Street Level
March 29-July 29
Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

This week, Durham’s Nasher Museum of Art premieres Street Level, an exhibition of contemporary art featuring work from Los Angeles’s Mark Bradford, Miami’s William Cordova and Johannesburg’s Robin Rhode that focuses on images of urban centers and city spaces. It is the first show from the Nasher’s new curator of contemporary art, Trevor Schoonmaker, who was hired last July and has worked over the last year to bring Street Level to fruition.

With less than a year to plan the show, a three-person exhibition made sense for purely practical reasons. But a show like Street Level held another attraction for Schoonmaker. Having worked as an independent curator for the last six years, planning what he self-deprecatingly describes as “large, unwieldy thematic exhibitions,” Schoonmaker is looking forward to finally working in depth with a smaller number of artists, diving into their entire bodies of work.

“So I really started thinking of artists who had not yet become household names,” he says, “artists whom I admired, whom I believed would be up and coming, rising stars in their field. I think these artists are proving to be that.”

In some ways, the work produced by Bradford, Cordova and Rhode could not be more different, but the urban culture that unites them creates striking affinities between their works. “They’ve all been inspired by the street culture of the cities in which they live,” Schoonmaker says. “While there are variations, of course, between South Central Los Angeles and Miami and Johannesburg, there are still pretty strong overarching parallels within the street culture, which is largely defined by youth culture in these communities.”

One such parallel can be found in what Schoonmaker calls their “recycled aesthetic,” a postmodern attention to the sources, production and power structures underlining cultural capital. In Bradford’s case, this recycling is literal; Bradford uses for his canvases the ubiquitous wheat-pasted posters that line city streets in major cities worldwide. “It gets so thick, after it gets layered and layered and layered, that [Bradford] can get pieces that are like twenty feet long,” Schoonmaker says. “Sometimes he builds up layers to recover elements he might want to highlight, or to give a little pop, but oftentimes it becomes completely abstracted, just color, like a mapping of a city.”

One such work is Bradford’s Black Wall Street, which refers to centers of African-American commerce like Richmond, Virginia, Tulsa, Oklahoma and, of course, Durham, where Parrish Street was once known nationally as “Black Wall Street” because of the financial success of local African-American-owned corporations such as the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. The swaths of red paint that mar Bradford’s massive recovered canvas suggest in particular the violent end to Tulsa’s affluent African-American neighborhoods, destroyed by white race-rioters in 1921.

For William Cordova, the cultural recovery is more literal. One of Cordova’s most striking pieces in the exhibition is a huge work called World-Famo Paintings, a set of more than 80 fantastical illustrations evoking scenes and memories of urban life. Cordova’s medium for this work was a 1930s art history survey book called World-Famous Paintings; he tore out the pages and drew his work on the back.

“The general commentary is that those paintings [in World-Famous Paintings] have been predominantly white, Western males, and Latin-Americans, and Africans, and Asians, and women have been left out of the conversation,” Schoonmaker says. “So William has recreated the canon and inserted himself into it.” This, presumably, is where the title for the piece originates; World-Famo Paintings speaks to the “us” who have been left out of what is “world-famous.”

“His works are all about duplicity of meaning, and I think he’s really successful at it,” Schoonmaker says. “What’s most compelling, though, are just the drawings themselves. There’s so much going on in the work which he sees as so readily evident. When he explains it to me I’m like, ‘William, no one is ever going to get all of that.’ But the work is so very evocative, and he’s articulating it so beautifully and in such a captivating way, that I think it conjures up memories for anyone who sees it.”

In one of Robin Rhode’s works, He Got Game, the photographic series gives the impression that the artist is jumping up to dunk a basketball into a chalk-drawn hoopbut the hoop is actually drawn on the sidewalk, and despite the impression of verticality Rhode is actually lying on the ground. In a similar piece, Catch Air, the illusion is of riding a skateboard across a half-pipe; it is only when you look to the edges of the piece that you realize how your perception has been distorted. In the piece which graces the cover of the official Street Level program, Untitled, Dream Houses, the artist appears to be struggling to hold up a car that he has sketched on a crumbling city wall.

Like the work of Bradford and Cordova, Rhode’s work is often political. Untitled, Sticks, a piece with twirling mops, brooms and toilet brushes shot in Mexico City in 2006, suggests the exploitative labor relationship between Mexico and the U.S., while New Kids on the Bike, photographed in Rhode’s native South Africa, points to the still-shoddy education system for people of color in that country, almost 20 years after the end of apartheid.

In contrast to another famous urban artist, Brooklyn’s Jean-Michel Basquiat, the artists of Street Level have strong connections to the academic art world as well as to the street, having been formally trained at places like the California Institute of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale. “These guys have the résumé, in terms of getting the MFA, and going to all the right schools, the right artist-residency programs, whatever it might be,” Schoonmaker says. “But they also all come from very humble beginnings, and they didn’t arrive there because they already came from privileged backgrounds. And I think that’s what makes them unique. They really truly come from that street culture, and are connected to it, in ways that many of us who have a lot of respect and admiration for those cultures, and really appropriate some of those things, are not.

“These guys are really of it, and they balance that with their formal trainingso they sort of bring it all to the table at once.”

Schoonmaker hopes Street Level will bring new faces to the museum (which also just opened a retrospective of the work of North Carolinian artist Irwin Kremen). “For Durham, this work is really relevant because of what they do: the whole process of working with and being a part of an urban environment.

“Even more importantly,” Schoonmaker says, “it’s a show that the average person can walk into and actually get something out of and appreciate without having to feel intimidated. The hope is that it will engages a broader audience and can bring in people who don’t normally come, or haven’t felt comfortable or invited. We’re hoping to engage a little bit of pop culture to bring people in.”