On huge wooden panels, lanky yellow figures dressed in peacock patterns and paisley strut and breakdance. The sprawling ode to Brazilian folklore and street culture is the work of the São Paulo–born art duo Os Gêmeos. Famous across continents for their massive, inventive murals — in cities from Minsk to Tokyo — the twin brothers have washed the walls of Lehmann Maupin in a prism of splashy color, their signature graffiti characters twisting and turning amid references to syncretic gods, the occult, and Eighties hip-hop.
The gallery isn’t Os Gêmeos’ natural habitat. Gustavo and Otavio Pandolfo started painting graffiti in São Paulo as teenagers, working on city streets for over ten years. Then, in the early Nineties, the American painter and graffiti artist Barry McGee spotted a phone number on one of their murals. The number was “near the bottom of the wall in a pile of rubble,” McGee tells me. “I called and their mom answered the phone.” Returning home to San Francisco, McGee showed his friends photographs of his discovery, which eventually led the brothers to gallery shows in New York, at Deitch Projects in 2005 and again in 2008. Before their new exhibition opened, Os Gêmeos told me via email that they embrace the challenge of the gallery’s blank space, arguing that the white cube can be made into “a portal to a dream.”
On opening night, hundreds of people gathered to enter that portal. The turntablist DJ Qbert played a set on a pair of yellow decks built into what looked like a vintage ice cream cart. Pharrell was there, wearing a blue bandana around his neck and accompanied by a bodyguard; he studied a series of three latch-hook rugs designed by Os Gêmeos and embroidered by their mother, Margarida Kanciukaitis, who could in turn be overheard observing in Portuguese, “There are a lot of people here, aren’t there?”
The show itself is set up as a dream sequence in five acts. Following a rococo-style entryway and first room, a second room reveals two painted New York scenes reminiscent of Martin Wong’s gritty, Eighties-era Lower East Side cityscapes. Red-brick buildings show signs of fire and decay, and layers of graffiti cover subway trains. One of the artists’ familiar yellow figures, this one wearing a Space Cowboy beanie, stands alone on a mound of junk. A passion for early hip-hop is one of the show’s strongest sentiments, and these nods to the city pay due homage to its origins.
The third room is a monument to boomboxes, à la Tom Sachs: Embedded in the walls are a series of homemade bejeweled machines, each emitting its own beat. The installation O Beijo (The Kiss), meanwhile, gets a room of its own: Surrounded by walls painted in thick ripples of red and yellow is a metal cart onto which are affixed two huge wooden faces. Built into it is a music machine: A keyboard, turntable, violin, and drums have been strung together and are played by a series of motors. From the ceiling, a glowing fiberglass-and-resin face looks down as though to bless the machine.
The adjacent room, in contrast, is a sea of blues. An apocalyptic ocean storm scene shows a woman in sparkly tights sitting on a buoy, lost at sea. A giant beached whale hoists a lighthouse on its back. In one corner, against a background of mounting water, a waning crescent moon with a bird on its tip balances against a small bench. On opening night, several guests identified the bench as a selfie booth and took their seats, begging the question: At the end of times, as the waters rise, what would you do? Take a selfie?
Known for their public murals and gallery success, Os Gêmeos have garnered criticism from other graffiti artists who consider street art anti-commercial by nature. In Brazil, there’s a split between grafite, colorful murals that are often commissioned by city governments and corporations, and pichação, tags in cryptic black lettering scrawled on buildings and civic structures to deface them. The maverick pichador Djan Ivson, a/k/a Cripta Djan, tells me via email that he respects the distinctive style of Os Gêmeos, as well as their technical mastery. But he criticizes the lack of politics in their work. “They don’t fight for any cause,” he writes.
Ivson’s expectation is that, coming from artists who cut their teeth on the street, Os Gêmeos’ work should double as a form of political action. But what the brothers offer are new ways of imagining this world, not finite critiques of it. They lead us into parallel realities that grab the past, remix it, and make it fresh. There is no protest in their new show, but there is a sense of titillating creativity — floor to ceiling — that cries out: More is possible. It should also be said that rumors abound that Os Gêmeos have a body of anonymous, illegal work yet to be publicly documented. Seeing the pure joy of their work, it’s no surprise that their energy would still go beyond sanctioned walls.
Os Gêmeos: ‘Silence of the Music’
Lehmann Maupin Gallery
536 West 22nd Street
Through October 22