Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano at Houston and Bowery

Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano, mural at Houston and Broadway, New York. Photos: 16 Miles [more]

I have no real interest in street art or graffiti, but I have to admit that the new mural at Houston and Bowery in New York, recently completed by Barry McGee and Lee Lozcano, is a stunning piece of work. Sure, after the monstrous Shepard Fairey piece that had been there for so long, almost anything would be have been an improvement, but this is clever, fascinating stuff, consisting of reproductions of dozens of tags of graffiti artists past and present. (It also includes the mural's makers: the very prominent AMAZE tag is Lozcano’s signature, and a less-prominent TWISTER tag belongs to McGee.)

Lozcano and McGee dispute that age-old criticism of graffiti — "it all looks the same" — directly, showing the nuance and subtly involved in various styles, and, in the process, they emerge as expert connoisseurs and historians. They wrote the tags from memory, trying to mimic the signature of each artist memorialized on the wall. That remarkable endurance feat recalls Douglas Gordon’s List of Names piece (displayed below), which involves Gordon listing off, from memory, every person that he has ever met each time it is installed or published as an edition. At the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art he rattled off more than 1,000 names, which line the wall of a stairwell. (Click the second image of the work below for an enormous enlargement, and spot the art-world celebrities!)

Douglas Gordon, List of Names (Random), 1990-ongoing, at the Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Explaining the piece, Gordon said: “It was an accurate and honest statement, but it was full of mistakes (like forgetting the names of some friends), so there were some embarrassing elements in the work.” McGee and Lozcano must also have had similar fears, particularly since they listed a much smaller group of names and limited themselves solely to graffiti artists. When Mary Beth Edelson assembled a similar list of 69 artists for her 1972 collage Some Living American Women Artists (now on view in curator Roxana Marcoci’s remarkable “Pictures by Women” exhibition at MoMA), she had some time to think it through, but McGee and Lozacano fired off their work in a single night.

Francis Picabia, L'Oeil cacodylate ("The Cacodylic Eye"), 1921. Oil with photomontage and collage on canvas, 58 ½ x 46 ¼ in. Photo: © CNAC / MNAM / Dist. Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

Jumping back a few decades: the mural stands as a direct opposite of Francis Picabia’s L'Oeil cacodylate, 1921. In that work, Picabia invited about 50 friends to scrawl notes on and sign a large canvas when they came to visit him as he recovered from an eye illness, handing over control of the work to other artists. In their mural, McGee and Lozcano function as artists but also as curators. Rather than inviting artists to tag the wall, they handpicked the people they wanted to memorialize, enacting the way in which modern and contemporary museums have generally dealt with so-called street artists like them: selecting a minute number of people (like Fairey and, of course, McGee) to serve as token exemplars of a a much larger movement. Now I am just hoping that someone writes a complete guide to the mural, explaining the origin of each tag and showing examples of each artist's work.

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