Friday, June 3, 2011

MOCA's "Art in the Streets"

THE other day I belatedly made it over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for its celebrated -- and blockbuster -- Art in the Streets show. I can't remember longer lines for a museum show; maybe Murakami or something.

Overall, this seemed to me a strong and engaging show. If anything it was perhaps too large and complete, in its commandeering of the entire Geffen Contemporary space and aiming to tell the history of graffiti, skateboard culture, tagging, hip hop and related phenomenon from the early '70s to the present. (As you'd hope from a show at a Los Angeles museum, the West Coast was not entirely overlooked, as it sometimes is in histories of contemporary art. But see below.)

The volume at times was overwhelming, with some parts verging on theme park, but mostly this was a well balanced and at times exciting show. I especially enjoyed the display of schooled artists inspired by street art -- the Juxtapoz crowd -- which included Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen. (Two of California's greatest artists of my generation; LACMA, during an earlier regime, both commissioned and later destroyed some of their work.)

So with all this popular, rad, exuberant and accessible street art, why do I feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing? Part of it is that I'm smelling the acrid scene of hype. LA Times critic Christopher Knight got at some of my misgivings in an provocative essay that I fear will be overlooked because of its appearance on Memorial Day weekend.

His Sunday essay argues that MOCA's claims that street art is "the most influential art movement since Pop" is "overblown." Here's Knight: 

"Art in the Streets" cites global reach, including London; São Paolo, Brazil; Athens; and Tokyo, as evidence. (Sixty artists are surveyed.) Since the 1970s, however, the deepest impact on art culture has come from Conceptual art, not graffiti.

Conceptualism is the primary lingua franca of art today — like it or not, and for good or ill. 

Knight has other problems with the show, including some artists he considers overlooked (I wrote about LA artist Gajin Fujita hereand an issue familiar to West Coast culture vultures:

Mostly MOCA tells a mythic tale in which graffiti, an Expressionist art form, is largely born in Manhattan, spreads across the country and finally envelopes the world. If the story sounds familiar, that's because it replays New York School legend, long since discredited, about Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1940s. 

Another sour note: We've all been complaining for years that museums build their exhibits around their gift shops; British street artist Banksy even has a film called Exit Through the Gift Shop

But this may be the first show I've seen in a long time -- and I've been going to big exhibits in London, New York, D.C. and LA for more than 20 years -- where you are basically forbidden to go into the gift shop. At least, that's the way it seemed when my wife and son walked into the museum store and I, lagging along by a few feet so I could reed a wall label, was kept out because the shop had reached capacity. Soon a substantial line had built up, and the museum lost both my loyalty and the $20 or $30 I might have spent on a book. (If the guard had been less rude it would have pissed me off less.)

In conclusion, despite some mixed feelings about the genre and the exhibit itself, this show did a lot to win me over. Knight excepted, I don't seem to be alone here. My four-year-old son -- who is by now all too familiar with museum shows -- reclined on the bean-bag chairs in the theater showing Spike Jonze's inventive skateboard videos and offered, "Dis is da life!!"

And who can argue with that?

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