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I think it’s fair to say that graffiti and street art are pretty familiar to most New Yorker’s: appearing everywhere, in almost every neighborhood, both have a tendency to blend into their surroundings due to their ubiquity. Increasingly, street art exhibitions are also cropping up in galleries, though few people seem to be paying much attention — or critical attention, anyway — to street art’s migration indoors.

Installation view of the Dain show at Brooklynite Gallery

This movement of art in- and outside has been of interest to me since I regularly began following street art about a year ago. The contexts in which the work can be seen often varies dramatically, and these environmental shifts raise a number of questions: does the work itself change as it traverses public and private domains? If so, how? And what does this translation mean for our understanding of the work? A few months ago, I crisscrossed Brooklyn and Manhattan to investigate street art’s translation from the street to a gallery setting.

Dain’s Nostalgia

If you walked into the Brooklynite Gallery during Dain’s “Copasetic” show, you would have stepped into a world of nostalgia for a New York few of us remember but many probably know through film. Here the artist created an immersive environment reminiscent of 1940s New York. His colorful collages line the gallery walls while swing music plays to set the mood. His pieces were portraits, sometimes of movie stars like Liz Taylor and Betty Davis, or of everyday people, whose heads loom large and fill the frame of each piece. Around these black-and-white images, Dain adds colorful embellishment (often around the eyes of his figures) and further photographic elements, whether it be a torn image of the Cyclone from Coney Island or text lifted from a magazine. Each piece feels like an ode to a bygone era, or a cross-section of life in New York from 60 years ago. “All I Ever Wanted” (2009) shows a smiling couple surrounded by words and vintage images that reference sunny New York summers. Across the top of the piece is scrawled, “A day at the beach with you is all I ever wanted Love you DAIN.” Both sweet and melancholic, this piece begs the eye to search out a narrative, to determine the meaning behind these figures.

Dain, “All I Ever Wanted” (2009)

It was Dain’s first solo show and he is probably best known for his street art, which often simply consists of a black-and-white image of a famous face or a portrait lifted from an old yearbook. These works contain only a few additions of color or text, and his moniker often appears somewhere in the image. They are usually smaller, too, and have a much stronger graphic quality than the pieces included in “Copasetic.”

When I visited the Brooklynite Gallery, Rae McGrath who owns and runs the space with his wife, Hope, eagerly spoke about the differences between Dain’s work for the street and that seen in the gallery. With much enthusiasm for both the art and the artist, (the two men grew up together in Brooklyn) McGrath explained that Dain works with a distinct awareness of where each piece will ultimately end up. The street art pieces are created to have an immediate effect on a person walking by them, while the works seen indoors are highly detailed and require time to absorb. This shift in the artist’s creative process succeeds in producing captivating work that loses none of its impact as it migrates in- and outdoors.

Reflecting on Aakash Nihalani

Aakash Nihilani’s “Tapes and Mirrors” at Eastern District, (this time located in Bushwick) differed from “Copasetic” in demonstrating little to no awareness of the works’ translation from the street to the gallery setting. On Eastern District’s website they describe Nihilani’s work as “selectively place[d]…graphics around New York to highlight the unexpected contours and elegant geometry pre-existing in the city itself. All execution of his street level tape work is done on site, with little to no planning.” That is, he creates small disruptions in the public sphere by blocking off architectural elements of the cityscape with neon tape. I found nearly identical works at Eastern District where Nihilani uses two-dimensional “tape boxes” to demarcate space in the small gallery. Interesting configurations of the area result — in most cases emphasizing the architecture of the gallery itself within each composition. He drew attention to the intersections of walls and the floor, in a manner very reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s piles of stones and coral in corners of galleries. Like Smithson, Nihilani utilizes mirrors in his work as well. These reflective surfaces further complicate the architecture of the space and also situate the viewer within it. Unfortunately, this strategy of reflection seems rather derivative; see, for example, Olafur Eliasson’s Mirror Door pieces of 2008.

An installation shot of Aakash Nihalani’s recent show at Eastern District

After visiting Eastern District I had to ask: how does work that aims to “highlight” overlooked aspects of New York’s architecture fare in the gallery context? What becomes of the aesthetic intention of these tape pieces when removed from their public environment? While Nihilani’s work creates unexpected visual delight on the street, few surprises are possible indoors. Confined within the white walls of Eastern District the work lost its playful spontaneity and left the gallery visitor hoping for more.

Peep-o-rama

On the final stop of my street art tour, I found myself next to the Westside Highway at 58th Street. Located on the ground floor of the Art Kraft Building are studios belonging to members of the Endless Love Crew and a gallery space (AK 57 Gallery) dedicated to street art and graffiti. During September, this latter space hosted a show, “Peep-o-Rama,” curated by El Celso, one of the founding members of the group.

Here, hung salon-style, were works by a variety of artists, though most pieces were generated by Celso, LA2 or Infinity, with some collaborations. The room felt pretty overwhelming, with so much stuff in it and seemingly little organization — in fact, I’m still not sure what to make of the title of the show, except to note the recurring nudes produced by Celso. However, luckily for me, when I visited El Celso, LA2 and Infinity were in their studios and all three eagerly spoke about their work. The visit consequently felt more like a day of open studios, but seeing any artist’s workspace and listening to him or her describe the process behind their art is always enlightening, and this time around their explanations made the trip worthwhile.

LA2’s work is reminiscent of Keith Haring — and for good reason. The two men worked together in the early 1980s and, as LA2 put, “I taught him [Haring] everything he knew.” Bravado and legend notwithstanding, the stylistic associations can’t be denied, though LA2’s work did feel very repetitive: the same thick, black, squiggly lines appearing on every surface (skate boards, tennis shoes and hoodies, in addition to the expected canvasses) surrounded by the artist’s tag. I actually found that LA2’s collaborations with other artists, in particular Celso, provided some of the most interesting work, as his designs lend a dynamic layer to the flat, graphic work aesthetic to which some street art tends to subscribe.

Celso’s pieces tend to be portraits of nude woman, often shown from the waist up. After you see the work once, his style is instantly recognizable, which means that his pieces, like LA2’s, feel repetitive in a gallery context. Celso’s work is much more striking and evocative on the street when one happens upon it, and it is another good example of the street context aiding the efficacy of this work.

A view of works by Celso at “Peep-o-rama”

Infinity’s pieces were the highlight of the trip, though most of what I saw of his were works in progress. The building’s “spray room” — the place where artists cover the walls with experiments in aerosol — included a large, simplified piece by Infinity and it included his usual arrangements of symbols and vaguely mathematical references. Tags from the usual suspects also made an appearance on the piece, underscoring the communal quality of the space — this room actually felt like it could be a forgotten alley, known only to graf and street artists as a prime spot for work. That sort of context for the work — where artists spray, paint or paste pieces that respond to works by other — seems to be the ideal space for street art, where a sense of community is generated.

Street art’s shift indoors has largely been overlooked by art critics, though it seems that the artists themselves could stand to pay some more attention to how their works translate when viewed in a private setting. Dain’s show was ultimately the most successful due to his palpable awareness of the gallery’s effect on his art’s reception. It seems that other artists would benefit from the same consideration, especially when such consideration obviously goes into the choice of a location for the works on the street. A stronger curatorial presence on the part of the artist would also go a long way in ensuring that street art’s move indoors is a productive shift.

Dain’s “Copasetic” ended October 10, Brooklynite Gallery, 334 Malcolm X Boulevard

Aakash Nihilani’s “Tape and Mirrors” ran from September 25 to October 25, Eastern District, 43 Bogart Street

Various Artists in “Peep-o-Rama” was on view during the month of September, AK 57 Gallery, 830 twelfth Ave

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Elizabeth Spier

Elizabeth Spier, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, moved to Brooklyn after spending several years in Minneapolis where she studied art history and philosophy at Macalester College. She is now finishing her graduate work at the Institute of Fine...

13 replies on “Indoor Migration: Dain, Aakash Nihalani & Peep-o-rama”

  1. Hello. I’m ecstatic to hear art criticism involving street art, especially from people pursuing higher learning in the related fields (philosophy / history Hrag, Nick, Elizabeth). In this article and Nick’s “Peru Ana…” considerations of “street to gallery” feature heavily, but if I may, I’d like to offer a few additional thoughts on this point.

    I think work that is touted for being “on the street” is suspect in the first place. Generally, fans and critics talking about “the street” have narrow ideas what it might mean, if they use it in this sense. The best work hasn’t leaned its “street” credibility in years because there is so much else to stay busy with. From just chasing good looking aesthetics, to new systems of making it, collaborative pairings, in video, in photos, on the web, in documentation, looking at history and theory. “Street” artist today work on boats, in rivers, in the woods, in tunnels, in their bedrooms, on walls that are legal, walls that are illegal, hoarding that’s not very illegal at all, legal walls where someone could still get upset, on illegal ads which is illegal, but eradicating something illegal, in public restrooms and inside the public’s private homes. The people doing work at the frontier, not just settling it with endless repetition, are going to test definitions like “street”. These are also the only artists relevant. They don’t count on the genre to make their work, but for their work to make the genre.

    If we take the above to be true its an empty question whether street makes the jump to gallery. We can try instead to see the work for what it is, what it does, and exactly where it is, with out any shorthand.

    Just as there is no one street condition in which to work, there’s more than one gallery condition. Gallery can mean the artist had ample budget and support and guaranteed sales and assistants (like a Deitch show), or it can mean only they were permitted to set-up a very limited installation, under cheap lighting, and had to pay for everything themselves – shipping of work, promo, making it, supplies. Or it could be space the artist controls, or a squat which they do not control. A Deitch show is going to be very impressive but ruin the work in a different way than a terrible gallery. An artist run space (like a Faile show) isn’t even a gallery except that its exactly like it, and a squat or alternative space could really be anything: organized or not, legal or not, while still a gallery show experience in every sense.

    If the above is true, there is less meaningful difference between street and gallery, because there’s dozens of differences all directions within each. If for example; Francis Alÿs (who works on the street) did a show in Brooklynite (a gallery), he’d be slumming it. The dangerous assumption most readers will take for granted is that the establishment is better. That outsiders wish to graduate to insiders. But with plenty of successful models of online street-art sales to point to; Pictures on Walls, Studio Chromie, Paper Monster, and dozens more, and plenty of street artists selling work directly through their own web sites; the assumption could just as well be flipped. Galleries, not artists, seem to be suspect; if activity is ever expanding away from them, and success happens most frequently elsewhere.

    Thankyou.

    1. Steven, You bring up some EXCELLENT points and many of these issues are what we want to start addressing in a critical way. That’s why we wanted to start a sustained critical dialogue about this work, particularly when the field has stayed as far away from criticism as possible–it amazes me that art critics rarely write about street art, though part of the fault there is the seemingly knee-jerk reaction many street artists have about more mainstream visual art as elitist, etc. (which is not really true).

      Part of our mission is also to educate non-street art people and street art people about each other…for far too long have they both ignored each other and interacted in a rather superficial way. I think we’d like to reply to your questions with an upcoming post (or two or three) and I’ll definitely talk to Nick & Elizabeth about this.

      I do want to say that none of us have an agenda beyond loving street art and I hope that comes through in our writing. I will also say, and you point out in some ways, that I think that street art is ahead of the curve in terms of developing new & innovative economic models to sustain themselves (online sales, etc.) and this will most definitely be part of the conversation we have hear.

      Welcome to Hyperallergic and I’m so glad we have intelligent readers like you!

  2. Look Steven…. don’t even think for second that I….as a reader of art criticism….am just going to think the establishment is better…. that is so 1965…… I’m sorry but I just have to burn that straw man of an argument….

    Liz…. You are so right that the context shift means everything….

    On the street, this works function like a visual gift – they hit you out of nowhere as you turn the corner and you can pause and appreciate them for FREE.

    It’s like getting a free drink at an open bar, your expectations are so low and you just want to squeeze as much fun out of as you can. And I love how at open bars, people just drink what they are offered – even it means drinking something they wouldn’t normally pay for.

    The joy of the random encounter, the generosity of seeing art for free is gone in the gallery context. Once you start paying for art (or your drinks), the party just doesn’t have that relaxed anything goes vibe.

    It’s a friday, so I can’t help but compare this to drinks

  3. Dear Steven,

    I’m not sure I understood all of your points, but here’s a few thoughts.

    I write with a specific notion of “street art” according to which an artwork is street art if (and only if) it gets its significance (as least in part) from the way it uses the street. (So, if you want to say that an artwork is street art, you have to say how its use of the street is part of its meaning.) A lot of things are street art according to this definition, including some of the work of Alÿs. Whether someone is a “street artist” just means that most of the art they make is street art.

    If an artist is respected for their street art, then they are probably skilled at using the street (in some way) to make art. So when such an artist decides to do a gallery show, there is a real question as to whether their work will be good, for the very thing they use to make the art we respect them for making – the street – is not available for use. The salience (or non-emptiness) of this question is enhanced when the work these artists put in the gallery looks a lot like what they put on the street. It would be critically blind to merely “see the work for what it is, what it does, and exactly where it is, with out any shorthand.”

    That said, I should clarify that neither of us (myself or Elizabeth (if I may speak for you!)) are concerned with whether the “transition to the gallery” is a move up in the social world. We both consider these spaces to be very different contexts in which to display art and are interested in the differences between them. I’d also be interested if Jeff Koons started wheatpasting.

    One more point of clarification. Given the way I think about street art, I don’t think it is possible for street art to move indoors (on this point Elizabeth and I might disagree, depending on how she thinks of “street art’s shift indoors”). The “transition” I’m interested in is not whether you can take a piece of street art and put it in a gallery (by taking it from the street it’s (usually) no longer street art). I’m interested in whether someone who is good at street art can make good non-street art.

    Nick

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