To the Trained Eye, Museum Pieces Lurk Everywhere
By Seth Kugel for the NYTimes, Published: March 9, 2008
Slide Show: - The Art Outside - "Street art can be drawings on paper that have been wheat-pasted onto the side of a building; images stenciled right onto walls; sculptures screwed onto a stop sign pole; even tiles arranged to form 1980s video game aliens, which the French street artist, Space Invader, put up dozens of during a recent visit to the city. Did you notice? Thought not."
OUT-OF-TOWN visitors are excused if they get overwhelmed walking down a busy New York City street. There's so much going on that no one can possibly take it all in.
Natives long ago learned to filter the sensory onslaught: some exclusively people watch (looking for fashion trends, seeking potential mates); or building watch (admiring architecture, envying brownstones), or even nature watch (identifying street trees, counting rats).
A rarer tactic, and one well worth trying for a weekend, is to focus exclusively on street art, the uncommissioned, uncommercial forms of expression that pop up on buildings, sidewalks and street signs and go way beyond traditional graffiti.
Marc Schiller, co-founder of the Wooster Collective Web site, which exhibits photos of the best street art in the world, knows most people look straight past street art until they start looking for it. "Once you give them a doorway," he said, "they literally go crazy in that they start to see New York has a whole other level of creativity that they had no idea existed."
Street art can be drawings on paper that have been wheat-pasted onto the side of a building; images stenciled right onto walls; sculptures screwed onto a stop sign pole; even tiles arranged to form 1980s video game aliens, which the French street artist, Space Invader, put up dozens of during a recent visit to the city. Did you notice? Thought not.
But a well-planned walk with a trained eye through neighborhoods like Chelsea, SoHo and the Lower East Side in Manhattan, and Williamsburg and Dumbo - especially near the waterfront - in Brooklyn can change that.
First, that eye training. Where to look? On and around doors, on shuttered windows, above your head, near the ground, on poles and street signs and traffic signals and newspaper boxes and scaffolding. In other words, everywhere. But not anywhere: side streets and alleys work best, but street art also has a strong survival instinct in our gentrifying city, clustering on a few buildings where property owners are either more tolerant or more lazy.
Also, beware smoke screens: if a wall has been doused by unattractive graffiti, don't look away: you'll miss other subtle art that often lurks around and near and under.
Finally, judging street art is not like judging a coin collection: just about nothing is in mint condition. But that's part of the charm. Pieces are supposed to decay over time, either naturally or sped along by human hands. A years-old image half torn down or covered with other images (often in homage) is part of the experience.
Street art changes enough that pointing out specific works is dangerous. But a recent visit to the far western end of 21st Street, at 11th Avenue, found several great pieces visible to anyone looking. Two Space Invader mini alien figures lurked on opposite corners, one high and one low; a couple of stories up on a building down the block, some sort of three-headed goose serpent hovered. By the corner, the artist Judith Supine had left a slightly-peeling, red-and-green-trimmed female figure, perhaps a Virgin of Guadalupe.
Doing a little homework will vastly improve your experience. Several Web sites will help you get to know the most prolific artists, and then you'll be able to spot them on the street. No art history background required; it's not like distinguishing Cé:zanne from Matisse, it's more like Michelangelo vs. Roy Liechtenstein.
The Wooster Collective is a good place to start, but then go to less-filtered, more New York-centric Streetsy.com, because you can sort by artists and get to know their styles. You can also load a Google map marked with Brooklyn and Manhattan hot spots (on Streetsy's "About" page). Dedicated students can move on to Flickr, the photo-sharing site, where searches for specific artists yield oodles of examples.
Among the names you'll see again and again these days is Gaia, whose intricate black-and-white line drawings of people and animals are wheat-pasted onto buildings from Chelsea to Bushwick in Brooklyn. He's a bit of an artist-of-the-moment, and prints of his that were for sale at a recent exhibition at Ad Hoc Art in Bushwick sold out. Aside from him, try Elbowtoe, Judith Supine, Faile, Swoon and the robot-obsessed Stickman.
In an oxymoronic twist, you can now see a lot of street art in galleries. It's a trend that concerns some - "like going to a museum and looking at pictures of food," said Jake Dobkin, who runs the Streetsy.com site. But it's good for your weekend if it starts raining.
One champion of street art is the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Chelsea. You may have missed their "Streets of Europe" exhibition last December, which featured big names like Blek Le Rat and D*Face, as well as Space Invader. But the 2008 schedule is full of good ones, including the Brazilian star Titi Freak.
In a far less glamorous setting, Ad Hoc Art also has some good names coming up: starting March 21 and lasting a month, they'll have Lady Pink and Aiko. If you make the trek out to Bushwick and then decide you can't stand street art that's not on the street, take a walk down the block to the corner of Morgan and Grattan: there's a relatively untouched work by Gaia next to a Stickman robot superimposed over a "Where's Waldo" page. Or, there was.
FOR THE MASSES - WEB SITES
Jonathan LeVine Gallery, 529 West 20th Street; (212) 243-3822
Ad Hoc Art, 49 Bogart Street, Unit 1G, Brooklyn; (718) 366-2466
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