Into the second hour of my wander through Beyond The Streets a wall label poses the question “How do we get from graffiti on Parisian streets of the 1930s that Brassai captured, to the Academy Award nominated film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” by Banksy?” Therein lies this exhibition’s dilemma.
Beyond The Streets is part documentary and part art exhibition; part historic artefact and part new art; part museum and part gallery. It explores the cross links, influences and the sparks that flowed between graffiti, music, fashion, street art and gallery art. And it is HUGE.
That small wall label is the first and seemingly only mention of Banksy. The elephant most definitely is not in the room. There is no art by Banksy in Beyond The Streets.
“I suggest you ask Banksy” was curator Roger Gastman’s enigmatic reply when I enquired why not.
The label also sets up a rather curious paradox about the exhibition. Public awareness and appreciation of “street art” has magnified enormously since and to some extent because of Banksy’s “Exit Through The Gift Shop” documentary, but this exhibition doesn’t explore recent street culture or indeed much of anything that may have benefitted from the Banksy effect, which of course means pretty much the whole of modern street art. Beyond The Streets is not a “street art exhibition”, street art is found on the streets, not in a gallery.
What the exhibition does skilfully and beautifully is show us the common DNA shared by key youth cultures over three decades from the 70s to the 90s. The origins of Philly and New York graffiti, hip hop, dance and fashion are explored and building off that comes the transfer to the UK’s club land and train yards. Layer upon layer of detail regarding what came from where, who met who and what influenced what can be unpicked from the ephemera and collections on display. It’s everywhere you look, that’s not just a rack simulating the display of bedroom posters that every record store had in those days, it’s a collection of contemporary film and show posters. Next it’s a bunch of graffiti mags. A lot of the really interesting content in this show like those posters are from the Gastman personal collection.
Roger Gastman is the ultimate geek, uber-collector, culture historian and super-documenter, many will actually be familiar with him already, in Banksy’s “Exit Through The Gift Shop” he is the fixer parachuted in by Banksy to rescue Mr Brainwash’s manic debut LA show from chaos. Our conversation with Gastman about the nature of the show is the feature of this short clip with scene-setting visuals.
The New York art scene of the 70s and 80s is a key jumping off point so there is a Jenny Holzer installation, Keith Haring references pop up everywhere, look particularly for a nice surviving example of one of his NY subway chalk drawings but there is no Basquiat. When the subject is so vast and space and time finite perhaps there is only so much a curator can include but of all the artists from that era, particularly those who had a connection with street art and graffiti, no one has had a more significant influence on modern art history than Jean Michel Basquiat. There is as much chance of an answer from Basquiat as from Banksy.
The highlight of the exposition of the New York – London cross pollination is a massive canvas by Futura 2000 from NY who toured Europe with The Clash in the early 80s painting backdrops live on stage. Research reveals the one on display failed to reach reserve at a Bonhams auction in 2014!
As a mover and shaker and a connector between the hip-hop and graffiti movements in New York, Fab Five Freddy is a recurring presence in the historic documents and with canvasses on the walls.
If the U.K.’s 1980s graffiti movement had its Fab Five Freddies there is a strong case for anointing Goldie and Rob del Naja as such. Like Fab Five Freddy this genre straddling pair now regularly feature at contemporary art auctions in the leading auction houses as well as having cutting edge music careers. It is hard to recall the sponsor’s logo appearing so gratuitously in a graffiti writer’s canvas before.
A fascinating time line photo display records key personas and moments in the parallel development of hip hop and graffiti in London. Having had the good fortune to catch and photograph the last few years of the legendary Pit in Golbourne Road, the stash of polaroids from the early days of the Pit credited to “Rob Fever” was particularly exciting. (The Pit was known as a place you entered at your own peril as there was with a high risk of getting robbed, or “taxed” in the parlance).
The connections and the documentary details are absolutely fascinating providing plenty of opportunity to make your own “degrees of separation” analysis. Among Toby Mott’s collection of agitprop posters and punk flyers is a gig poster for The Slits. The Slits’ guitarist and lyricist Viv Albertine’s on/off/on/off (repeat) boyfriend Mick Jones of The Clash invited Futura2000 to tour with them painting backdrops during Clash gigs, Futura stayed with Don Letts whose massive influence (well represented here) was secured early on in a period as resident DJ at the Roxy in London, a Roxy guest book is displayed open on a page showing Joe Strummer of the Clash signing in and further up the page you can decipher the signatures of Ari Up and Palmolive, both of The Slits. The loops, the links and the lines of influence between the characters who were the genuine innovators across multiple genres are so clear.
Old school graffiti legends from US and UK whose art is now as comfortable in the galleries and private collections as it was once on the streets contribute artworks that represent where their post street career has taken them. The stand out is the exceptional draughtsmanship of Mode2 (London/Paris)
Shepard Fairey has a large display of art consistent with his impact, activism and influence – the significance of his 2008 HOPE poster in making the case for Barack Obama should never be underplayed and, a rarity in this show, he maintains a career which to this day continues to embrace stickering and street art muralism.
ESPO is the Philly typographer who painted the iconic “Let Us Adore And Endure Eachother” in Shoreditch, and as well as a large typography based installation it was nice to stumble upon some fresh ESPO graff on a wall in west London.
Daze from NY has been a gallery artist for decades, it was cool to see Daze hit a proper wall in Shoreditch.
The show is also as much a homage to the documentarians, people that there were people there at the time who thought to record the scene and collect the crap. Keep diving into the various glass cases displays, they hold a treasure trove of battered copies of relatively obscure but now indispensable books that appraised the many manifestations of the music and graffiti culture as it evolved and before it became of such widespread interest.
Check out the photos being uploaded by Beezer to Instagram, they are incredible historic records. When a graffiti legend like Haze from NY wants to take your photo, that’s respect shown where respect is due.
Curious juxtapositions – or more degrees of separation: Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern with its psychedelic day-glo assemblages zinging with UV lighting is the latest incarnation of a characteristic Scharf playhouse, the sort of which was clearly a huge influence on the 2010 Faile/Bast Deluxx Fluxx collaborative installations; Cosmic Cavern is set up next to Paul Insect’s Rubbish Shop with its playful upcycled trash characters, Insect produced characters like these for years with Bast before Bast’s untimely early passing in 2021.
Some contributions feel like their significance is perhaps undersold by lack of context in their gallery notes, with several of the photographer’s work feeling like it may have turned up in the wrong exhibition by mistake. Swoon is one of the few artists in the show whose origins as a public artist sprang from an urge to put unfiltered, uncurated art on the street as opposed to morphing from a graffiti writer to a spraycan artist. Swoon’s art practice ranges from stunning paste ups on the streets to intricate paper and print installations in galleries but in this show, her single wall creation feels overwhelmed by a “whole wall” piece by Pablo Allison documenting the humanitarian horror and desperation of migrating people travelling from Latin America to USA.
As a historical record, this exhibition peters out in the late 90s. Beyond that period the dominant focus is on the way in which a selection of graffiti legends and a few street artists these days make their mark in the formal galleries and even museums of the art world, the evidence suggests many of the artists are adequate rather than transformative.
Some things in life, like walking on the moon say, will never be a lived experience for the vast majority. If you haven’t cut a hole in a trainyard fence, sneaked through the tunnels under Fabric or dodged security to paint a train in a metropolitan train yard then the experience and passions that bond the graff writing community might as well be planting flags in a moon crater for most of us. The point of art is to stimulate our imagination, to peer beyond the limitations of our experience and three of London’s finest, Tox, 10foot and Fume who live and breathe an intense London graffiti life have simulated a tube tunnel setting peppered with canvasses and photos cartoonising their adventures on the underground. A series of 5 illustrations by Fume are based on am infamous incursion at Oxford Circus tube station on Christmas Day 2020.
While the exhibition does a great job on graffiti’s old testament and the crusade to Europe is revealed in compelling detail, the tailing off of the historic forensics coupled to the absence of Banksy leaves the street art story somewhat lacking its Book of Genesis. The presence of Faile, Shepard Fairey and Keith Haring brings in the US behemoths while Kaws and Monsieur Andre, here under his real name, represent tributes to the inventiveness and subversion that should and occasionally does characterise street art.
The sugary and flat colours of paintings by Pose, Dabsmyla and Husk towards the end juxtaposed with Priest’s “crime scene in duplo-land” sculpture create the impression that post graffiti urban art is characterised by nursery land imagery, which is little unadventurous.
For visual impact the geometric super saturated colour overload of a Felipe Pantone mural is hard to beat, Pantone has set up a dizzying illusion room suggesting Anish Kapoor stalactites on acid in an old Radio Rentals showroom where the TV sets have lost their signal (the older generation in the UK may recall TV shops displays of the trade test transmissions in the days before VHS and daytime TV). Mesmerising and disorientating.
Cunningly placed right before the gallery gift shop is Duncan Weston’s Ralph Lauren brand pisstake, poised somewhere between critiquing brand power and poking fun at our inclination to obsess over brands. It works so well some were questioning if it was bad taste having a Ralph Lauren outlet in a show of activism and youth culture.
Peppered around the gallery are genuine tags by many of the graffiti writers who were around for the set up and launch of the show, look for locations such as on the roof of Insect’s Rubbish Shop and the spoof street furniture like newspaper bins in various locations. Unsurprisingly perhaps there has been a steady accretion of unsanctioned and opportunist tags and stickers, deliciously reflecting the irreverence this culture has always had for the formal gallery environment and the fact that this is a living vibrant culture which is appropriately in the hands of (extra)ordinary people.
The big picture for Beyond The Streets is it weaves through the various sub cultures, sampling key moments and pinpointing connections and influences. Its short coming perhaps is that the joining of dots and drawing of lines for street art does not quite match up to the high bar set for the other art forms.
There are about 18 artists with art on display that fit within a reasonable definition of what street art is, of those only 4 have art practices not based on spraypaint which obscures the reality that in today’s street art culture, particularly if the gaze is turned away from the world of permissioned murals, there is far more going on with materials on the streets than just spraypainting.
The show rates high on fascinating early history. Plenty to geek out on, plenty of nostalgic “oh yes, I remember missing out on that moment”. The show feels like an amalgam of several different brilliant shows bought together. However, there is just so much art and a huge quantity of fascinating archive material that extended or even repeat visits are recommended.
Beyond The Streets
Saatchi Gallery, Kings Road
17th Feb – 9th May 2023
All photos: Dave Stuart