The New Insiders

At Brooklyn's Ad Hoc, street artists throw off their hoods and try working in a gallery

They may be the gritty bad boys and girls of the art world, operating under the cover of darkness and disguise, hiding identities with superhero monikers, and risking arrest by illegally plastering the exteriors of buildings with their work, but street artists, it turns out, have a softer side.

For Ad Hoc Art's current show, "Behind the Seen," art skulker Michael De Feo has assembled a varied and revealing collection by asking 40 of his compatriots from around the world to send him something not meant to sit outside— created, in other words, without regard for dodging cops, and most interesting, without the limiting concerns for street cred.

To establish any kind of lasting reputation on the street as an artist, you pretty much have to think (ironically enough) like a corporation's ad department: Establish a brand, preferably one that's graphically bold and fairly simple (a figure, a symbol, or a general style), and then make it ubiquitous. Repeat it on as many facades as you can until no one mistakes you for someone else. The method takes time and perseverance and leaves little room for subtlety or experimentation. The successful street artist becomes the brand: De Feo has his iconic flower, Skewville carries authority with those muscled letters, Judith Supine stamps an identity with garish green faces.

From the father of the figurative stencil: Blek le Rat's Boy, 1987
Katarina Lewis
From the father of the figurative stencil: Blek le Rat's Boy, 1987


'Behind the Seen'
Ad Hoc Art
49 Bogart Street, Brooklyn
Through January 20

But De Feo doesn't necessarily want to be forever known as the Flower Guy (he works on other projects), and he was correct in assuming other artists would also have interests that didn't involve the street. The Ad Hoc show reveals some surprises—you mean he did that?—but it's just as intriguing to see how the signature street styles are reflected, or in some cases anticipated, in these more personal works.

Take Swoon's entry. Renowned for her graceful paper cutouts of various figures (mystical women, the working class), Swoon has decided to include something entirely different: a series of photos from a trip she made to Cuba. They're printed on thin squares of paper, several of which are torn or stained, and tacked to the wall with long pins. Like a hastily assembled shrine, the collection seems as far from her familiar work as you could get. But look at the photographs closely (they're small) and besides noticing that Swoon has a fine eye for composition and color, you'll see that many of them could be studies for her cutouts. Here's the same interest in saintly and angelic faces, the expressions of burden, and childhood games—many of the photos giving (also like her cutouts) a shrewdly inconspicuous sense of motion. One photograph of a laughing dark-skinned girl is a virtual twin of one of her more widely known works.

Likewise, the French artist who calls himself L'Atlas has offered a gentler version of his meticulously designed geometric symbols—maze-like enclosures and space-alien hieroglyphics—which are almost mathematical in their precision. He typically affixes them to walls, fences, and (literally) the streets, placing angular compasses on sidewalks and covering manhole lids with enigmatic patterns he calls "cosmic points." It's the iron lid, which obviously holds L'Atlas's affection, that appears in this show. But the work isn't cosmic at all. Rather, it's a wonderfully down-to-earth aerosol "rubbing" of a manhole cover in Paris. The lid's interlocking pattern of grooves, white on black, have almost certainly been an inspiration for the artist's slick mazes, but here the imprint has diffused the lines into a dreamy, soft-focus glow—an appropriate effect for this tender gesture toward an objet d'amour.

Elbow Toe, too, has created an intimate version of his typical work, those sinuous larger-than-life etchings of figures who seem to writhe in some sort of torment. A portrait of Sara Schiller (who, with hubby Marc, runs the street-art showcase Wooster Collective) flows across the sides of an old bread box. An elegant collage of layered paper strips, it brings to mind the lurid but loving frankness of Alice Neel.

In other parallels between inside and outside, early studio works from Blek le Rat and Shepard Fairey hint at what would later appear on the street. Blek, a 56-year-old Parisian, is the father of the figurative stencil, a style he launched many years ago for his black-and-white characters (everybody from soldiers to piping fawns) by borrowing methods of shading from woodcuts, comic books, and the photographic negative. Solid and realistic, the stencils have always carried the weight and depth of painting. Blek's contribution to the show is exactly that: a superb rendering in oil, and in color, of a young dark-haired boy before a city wall that's been tagged here and there with graffiti (including Blek's first street incarnation, the rat). He stands there a little bewildered, delicately outlined in black, as if he were a stencil who had just emerged from the wall into human form.

From Fairey, there's a foggy, silk-screened photograph of an antiquated gas pump that's dominated by a sign stating WARNING NO SMOKING and, right below it, a ghostly shape that resembles a skull. From 1990, it's an ominous but milder precursor to the retro style and blocky menacing text of Fairey's infamous Obey Giant campaign, which would later make him a superstar.

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