The art establishment has a less than distinguished history when it comes to embracing artists who fall outside of its comfortably familiar linear narrative of western art. Impressionism was a derogatory name bestowed by the art critic Louis Leroy and the fabled Salon des Refusés exhibition of work by the movement’s most prominent figures was comprised of pieces rejected by the the Académie des Beaux-Arts’s annual exhibition in Paris. With stylewriting – or graffiti, as its early detractors called it – history has repeated itself and, aside from a few notable exceptions, art institutions have largely overlooked what’s grown into the largest participation art movement that we’ve seen. So the graffiti and street art worlds can count themselves lucky to have in Roger Gastman an individual who combines the artistic knowledge and practical acumen to stage museum-quality survey shows outside of their usual settings and the integrity to do them right. Following previous showings in Los Angeles in 2018 and New York the following year, he has now brought Beyond The Streets to London’s 70,000 sq ft. Saatchi Gallery.
The history of graffiti, from Taki 183 and Cornbread onwards, permeates the whole exhibition. Futura’s banner-like Combat Rock piece is rendered in contemporary typography, but is still a very direct nod to the pieces he created live on stage during The Clash’s 1982 tour of the same name, while his smaller Backstory canvas subtly reprises the triangular ray motif which was common in his work from the 1980s but which have been seen only rarely since. The puppets in PINS’ Rubbish Stuff shop continues RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ’s tradition of creating figures from garbage found in the streets, albeit this time with entirely more absurdist sensibilities.
Graffiti’s roots were consciously apolitical but it was perhaps always inevitable that a movement that lived in the streets would end up reacting to, and seeking to shape, the social and political landscape that it inhabits. This activist thrust is reflected throughout the show: Swoon’s large-scale portrait depicts sculptor and collaborator Ben Wolf who reclaims demolition materials and uses them for his own sculptures but, more than this, the work represents the rebuilding of our fractured and traumatised communities; a trilogy of Shepard Fairey canvases sound the alarm about environmental collapse; and Maya Hayuk’s panels resonate with a color-drenched, primal scream of protest.
There is also a greater emphasis on European artists than at the exhibition’s two previous incarnations and Mode 2, Escif and London’s DDS crew all have a significant presence. Conor Harrington’s three large scale canvases explore the deliriously irrational celebration of one side’s own political candidate and the equally vitriolic condemnation of the other’s and gives a flavor of what we can perhaps expect from his forthcoming solo show at BTS’s sister gallery in LA next month. The exhibition also explores the cross-pollination of graffiti with wider street culture: there is one of NFC’s much-counterfeited Phillies Blunt tees which laid the groundwork for today’s streetwear giants, a treasure trove of handwritten lyric sheets and original logo sketches for the Beastie Boys; and posters from stalwarts of the UK punk scene such as Crass and The Slits.
The exhibition runs until 9th May 2023 at the Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Rd, London SW3 4RY.