seems odd that you aren’t already able to comprehend what sets his work far beyond some of his contemporaries. Graffiti might have its niche artists, and im not saying all graffiti is good graffiti. Retna transcends graffiti yet encapsulates its essence, The narrative and visual power of the letters, the process he goes through while painting them is very different than your typical graffiti artist. To understand the brutality, and power of these letters, one might need to understand walking the streets of LA and witnessing or being personally involved with the power of these letters and its streets. Gang writing, written stories of lost ones wrapped in a very real context for the artist. Fashion or Mr Brainwash is the last thing that comes to mind when i view Retna’s work. If your were able to walk in the streets of LA and watch first hand from childhood to now the power that writing could have on its neighborhoods you might be closer to understanding Retna. To view these works in a gallery setting is like containing a piece of the streets. Retna is a Real Street Artist, not one of these artist that paint in the studio only to take minutes to put up something that has no correlation to the environment its being placed in. Maybe its the reason his work feels unsettling in such a Fashion environment, i could see that argument. To reference Retna’s work as wall paper though, i strongly feel you missed the mark on this title and overall critique.


    1. Thanks for chiming in, I think it’s important that everyone share their thoughts, but I think some of the works were quite weak and I only took photos of the stronger pieces. I’ll go back about and spend more time with the pieces but the curator should have weeded out the weaker ones, which just make the better pieces look bad. I think Retna’s work may have personal meaning for some people on the street but in a gallery setting he has to grapple with this new context (and audience) and I think he hasn’t hit his stride yet. I have faith he could but not here.

      I also wish they’d strip out the stuff in the display that distracts from the work (like the ropes and paint cans).

      In terms of graffiti, I think there are fans who will like anything uncritical and my swipe was against them. I think people should be more critical of what they’re seeing. I think graffiti will be better for it. I don’t feel compelled to like Retna’s show simply because of his street work, since this isn’t street work.

      1. I agree i think in order for Graffiti to be taken serious as an art form in itself, it needs to critiqued like any other art form. I feel though the critics need to look a little deeper into the unknowns that they are viewing. The problem with this for critics i feel is that they are still comparing the work to other artists, or art periods that have no correlation to graffiti in order to find something tangible to compare it to. Graffiti evolution recently and its history is something that is very new in terms of Art and there are not many scholars or critics that have yet to fully delve into the subject properly. The problem with that is that the examples you supplied have no common ground with the work other than i mentioned aesthetically. We are not critiquing design work here, so it wasn’t a valid argument in my opinion.

        It is with critique though like yours although bad that discussion arises and some will take the path to finding a bit more about the work of graffiti. Also street art has nothing to do with it, as street artists in my eyes at least 99% of them are glorified studio artists who work in safety only to put there work in a public space briefly for publicity more than anything. Most street artists don’t engage with the environment or have any real struggle within the streets. This is why i call them public artists more than street artists as there only link to the street is that there work is placed in a public area. Retna and some other artists, i feel are street artists due to many of the reasons i mentioned in the previous post.

        Thanks for your reply

        1. It sounds like you know little about the history of art. Graffiti’s claim to be revolutionary is rhetoric, not reality. Also, this isn’t graffiti. It is using the language of graffiti to create gallery work. I would suggest looking at more work in galleries and not simply work inspired by graffiti.

          1. I do understand the history of Art, and i did not make the statement that graffiti is revolutionary. Graffiti’s relevance and worth will not be able to be seen for some time, as we are in the middle of the movement currently. Although 4 decades old graffiti is still young. This movement is not built from the scholars and critics down, as many other movements have been shaped. Instead it has risen for many reasons some of them social some youthful. What some thought would be a flash in the pan in the eighties has steadily become on of the largest movements in our lifetime as our children take up a language that didn’t exist before. This is a ground up movement and not something you can just write off so easily.

            Also if there is some movement called gallery work, i would love to understand more about it. The language of graffiti is art, and in itself deserves to be looked into deeper. There are reasons the youth still remains close to this medium. It also seems that you are trying to put gallery work as you call it in its own separate category. Which i know you understand is not correct. To prove your point alienating the word or language of graffiti, and suggesting that it change or be watered down to fit into the walls of a gallery is really sad. This is just another example of the art elitist trying to dictate their world, and outsiders need to conform to them.

          2. Work in the gallery is another category from work on the street. If you think it’s the same language than perhaps you should look more carefully.And I really don’t think you understand art history at all and you seem to have a distorted view of art as dictated by elitists, which is only part of the story and only true about some movements.Your comments are full of generalizations not based on the experience of the art but romanticizations about what you think it is.

            I think we’re not going to convince each other at this point, but I’m glad you chimed in.

  3. This kind of symbol writing has been done better hundreds or even thousands of years ago, in work such as The Book Of Kells, or Islamic art. Retna isn’t doing anything new, or even presenting it in a particularly interesting or innovative way.

    Mythologise and romanticise the L.A ghetto all you want…it doesn’t alter the fact that these paintings trade off of an organic street artform, which here is stripped of all context and therefore reduces an authentic street culture to a sanitised superficial titillation for rich people, hipsters and wannabes at a tacky c-list celebrity party.

    I agree with the review, the work looks like something you’d see as a background display in an upmarket clothes store that is trying a bit too hard to present itself as ‘trendy’ or ‘urban’.

    It’s refreshing to read a review that for once doesn’t feel obliged to adhere to the unspoken rules of cronyism and incestuous backslapping within graffiti or street art.

    1. I disagree with this completely. I am not sure how you can even compare the work that you mentioned to Retnas work. Although similar in letter use they have completely different functions and reasoning. Done better, your argument would say that because of the renaissance that artists should no longer paint the figure because it has been done before. Small thinking is only one of the thoughts that i will say in response to that comment.

      I wasn’t attempting to romanticize the LA ghetto only give context to what lies behind his words, and the reasoning for use of letter form. It is not the artists fault if a certain trendy following attends his work, and i feel no reason to degrade it.

      1. The purported ‘function and reasoning’ you ascribe to this work feel somewhat impotent and hollow for me given the form and surroundings it’s presented in. However much it might be claimed to have a cryptic personal meaning for the artist, objectively it’s really just a collection of arcane symbols harvested from various historical languages, decontexturalised and re-assembled with a slick commercial aesthetic as a product for rich dilettantes.

        It’s the worst kind of superficial post-modern cultural appropriation. In fact I even think it’s profoundly insulting and sacrilegious to the cultures that have traditionally used these letterforms to present them here as little more than a glossy hyper-capitalistic touring carnival freakshow.

        Only a hopeless apologist for the kind of ideologically empty ‘bling’ end of the graffiti spectrum that thrives on custom sneakers, designer accessories, corporate sponsorship et al, could fail to see the glaring inauthenticity here.

  4. everything has been done- this we all know- from what i see here, i like this very much, and the link to the world tour is very cool beans indeed, in a kind of transformational cinama scope way. hope he hangs on to what he is long enough to continue- am curious to see how this one develops.
    ANON Studios for Art & Ecology

    1. I don’t agree that everything has already been done. How could anyone possibly know that anyway, without being able to see into the future? Besides, people were saying that everything had already been done 100 years ago…and probably 1000 years ago too.

      I don’t care if somebody wants to work in an earlier style, but at least try to make it as good, if not better than what has gone before…otherwise what’s the point?

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