About spray cans & permanent markers
Now that pop music is down with some degraded version of hip hop and
Billboard’s Hot 100 features more rappers than a Snickers factory, the
inevitable obsessive interest in the genre’s subculture has taken hold.
It makes sense that to discover the true roots of a movement, you must
seek out its major players. But what’s played on the airwaves right now
is a sort of designer impostor (“if you liked hip hop, you’ll love hip
pop!”) so watered down that the radio stars of today reek more of heavy
marketing than of talent. So the originals are back and in high demand,
riding the retro inquisition right onto gallery walls. And why not? The
artists formerly know as criminals, wielding weaponry of spray cans and
fat permanent markers, now find their work finally recognized for what
it has always been to them.
One of the original originals is Doze Green, member The Rock Steady
Crew, arguably the most famous b-boy group ever to have torn the roof
off the mother. The Crew were pioneer breakdancers, performing their
shows at art exhibitions in SoHo and the Lower East Side of Manhattan in
the late ’70s and early ’80s. But Green was also an immensely talented
graffiti artist, eventually attending the High School of Art and Design
along with other like-minded street artists. Their high school clique,
containing artists like Lady Pink, Daze, and Mr. Wiggles, quickly
evolved past the city and its boroughs and into the hip hop art
Green’s paintings are just as influenced by the graphic
story-as-picture style of Basquiat, the minimalist lines of Miro, and
the fragmented, oversized reality of James Rosenquist as he is by the
early graffiti art of Dondi White and Futura. His painting style has
Cubist tendencies, focusing on the clarity of form, in this case the
human or robot-like figures, and nullifying the remaining environment.
Green’s subject matter tends toward theories and practices of religion
and metaphysics, exploring the fundamental nature of urban reality.
Discordia, Green’s latest show at 111 Minna, presents work
focusing on the past two years, culminating with a few pieces
post-September 11.It reflects a definite sense of anxiety about the
state of the world, as many of the figures seem distant or dehumanized,
placed within a non-environment of cryptic text and confusing messages.
The paintings are multi-layered, starting with a wash of color in the
background that, compared with the definitive black outlines of the
figures and bold colors within them, has the dreamy effect of
watercolor. His “live paintings,” created in front of and reflecting
back the same audience, depict crowded dance floors with figures
overlapping in a maze of black outline. In these paintings, Green allows
the ethereal background quality to permeate the figures, making the
blurring the lines between the figures and their environment. The club
and its music become the people, and the people become the music.
One of his most interesting pieces, entitled “Omnia Ab Uno” (2001),
features a small hunch-backed man facing away from the viewer and
holding a gun in his outstretched hand. The letter “B” is on his back,
and the word “STANCE” is printed in bold text below him. The b-boy
stance in the days of breakdance competitions was a pose à la Run DMC,
with your arms wrapped around your shoulders like a hug, only it meant
something more akin to “you saw how I break — what can you do to beat
me?” The new hip hop scene, however, is more down with glorifying guns
and smacking your bitch up than with seeing who can pop the best.
Green’s interpretation of the new b-boy stance is a direct reflection of
the gun violence of the inner-city; people battle each other with
firepower instead of art.
The irony of acknowledging and accepting artists like Green by
putting their work on a gallery wall after decades of seeing it on the
street, calling someone down at City Hall, and having a City Improvement
crew cover it up with some random shade of gray would be almost
laughable if it wasn’t also so predictable. Urban artists like Green
continue to be a testament to the fact that art doesn’t stop existing
just because someone can’t afford the “real” tools of art making. And
sometimes dirty trains, alleyways, and bathroom walls reflect your
reality better than a clean, white canvas anyway.
Sarah Lidgus is a
freelance writer living in San Francisco.