“Art in the Streets” at MOCA

MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” is accessible in the best sense of the word. If you’re thinking that a graffiti show will be “dumbed-down”… banish the thought. Likewise, were you expecting a cultural show where art takes a backseat to a crowd-pleasing celebration of bad boys (and a very few bad girls)… nope. “Art in the Streets” is all about the art, and the art history that it is helping to write. In other words, it’s exactly the sort of show the old, pre-meltdown MOCA was loved for: a Geffen-size survey of a theme that is inevitable only in retrospect.

You may still be wondering, what are they showing? Most street art is painted on someone else’s building. That someone else isn’t necessarily interested in conserving it.

No problem. Much of the exhibition consists of MOCA commissions or thoughtful recreations. There’s plenty of wall painting, of course, as well as photo- and video-documentation thereof. There are sculptures and performances; surrealist objects and concrete poetry (or whatever the street art terms for such things are). The show has three cars, an ice cream truck, and a steamroller — all pivotal. Above all, there are installations and environments. “Art in the Streets” may cause you to reflect that the otherness of street art has been greatly exaggerated. Much of the work could pass for your basic MFA art (and vice-versa); or for an amusement park/crazy house attraction. Did I say it’s accessible?

You can learn a lot of art history in this show, none of it in Janson. Graffiti is as old as cave painting. The MOCA timeline begins with American hobo “monickers,” names or simple drawings sketched on railroad cars and other surfaces. There are documentary photos and a few authentic ‘bo relics. How many major museums show hobos? The “KILROY WAS HERE” meme of the second World War grew out of this tradition.

Street art as such began with spray paint. Invented by Edward Seymour in 1949, it became widely available in the mid-1960s. It was as transformative as oil paint was for the van Eycks, or tube paints for the Impressionists. Urban youth culture, pop art, and other influences coalesced into the multi-chrome graffiti that’s now omnipresent and bemoaned. (Check out the display of anti-graffiti posters.) The “wild style” added expressionistic letterforms and trompe l’oeil touches. The subtext: These words are real, three-dimensional objects invading your space.

One of the many shows within the show is a group of tagger black books collected by artist Martin Wong and donated to the Museum of the City of New York. Like Rauschenberg’s Factum I and II, it exposes the deliberation behind the spontaneity.

Geoff McFetridge and Lance Mountain’s Skate (top) is a functional skateboard surface. It also happens to be the most advanced development in post-post-cubist sculpture. The circular wedge, not to mention the WWII Kilroy motif, echoes Little Tokyo’s “Go for Broke” Monument, the Grassy Knoll-maguffin of Blu-gate. The waving freak-flag transmutes Kilroy into an infinity sign. Skate comingles painting and sculpture and performance and manages to look completely different from various angles. The 2D-3D tension is reminiscent of Picasso’s Guitar. It may be the most ingeniously polymorphic sculpture in Los Angeles right now, and that’s saying a lot with Benue River Valley, Gods of Angkor, and David Smith in town.

Big names? The biggest, by conventional museum/art market standards, is Jean-Michel Basquiat. There’s a nod to him in a delightful recreation of New York’s long-defunct Fun Gallery. Just don’t go expecting to see major Basquiats for the art market, for they aren’t here. Shepard Fairey? Eh. He’s not a standout in this crowd. Bansky, however, rocks. I would have predicted that a little Bansky goes a long way; that a string of visual puns quickly gets tiring. Instead, the Banksy room works like the Heath Ledger Joker. Too much funny can be scary. (Above: The museum guard is not part of the Banksy piece; the dog, a taxidermy specimen, is.)

The Geffen’s northeast corner is devoted to Street, a uncategorizable something-or-other by Todd James, Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, Devin Flynn, Josh Lazano, Dan Murphy, and Alexis Ross. Think opium dream, with insanely complex vertical perspectives… an unspeakable, H.P. Lovecraft part of Disneyland… Duchamp urinals with readymade graffiti… and another sort of “graffiti,” commercial signs made on the cheap from digital files—globalizing, retro, capitalistic, numinous, ominous, folksy, menacing.

That provokes comparisons to the many varieties of contemporary text art. Nobody did that better than the late great Margaret Kilgallen (1967-2001). Kilgallen was schooled on hobo monikers and hand-painted business signs. Her biggest work here is Main Drag, a high point of the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

Kilgallen believed in the mystic power of lettering to influence meaning and thought. That was roughly the thesis of Rammellzee (to the extant that any mortal can be said to understand what Rammellzee ever said or meant). He was a sometime multi-media collaborator with Basquiat, who also died young. Rammellzee refused to be interviewed unless he was wearing homemade P-funk/Transformers outfits and called his ism gothic futurism (click AYOR). MOCA has rigged up a freaky, black-light version of Rammellzee’s bedroom, or something like it. Max Ernst‘s bedroom? Please. Authentic? Who knows? It may be the core of this show, for any capable of getting it.

Mr. Cartoon, L.A.’s genius of lowrider-dom, chews up Dr Lakra and Robert Williams and spits them out wholesome. His absurdly louche Ice-Cream Truck, glistering in an out-of-gamut color lightshow, is a public favorite/insult to decency. The MOCA-commissioned Mr. Cartoon mural, in sinuous grisaille, may be more inventively disturbing for the few who dare to study it.

A recent L.A. Times article by Jori Finkel compared-and-contrasted the philosophies of MOCA’s Deitch and the Hammer Museum’s Ann Philbin.

DEITCH: “We would like to bring our attendance to the 500,000 level, and we’d like to do it quickly.”

PHILBIN: “We always say we’ll do a show that 12 people want to see if we think it’s important to do.”

The dichotomy—”crass” Deitch v. “idealist” Philbin—may be as artificial as some debated in Congress. Both sides have points, as far as they go, which isn’t necessarily too far. It’s all about the fine points, the judgment calls that elude sound bites. “Art in the Streets” suggests that museology’s yin and yang can occasionally meet. When that does happen, it’s cause for celebration.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.