Roger Gastman’s “Beyond the Streets” Is a Thrilling Exploration into the Soul of Street Art

When I was in high school, I had a thing for a boy who did graffiti. I liked the way he vibrated with restless energy, sailing out of class on rickety skateboard wheels the minute the bell rang. Sometimes I would sneak out at night to creep through the sleepy streets with him, searching for that perfect spot. I remember the clicking shake of the spray can and the long exhaling hiss of paint. I remember lightheaded loopiness from the fumes, I remember my heart hammering in my ears every time we had to run from neighbors or barking dogs, but mostly, I remember feeling breathlessly alive. There is something so visceral about street art, something so alive, something that feasts on that spirit of youth and rebellion in a way that no other art form can. The whole world cracks wide open when you start thinking of it as your canvas.

Little Crazy Legs with boom box by Martha Cooper

Rising from the shadows into a prominent global art movement over the past few decades, street art marries the urge to break the rules, both the written rules of society and the unwritten rules of art, with the universal desire to leave your mark on the world. You can feel the racing adrenaline in each piece, the way impulse merges fluidly with intuition. It is an art form that never forgets its roots, embracing grittiness and irreverence and championing creativity without comfort or context or permanence, celebrating the small, secret ways we mark our own existence. Seven years after “Art in the Streets,” the exhibit he co-curated with Jeffrey Deitch and Aaron Rose broke MOCA’s attendance records, graffiti historian and street art authority Roger Gastman returns with “Beyond the Streets,” an immersive retrospective that examines the past, present, and future of global street art with a staggeringly thorough scope.

Taking over a 40,000 square foot warehouse on the industrial outskirts of Chinatown, the stunning comprehensive, which opens May 6th, consists of paintings, photography, sculptures and film from over 100 artists ranging from past to present, including influential names such as Jean-Michael Basquiat, Keith Haring, Takashi Murakami, Dennis Hopper, Banksy, and Jenny Holzer, alongside local LA legends like Shepard Fairey, RETNA, Chaz Bojorquez and Gajin Fujita.

A whirlwind exploration of the evolution of graffiti and street art as a respected art movement through the lens of the icons who created, molded, and influenced it, the exhibition, which includes both an indoor and outdoor space and is broken into twenty five specific sections, pays homage to the origins of the art form by including two “historical recreations,” one of which brings to life Venice Beach’s Venice Pavilion, which features graffiti by LA artists and is open to skateboarders. adidas Skateboarding teamed up with RISK to bring this iconic skate environment back to life. The other one is a playable reproduction of the New York City handball court where street artist Lee Quiñones created his famous murals in the 1970’s, complete with a mural that was custom-made for this exhibition.

Venice Pavilion

Yet like street art itself, the exhibit refuses to limit or even define its scope, including several breathtaking large scale installations such as the Faile Temple, a half demolished reconstruction of a church which street art collective Faile originally dropped into the center of Lisbon in 2010 with the hopes of unleashing a “momentary, unexpected experience” that would transport anyone who stumbled upon it to a different time and place.

It also includes Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern, a psychedelic and multi-sensory universe of made of densely-packed everyday objects coated with day-glo graffiti, a florescent-lit party turned art installation that he originally created in the closet of the apartment he shared with Keith Haring. Outside of the warehouse, LA-based activist Ron Finley has set up a garden installation to call attention to the “gangsta gardening” projects he has implemented throughout LA to bring food resources to inner city communities, which have been (bizarrely) deemed illegal by city officials.

Though the exhibition stays true to the tough and tenacious roots of street art, it also makes a point to bring the narrative full circle, highlighting where the artists who founded the movement are now, and how their work has maintained the vivid spirit of the streets even as it transcended into studios, galleries, museums, and merchandise. Gastman hopes that the comprehensive retrospective will read less like a historical study and more like a thoughtful examination of the “cultural outlaws” who embody the soul of the movement and keep it alive and thriving to this day.

One of the reasons “Beyond the Streets” is so extraordinary is because it allows street art to shine in all of its multi-faceted and chaotic complexity, focusing on the shared desire to disrupt the status quo and confront the powers that be, while at the same time inject color and playfulness into the rigid structures of our society. It makes a powerful statement about the importance of making art that is not necessarily accepted by the mainstream, as well as the importance of staying awake and active and unafraid in the face of our current political state. To that end, Gastman has included a series of live performances, lectures, and events alongside the exhibition, as well as a mentoring program for local kids focusing on skateboarding and creating art.

As you move through the immense and immersive exhibit, filled with pieces that seem outwardly disparate, representing the many ways in which the art form has diverged as it has transformed, the defiant energy and unrestrained creativity that ties them all together is palpable, the authenticity and aliveness of the streets perpetually peeking through, inspiring generation after generation of artists and visionaries.

Beyond the Streets runs from May 6th-July 6th, 2018 at Werkartz (1667 N. Main Street Los Angeles, CA 90012). You can purchase tickets here.

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