These Walls Can Talk
Current exhibits explore NYC streets' past and present
Last November, one of New York's most iconic art exhibits was unceremoniously whitewashed.
Outdoor art space 5Pointz, a destination in Long Island City where graffiti writers from all over the world came to leave their mark, was covered over with white paint last November at the behest of the building's owner, Jerry Wolkoff. When the vast walls of colorful graffiti were covered, Long Island City resident Jeffrey Leder took notice. Wolkoff had allowed graffiti writers to legally create work on his property for more than a decade, but now plans to demolish the building and construct residential high-rises after winning legal disputes with the 5Pointz artists.
Leder, who operates an art gallery a block away, joined forces with Marie Cecile-Flageul, a member of the 5Pointz community who also manages its press, to curate "Whitewash," an exhibition responding to the destruction, featuring work by nine artists who once painted at 5Pointz. Included in the exhibit are paintings by Meres One, the longtime curator of 5Pointz, as well as prints by Orestes Gonzalez, who photographed the aftermath of the whitewash.
"The opening was like an Irish wake," said Leder about the debut of the exhibit. "It was a celebration of the life of 5Pointz and also mourning its death."
While "Whitewash" is a direct response to the recent events at 5Pointz, the Jeffrey Leder Gallery is not the only local space exploring graffiti's presence in New York City. In February, Museum of the City of New York opened "City as Canvas," an exhibition of 1980s graffiti art. City Lore, a non-profit organization that preserves and promotes folk and grassroots arts movements, opened its new gallery space in April with "Moving Murals," a photographic display of graffiti-covered subway cars shot by photographers Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper during the 1970s and early 1980s.
"Graffiti is so emblematic of the way people can be creative in their own environment," said Steve Zeitlin, founding director of City Lore, who noted that, while graffiti still exists in the city, painted train cars are rare. In August, Gothamist reported that a tagged 4 train was spotted in the Bronx, though Zeitlin said it didn't stay in public view for very long. "They never make it out of the train yard," Zeitlin said.
While graffiti is more policed now than in the 1970s and 1980s, street art has become a more accepted public display in urban areas, thanks in no small part to the international celebrity of clandestine British street artist Banksy, who completed a month-long 'residency' on New York City's streets in October. Gregory J. Snyder, a sociologist and professor at Baruch College whose book "Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground" resulted from a decade of immersive research into graffiti's subculture, makes a distinction between the two forms.
"A lot of what we consider street art was anticipated by some of the early pioneers of the graffiti movement," said Snyder, referencing artists like COST and REVS, whose wheatpaste posters in the early 1990s stared defiantly at Mayor Rudy Giuliani's cleanup efforts. Snyder also acknowledged the open tension between graffiti writers and street artists.
"Street artists do not necessarily have to answer for their vandalism the same way that graffiti writers do," he said. "Graffiti is thought to break windows, where street art is just, 'hey, I'm putting up art.' So it's a little bit easier in the public mind to be a street artist than to be a graffiti writer, and I think both of those subcultures like it the way it is."
Abby Ronner, director of the City Lore gallery, echoes Snyder's sentiments.
"They're totally different aesthetics," Ronner said, noting that the City Lore exhibit explores an era when graffiti was transitioning from pure vandalism to legitimate expression in the art world's view.
Graffiti's presence in galleries and museums isn't new, Snyder said, nor is its alignment with fine art. Brooklyn Museum exhibited graffiti in 2006 and included some of the same artists as the Museum of the City of New York show, which acquired a private collection of graffiti art in 1994. Galleries, including Jonathan LeVine in Chelsea and roaming pop-up Klughaus represent artists rooted in graffiti and street art. Many artists who were part of graffiti's halcyon days have gone on to professional art careers, including Barry McGee, also known by his tag name Twist, and Steve Powers, known as ESPO, who are now successful studio artists.
Still, Ronner notices a recent uptick in public interest.
"In New York City, the cost of living is increasing so significantly and quickly, and there's so much commercial development," said Ronner. "People are seeking old New York City culture."
Snyder suggests that Banksy's mainstream success and the current popularity of street art renewed some interest in graffiti art and its culture, though he wonders if the recent events at 5Pointz affected gallery and museum attention.
"Curators have a good sense of the moment," said Snyder. "5Pointz showed that there was a need for graffiti culture as a tourist destination spot, and so therefore any gallery or art institution that can provide people with their graffiti fix will do so."
For Leder, who considers himself a "happy voyeur" to 5Pointz rather than a crusader entrenched in the community and the legal battle over its fate, the whitewashing of 5Pointz signifies a censoring of the artistic voices in the neighborhood. He worries that, with the sprouting of luxury condos in 5Pointz's wake, artists in Long Island City will no longer be able to afford their studios, a dilemma that has already pushed artists in downtown Manhattan into outer-borough neighborhoods. He references a piece in the show by Meres One titled "Essence:" simple black graffiti lettering painted in acrylic on a white canvas. "I've found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way. Things I have no words for," the painting reads.
"To me, that's the credo of the visual artist," Leder said.
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