Urban Outsider Artists Evoke Society’s Margins

 

Tom Powel Imaging, courtesy of Deitch Projects

Swoon, a street artist and recent graduate of Pratt Institute, is making her New York gallery debut at Deitch Projects

August 3, 2005
Urban Outsider Artists Evoke Society’s Margins
By ROBERTA SMITH

Jeffrey Deitch may spend more time in a well-pressed pinstripe suit than any other downtown art dealer, but he is second to none when it comes to diverting street art’s creative energies into the white cube of the traditional gallery. At the moment both of Mr. Deitch’s white cubes – former garages in the relatively quiet southwest quadrant of SoHo – are going full blast with installations by two resourceful streetwise artists, a veteran and a promising newcomer.

The larger Deitch space, on Wooster Street near Grand Street, has been taken over by Barry McGee, who helped ignite the street-graffiti art renaissance that emanated from San Francisco in the 1990’s. This is his third solo appearance with the gallery, and he has gone all out, venturing into new areas (abstract painting of all things) and presenting enough work in drawing, graffiti, video, photography, animatronic sculptures and over-the-top installation art for several shows. It is aptly titled "One More Thing."

Meanwhile, around the corner in the smaller Deitch space (on Grand near Wooster), a street artist and recent graduate of Pratt Institute who calls herself Swoon is making her New York gallery debut. She is presenting a shadowy stage-set-like reverie on the sidewalks, tenements and elevated subways of New York that was also inspired by the spontaneous, unregulated squatter structures of Kowloon Walled City, a Hong Kong slum that was bulldozed in 1993. So far, Swoon has been known for the large-scale linoleum block prints of expertly drawn city folk that she has been plastering around the Lower East Side and Brooklyn for several years. They earned her a place in the Greater New York exhibition at P.S. 1 in Queens, where, consistent with her preference for anonymity, her paste-on prints appear unlabeled in an obscure stairwell. Most people will come across them as on the street, entirely by accident.

These two environments form a remarkable loop of energy and thought about art and life and the ways they can be merged into a third thing, something highly artificial and visually immersive, yet profoundly real and infused with social commentary. They are the work of urban outsider artists whose main subject is the urban outsider.

Mr. McGee’s piece operates between extremes of recognizable modernist strategies to evoke society’s margins, where subcultures produce their own visual signs and art forms. On the one hand he makes grandiose (and somewhat macho) use of found objects: you enter the show through the back of a large truck turned on its side, to be confronted by a three-story-high pileup of wrecked, rusted, heavily graffitied vans, cars and trucks. On the other hand, he pursues geometric abstraction with effortless dispatch, covering walls with patchworks of panels painted with fluorescent-colored variations on a three-color stepped block pattern. The eye-popping results update Op Art while also evoking the subcultures of sign painting and quilt making.

As for the in between, it is hard to know where to start. Animatronic figures tag the walls with graffiti. Some appear to be made of the carved wood African sculptures that street vendors sell; others are life-size replicas of Mr. McGee’s friends, hoodies and all, including two of the graffiti artist Josh. One version of Josh is sighted in a very convincing re-creation of a public restroom that fills a shipping container at the bottom of the wreck pileup. He is adding his best-known tag, AMAZE, to a graffiti-covered mirror.

Meanwhile, videos blaring from a towering kiosk of old television monitors makefurther use of Mr. McGee’s paintings and the signature sad-sack faces and figures of his drawings. Also here are videos, purchased on the Internet, that show members of street gangs brandishing their tattoos and hand signs. Down some stairs, two walls are covered in beautifully rusted metal plates that turn out to be recycled typesetters trays. Up other stairs, a small shed lined with metal plates (trompe l’oeil this time) leads by ladder to a basement hideaway where the walls are covered with drawings on paper napkins by the artist’s father, while the floor is a veritable snake pit of cables and brightly painted DVD players for the videos. A third stairway leads to a dense display of Mr. McGee’s drawings on paper and empty night train bottles – along with photographs of graffiti artists in action.

Playing chapel to Mr. McGee’s cathedral, Swoon’s relatively intimate, unified installation nonetheless shows her ingeniously parlaying her linoleum-block prints and doilylike paper cutouts into an ambitious walk-in environment that is magical in both its complexity and its hands-on directness.

Intact found objects have little role here, although the piece includes some old doors and bits of molding and rickety-looking wood structures that suggest fire escapes and subway trestles. The dominant factor here is a flexible pictorial language that depicts workaday people of diverse ethnicities and urban vistas, often in combination. Motifs can migrate among printed paper, paper cutout, wood cutout, paint and stencil. And there are whiffs of the artist’s Southern roots (she was born and brought up in Florida) in the form of frequent silhouettes of trunk-nosed elephant moths and cut-out paper that hangs overhead like Spanish moss. Although a little further along you discover that the hanging cutouts actually depict the Coney Island Cyclone.

Precedents for Swoon’s work include various forms of 80’s street-oriented art: Keith Haring’s chalk figures (which were also on paper), Richard Hambleton’s Ab Ex figures and Martin Wong’s lovingly exact depictions of tenements and graffiti. She also builds on the traditions of the German Expressionist woodblock print, American Social Realism and the slightly heated-up illustrational style of postwar magazines and cheap novel covers. There’s an implicit conservatism to Swoon’s style; sometimes the piece feels like a visit to the set of "West Side Story." But the show creates an engrossing perception of life on the move, conjured up by an artist whose talent is all revved up with lots of places to go.

At Deitch Projects, SoHo: Barry McGee’s "One More Thing," at 18 Wooster Street, and Swoon’s debut, at 76 Grand Street, continue through Aug. 13; (212) 343-7300.

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2 Responses to “Urban Outsider Artists Evoke Society’s Margins”

  1. Unknown Says:

    Hey! Stopped by your site and checked it out!Nice music selection you\’ve got. Marley music is marvelous!

  2. *Kim* Says:

    hey, nice space, I liked your photo album

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