Presenting graffiti in a museum or gallery context has always been a challenge. How do you take something so bound up with the urban landscape, with the excitement and energy of its creation and make it come alive indoors? Mason Fine Art owner Mark Karelson says he has made an effort to come as close as possible to creating an outdoor experience indoors in his current graf-centric show “Outside In.”
In keeping with graffiti’s sense of scale, the assembled artworks are — for the most part — big enough to decorate a substantial swath of industrial yard brick wall or a train boxcar. But translating the graffiti experience inside is no easy feat. Like capturing fireflies in a jar, that magic glow doesn’t always thrive in an indoor setting.
The nine featured graffiti artists — Web One, Won 2, SB One, Poest, Dr. Dax, Baser, Viper, Frank Morrison, Shie 1 — shown at the newest incarnation of Mason Fine Art in an industrial sliver of Midtown have been tasked with representing their calligraphy of the urban experience within owner Karelson’s spacious new gallery.
Some of their efforts fall short. A decision — Karelson admits it was his — to have some of the artists paint onto Home Depot sheets of faux-brick and tile comes off as a kitschy attempt to artificially bring the streets inside. But it would be hard to see this show and not come away with respect for the unique signature and vision of these individual artists.
In describing the group of artists in “Outside In,” Karelson, who used to specialize in folk and outsider art decades ago as the owner of Modern Primitive, sees some similarities between graffiti and folk art. He has a point. Both folk artists and graffiti artists are often self-taught iconoclasts operating outside the traditional art economy, with the occasional exception like SCAD alum Viper. That artist’s engaging pixelated text in “Outside In” shows an art student’s willingness to push the form and take chances.
But where folk art is often created in isolation, graffiti is undeniably a part of communal city life in both its creation and experience, dependent upon a mobile audience riding in trains or cars to see it.
The artworks in “Outside In” range dramatically, beyond a shared emphasis on color and bold lettering to declare the artist’s identity and intentions.
Poest offers sharp, jagged lettering in shades of purple and aqua that scream urgency and agenda. Phrases like “Nobody Wanna Fail” and “Nobody Wanna Die” suggest a socially conscious sensibility trained on the realities of modern urban life. Poest’s style is dramatically different from one of the show’s heavyweights, Dr. Dax, who’s been working in graffiti for more than two decades. Dr. Dax’s pop-infused, overinflated, candy-colored letters convey remarkable energy and ebullient goodwill. Dr. Dax also has a tendency to animate and infuse his text with personality, capping his letters with a layer of white frosting or giving each letter its own textural signature, making his words and letters lively and fun.
Indebted in his own way to the cultural obsessions of the pop art movement, Frank Morrison is the Roy Lichtenstein of the group, filling his works on unstretched canvas with the faces and conventions of Saturday morning cartoons. His paintings erupt with the “Booms” and “Pows” that telegraph comic book action and sport familiar faces like Popeye, Olive Oyl and a famous big-eared mouse peeking out from the fracas.
Even off the street, many of these works still explode with energy and invention, suggesting an alternative, if not an equivalent incarnation of this urban art form.
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