It’s a Thursday night at 17 Frost — an almost-sorta-fairly-legit-looking art space in Williamsburg — and gallery-goers are gathered around an abstract painting of Manhattan by Russell Murphy.
“You see New York skyline photos, paintings, whatever, all the time, and the fucking Empire State Building is such a beacon, it’s gotta be the star of everything,” a friend of Murphy’s says, gesturing to a small piece that makes the aforementioned building a smeared, distracting eyesore in an otherwise bright lineup. “To have something where everything else is more defined and [that building is] sort of falling apart is an interesting idea.
“But when I asked him about it, he was like, ‘Nah, I just haven’t finished it.’ ”
Such is Murphy — hyper-focused on exactly where he wants to be, with the rest of the city in an easily disregarded blur.
As part of the gallery’s PUTTING IT IN exhibit, Murphy is showing a series of paintings and studio floor poem scraps alongside wall-sized abstract works by painter Gabriel Specter and numerous collages by multimedia artist El Sol 25.
Closer inspection of these artists’ highly detailed works will reveal everything from love notes scribbled on court summonses to photorealistic butts plastered on cupcakes, but the most surprising thing about this exhibition is that it’s indoors — and legal.
“Today the lines between legal and illegal works on the streets have been blurred by social media and the over-commercialization of the graffiti and street art aesthetic,” read the exhibition notes. “Although many of the artists working currently to create legal murals have helped the art form gain international recognition and acceptance, many of the artists strictly creating illegal works have not had opportunities to separate themselves from the growing roster of legal muralists.”
Putting real-deal graffiti in a gallery is almost controversial at a time when “street art” is commissioned by the city. How is it contentious? A sense of entitlement and environmental ownership could be deemed controversial in today’s ever-diversifying art world. Graffiti in its natural street habitat can still feel secretive, elite, and encrypted; but in this exhibit at 17 Frost, attendees are given the secret decoder ring — a number of paintings hanging in the show directly reference the artists’ double lives and secret superhero identities as guerrilla street artists. It’s a desperate message: Catch me if you can, bet you can’t.
If paid muralists take the street away, these guys will take the gallery away from the fine artists, until circumstances change again and everyone is forced to adapt. It’s a highfalutin take on the practice of one tagger deliberately painting over another’s work. Back and forth between the street and the gallery, artists will grasp at whatever untouched spaces remain, like sand through fingers. But the point is to continue making the work, to show handwritten notes on the back of receipts if necessary, to fight to remain visible — even as street artists’ relevance is taken, wall by corporate-sponsored wall.
‘PUTTING IT IN (The Last Show)’: Featuring Gabriel Specter, Russell Murphy, and El Sol 25
17 Frost Street, Brooklyn
Through January 22