From Street to Studio:
In late 1970s New York City, many of the streets in the Bronx, the Lower East Side, and elsewhere were largely lawless, open-air drug bazaars. Rubble-strewn lots were the rule, and graffiti-emblazoned subway cars were an eyesore to many -- but murals-in-motion to the cognoscenti.
Attracted by the wild-style energy, outlaw glamour, and public accessibility of the graffiti underground, many formally trained young artists in the early 1980s were inspired to work outside the rarified studio-gallery continuum, experimenting and "tagging" alongside the graffitists on subway station platforms and urban wall space.
Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were at the forefront of this street art movement. They made celebrated, successful transitions to the established gallery scene, becoming icons seemingly overnight and, tragically, vanishing just as quickly. In their wake, somewhat younger artists, edgy and ambitious, saw the streets as their studio, especially in the East Village. Scot Borofsky and Kenichi (Ken) Hiratsuka were two of the most unique. Brian Gormley, although his experiments in street art were much more limited, took painterly cues from these artists in his studio work.
Keith Haring's subway drawings took the city hostage in 1980-81. As public art, they are unmatched in their combination of visionary imagery, cartoon cuteness, crude humor, and sheer verve. His studio work sometimes approximated the energy and breadth of his subway work, but could never match its contextual genius. At the peak of his powers, Haring's drawings and day-glo canvases emanated a postpsychedelic glow.
Jean-Michel Basquiat hit the streets with cryptic fragments scrawled under the name SAMO©. "Another day, another dime ... another way to waste some time" (accompanied by a sketchy figurative head snorting coke) proclaimed one. Another read "whole livery line bow like this with big money all crushed into these feet/plush safe he think..." SAMO-like scrawlings reemerged in Basquiat's studio works, many of which were executed on found surfaces and thus continued to emanate a strong street art energy and immediacy.
Ken Hiratsuka, formally trained as a stone sculptor in his native Japan, was inspired by the early street artists when he moved to New York. His sinuous "one-line" drawings and similar carvings, hand-chiseled on flagstone city sidewalks, are mazelike and abstract. Hiratsuka's studio work also features his one-line designs. Among his most impressive works are slate storyboards on which he carved one-line "picture-stories" referencing the Gulf War, a neighborhood garden on 11th Street, and various subjects of personal importance.
For his wall murals of the mid '80s inspired by the graffiti artists, Scot Borofsky applied his brightly colored designs with spray enamel directly to urban wall spaces, where the striking contrast with the surrounding grey and dilapidated empty lots lent them an almost supernatural hue. His early paintings applied the same media and motifs to canvas. By the mid '90s, he was integrating his symbols and patterns into oil-on-canvas works of flowing colors in an attempt to reengage dialogue with the history of Western art. Though by 2001 he was living in Vermont, Borofsky felt a strong personal need to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center, and it became the focus of a series of new paintings and prints informed by a sincere pathos and painterly flourish. In his most recent oils, latticed patterns connect over, or are subsumed beneath, surfaces of dense color.
Though Brian Gormley made few forays into street art per se, his paintings nonetheless reflect its energy and influence. In the mid-1980s, Gormley began showing expressionistic oils with figural motifs, distinguished by wild color and bravura brushwork. An accomplished printmaker, in the early '90s he used acrylic paint to carefully prepare a ground upon which he layered silkscreened imagery derived from his doodles. The frenzied abstractions he produced, rich and dense with both pattern and color, mimicked the energy of a brashly graffitied wall. Later, he employed thick black strokes to frame the dense underpainting, and recently has used a similar "paint-around" technique to unify compositions of small works, resulting in a crazy quilt of abstract pieces characterized by jazz-like lyricism.
All of these artists developed unique symbologies and visual vocabularies, successfully transposing their street-inspired techniques to the studio. Street works were often the result of an artist's social and/or inner necessity. The five artists represented in the exhibition From Street to Studio are exceptional in the degree to which they were able to appropriate and convey the immediacy and power of the street as a key element in their respective aesthetic strategies and artistic growth.
Copyright 2007, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont