Graffiti–love it or loathe it, you can’t escape it. In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted near the Italian city of Pompeii, mummifying people, streets, houses and art in a blanket of hot ashes. The volcano also embalmed and thus saved all sorts of scrawled graffiti–drawings, obscenities, curses, notes, memorials–left by folks who wanted somehow to mark their presence and hail their heroes, unaware that their scratches would last for millenia.
Back in the 19th century, a reverend Christopher Wordsworth, who wrote a book on the Pompeiian graffiti, gave the more obscene comments short shrift, viewing them as proof of the moral depravity of the pagan world. Graffiti in general–whether on walls, latrines, monuments, or New York City subway cars–is still denounced nowadays as the work of vandals, or as demonstrating the decline of western civilization. In cities large and small the spray can has made almost everything vertical a fugitive “canvas” on which to draw and write on the run before the police show up: “Cheezits! The cops!”
But in the last century more than one painter has come to take graffiti seriously. And since the ’70s, some graffiti artists have left the ranks of illegal defacers and now move easily among their more conventional fellows, their work often staring, side-by-side, from gallery walls. The best-known African-American artist of the ’80s, Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned graffiti into a very personal idiom, unmistakably his own.
Until a few months ago, travelers along Blue Ridge Road just south of the North Carolina Museum of Art could peruse an ever-changing, brightly colored sea of graffiti on a wall of the Polk Youth Institution, a now-abandoned juvenile prison. There was nothing furtive about the painters and paintings since NCMA, which now owns the Polk property, invited one and all, young and old, to fill the wall with the promptings of their spirit.
The wall is now gone. But last March, before it was torn down, Raleigh artist Christin Kleinstreuer photographed a number of the images that she thought would make a great album cover for her rap/poet son, Josh. And then she fell in love with them–with their vigor and vitality. “I began to see them as urban landscapes that ought to be preserved,” she says. The result–a collection of 17 canvases appropriating figures and other images from the Raleigh wall, and two derived from San Francisco’s Mission District and Chinatown–is currently on display at the Glance Gallery in Raleigh.
Though they are now on the quiet black walls of an art gallery, Kleinstreuer’s canvases are as deliberately glaring and garish as the graffiti they mimic. Some are erotic, some anti-war, one ablaze with a fiery red dragon’s head, another almost entirely hidden to suggest the fact that graffiti-covered walls are usually layered by one painter after another. The gallery window displays a piece that started out as graffiti, but apparently got away from Kleinstreuer and turned into an abstract work.
In “Lust,” a large twisted face (male originally, more androgynous here, according to Kleinstreuer) fills the right half of the canvas. Picasso-like tear-drop eyes, lines and furrows around the mouth and brow suggest tension and anxiety. Saliva drips from its mouth. Borrowing from the wall itself, Kleinstreuer has placed a down spout to the left of the face, the pipe itself carrying the word that gives the piece its title. The pipe ends in a rounded bottom suggestive of a condom. On the far left a tentlike shape ends in a point and a starburst.
While sticking to the spirit of the original, Kleinstreuer has obviously made whatever changes she feels are needed. The palette–greens, deep blues and purples, pinks and oranges–is probably affected by the colors she likes to play with in her brightly hued landscapes.
“Who the Hell Is Lin?” is filled with crude vaginal, penile, and rectal symbols; on an open wall it would thrust into public space the sniggering child that may hide in every man and woman. The canvas here is covered with curves, curlicues, arrows, bubbles and lines bursting from various orifices. A gutlike purple form snakes through the center amid clouds of twisting reds, greens and blues. A line of deep blue up the center leads to a tiny long-nosed gnome-like head that stares at the scrolled name, “Lin,” whoever or whatever he may be.
The small “Behind Bars” seems at first to be more accessible. In the center, a cat lies behind a barred window that was actually set in a guard tower attached to the Raleigh wall. To the right, a cartoon of a beauty in flat colors rises over traditional graffiti scrolls. There is a heart shape next to her. Is she in love with the cat or with the gray scowling robotic figure on the left, turned away from her and, in a balloon, insisting “I Am 2!”
Some of the canvases are composites, with images drawn from various sections of the wall. Some were composites to begin with, different hands adding to work already there. “Don’t Sleep” seems to be one such piece. A line runs across the canvas. Above it a city bursts into flames and, either approving or simply accepting it all, the same or another artist has added “OKAYOKAY.” Above the letters are jagged lines that, among graffiti aficionados, seem to be accepted as symbols of pain.
Below the horizontal line a blue background holds a group of grotesque mechanical humanoids and an odd figure emerging from the lower left. It is in suit and tie but it has antennae emerging from its bulbous head, immense round eyes and tiny bleeding pupils, one red, one blue. A tag on its black suit reads, “I Am.” A yellow area above contains the warning, “Don’t Sleep.”
Obviously, while there is no clear narrative attached to the work, it is intended to be unsettling, and it does its job very well.
Here and there Kleinstreuer has managed, beneath the layers and dollops of paint, to discern some capitalized names attached to the paintings, most of them obviously noms de graffiti, and has listed them on the gallery wall: FILTER, YARDS, SNOOZE, SEAN, VETS, SLEPT, MAR, TURKS, SASH. I know of no prize offered to anyone who steps forward.
This is the second time this year that Glance has shown the work of an artist radically departing from earlier styles, and you have to hand it both to the artists and to Glance. Earlier, the gallery exhibited recent work by Bob Rankin, who moved firmly away from his glistening and extraordinarily popular abstracts and his unfortunate but equally popular goldfish. Kleinstreuer, largely self-taught, came to art late in life and has made her way with colorful, near-fauvist and quasi-primitivist landscapes. It took some hutzpah and some courage to abandon, if only temporarily, the canvases that fill her studio at Artspace–courage one must salute whatever one makes or thinks of her Urban Landscapes.
Intriguingly, Glance has paired the Kleinstreuer paintings with the very different work of Wendy Morrison Painter, whose abstract Inner Landscapes have a fresh, spontaneous look about them but are scarcely as interesting as the in-your-face graffiti that stares at them across the room. Typically, as in “Outside,” and “Holding,” a thinly painted rectangle of acrylic fills most of the paper or canvas while heavier bands curve in and around them, the bands in turn covered with thickly brushed splashes of paint.
One of the best is a small acrylic on paper, “Pattern of Light.” Against a thin blue background, rhythmically placed variations of greens, reds, blues and yellows race energetically across the blue, suggesting rough columns that, for all the enormous differences in scale and complexity, remind me of nothing so much as Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles.”
Inner Landscapes and Urban Landscapes, works by Wendy Morrison Painter and Christin Kleinstreuer, runs through Nov. 19 at Glance Gallery. Opening reception is Friday, Nov. 7 from 7-11 p.m. 311 West Martin Street, Raleigh. Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 821-2200 or www.glancegallery.com for information.