Where Louis XIV Meets Crash and Blade

David Goldman for The New York Times
Aaron Goodstone, known as Sharp, at a gallery installation that combines street art with antique pieces. More Photos >

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Published: May 29, 2009

The French call it le graf or le tag: the style of urban artwork that was born nearly four decades ago on New York City subways and brick walls, influencing a generation of artists, self-taught and otherwise, across the world.

Now twin sisters, gallery owners in France, have organized an exhibition to celebrate the international stamp and cultural heft of what they prefer to call le street art, a genre that may have more establishment appeal abroad than it does in the United States. The show, “Whole in the Wall,” is billed as the largest exhibition of American and European street art from 1970 to today, and includes paintings, sculpture and photography.

“It’s youth, it’s movement, it’s lively,” said Chantal Helenbeck, who with her twin, Brigitte, runs the Helenbeck Gallery in Paris, which held a similar show in November.

Trailing parfum on a high-heeled tour of the installation before it opened on Thursday in a multistory studio space on Manhattan’s far West Side, the sisters explained what drew them to street artists. “They’ve changed my vision of my work,” Chantal Helenbeck said, speaking in French, “because they haven’t gone to school. They are taught by life, and you can see that in their work.”

Brigitte added, “They bring a joie de vivre to the gallery.” With works by pioneering Bronx graffiti writers like Crash and Blade and their descendants, including Blek le Rat, a Parisian known for his stencil work, and the anonymous British artist Banksy, the show offers a diaspora that many Americans may not know existed. It’s evolved far beyond early tagging (abstractly writing a name or word in spray paint or marker, usually illegally) to more painterly and figurative forms.

“When I was shooting graffiti in the late ’70s, I thought I was shooting a very local, underground phenomenon,” said Martha Cooper, whose photographs documenting the scene are included in the exhibition. “My idea was, this could only happen in New York. And I was so wrong.”

Instead, street-art culture spread globally. Several of New York’s early taggers, like Quik (born Lin Felton in Queens) and Sharp (Aaron Goodstone, Upper East Side), now live in Europe, where they say they enjoy greater acclaim than in the United States and sell more of their work. The Paris show sold out of all 100 pieces, with prices in the hundreds of thousands. (The prices for the exhibition here range from $6,000 to $300,000.)

To draw an even more direct parallel between hallowed and street culture, one room is outfitted with ornate Louis XIV-era furniture — gilded consoles and chairs covered in rabbit fur — surrounded by graffiti pieces and found-object sculptures.

“Given the historical significance of the antiques, it sort of confers that what we’re doing is credible,” said Sharp, who splits his time between homes in the Bronx and suburban Paris. Wearing a Zulu Nation pendant and a large pair of square, black Run DMC-style glasses, he patiently explained, in French, the concept of “outer borough” to the Helenbeck sisters.

Jean Gismondi, the owner of the Parisian antiques shop that supplied the furniture (also for sale), didn’t know anything about street art when the sisters approached him to collaborate, he said. But he quickly took to it, admiring the craftsmanship.

“I see the link between the pieces,” he said, pointing to a skull covered in plastic doodads by the Queens-born artist Rammellzee that rested atop a 17th-century bureau inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. “The mask is Baroque, as Baroque as this.”

A heavy Rammellzee bracelet embedded with plastic buttons, toys, rhinestones, metal rings and other flotsam? “With an evening gown, it would be magnifique,” Mr. Gismondi said in French.

“These objects,” Chantal Helenbeck said, “are the antiquities of tomorrow.”

The Helenbecks plan to bring the show to Milan as well as to Stuttgart, Germany, and other cities. Exhibiting this art now, when the economic climate sometimes mirrors that of 1970s New York, makes it particularly relevant.

“In this difficult time, it gives hope,” Chantal said, offering as an example “Heart in a Hurricane,” a painting by Lee Quiñones that depicts an apparently homeless man clutching a vibrant rose.

The juxtaposition of European sensibility and urban New York history was evident at the opening party on Thursday night, which attracted a mix of hipster art students, grungy street-art aficionados and sleek Euros, and served as a reunion of sorts for the old guard of New York taggers.

“You don’t usually find all these guys in one place,” Ms. Cooper said, noting that a half-dozen of the subjects of her seminal 1988 book with Henry Chalfant, “Subway Art,” were standing nearby, many now middle-aged and dressed in suits.

Susan Tencer Rubino, who as a 16-year-old served as a lookout while her boyfriend, Crachee, and Blade illegally spray-painted in the Bronx, came clutching a photo Blade sent her of a No. 5 train tagged with her name. She last saw him around 1976; they reconnected recently through Facebook. (Asked if he knew his mother was such a cool chick, her teenage son, sitting on a stuffed chair nearby, merely shrugged.)

The party also drew fans like John Misiti, 34, a graf writer who works for the Sanitation Department. (Many of the guys he grew up tagging trains with now work for the M.T.A., he said.) He brought a book of his own work for the artists to sign. “I wouldn’t mind having this in my living room,” he said, taking in the antiques.

Though several of the artists in the show have work in major museums, the sense among the members of the original New York generation that they are somehow trespassing among the establishment still sticks.

“What’s really important in something like this coming to New York is, you can see we’re not teenagers defiling property,” said Blade, whose real name is Steven Ogburn. “We’re making work.”

A fan passed by and gave him a deferential nod. “Write that down!” Blade said. “They bow to me! There’s something you don’t see every day.”

“Whole in the Wall” continues through June 27 at the former Splashlight Studios, 529-535 West 35th Street, Manhattan; helenbeckgallery.com.

FROM / http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/30/arts/design/30stre.html

One thought on “Where Louis XIV Meets Crash and Blade

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