The 1000 block of S. Mission st. in South Pasadena is a residential oasis set between the old money of Suburban Pasadena and the more transitional urban culture of South Pasadena. The street has a vintage look that feels more contrived than restored; coffee shops, yoga studios and art galleries dot the 3-block stretch of yuppie façade. In the center of it all Mission is intersected by the train tracks that were once the artery of old Pasadena, but as I sat waiting for the train to pass, I realized that even the classic old ‘train crossing’ bell was nothing more than mounted speakers playing a virtual bell sample on loop. After double-checking to make sure I hadn’t strayed onto the back lot at Universal Studios, I found the gallery I was looking for and parked my car. As I walked down the heart of Mayberry, I was again struck by the feeling that I was in the wrong place, I had come to see a display of work by San Francisco street artist Akayo (AKO) but it felt more like Rockwell than Rocksteady. Standing out from the monotonous façade, ‘Bent’ is a small boutique that sells your typical high-end pop fashion, which includes the obligatory $35 t-shirt. The walls of the store are covered in graffiti and murals from past gallery shows and random moments of inspiration and boredom. At the rear of the shop, behind the cash register and a narrow doorway is small gallery, which features two artists at a time for one-month increments. The gallery is clearly a makeshift art space, the approximately 10’ x 15’ room is narrow and an industrial sink occupies a large portion of one wall. AKO’s work takes up 2/3 of the room and is bracketed by the metal sink and a pillar on the facing wall. The white wall base beneath the pieces has been scrawled on with assorted general aesthetics associated with street art, Bubble letters, drips, flourishes and tags all hide and dance around the room independently of the actual sale pieces.
AKO has been creating within the realm of street art for almost 10 years now. Hailing from San Francisco a city that has a rich tradition on urban art. AKO uses the voice of the street as his primary source of inspiration. He began his career at a young age in the MUNI tunnels of San Francisco, creating graffiti and other public works. His brief online bio and the recurring tagline for the show states, “His art can be found lurking in the streets or in galleries across the U.S. and Europe. He enjoys making books, stickers, taking photos and moving about in the city’s shadow.” This description is a virtual facsimile of most urban artists bios, which draw primary inspiration from the man made environment that they dwell in. AKO is no exception to the rule, creating pieces that attempt to duplicate the feeling of dirty gutters in the Castro or a dark alley in the Mission. The show features 41 total pieces that range in mediums just like the city itself. Wood, acrylic, photography and found art collage are all dominating components of the cut and paste style. The pieces, while sold individually, are displayed in varying assemblies, creating organic clusters out of the individually modular pieces. The almost dada approach to displaying these works helps to create a certain organized chaos that is indicative of the urban landscape. The individual pieces are all quite different and unique in their own way. Some items are on aged wooden panels and others are contained in frames. Tacks, wheat pastes, and tape are also mediums of mounting which have been used to create a hodge podge mounting system that works quite well. The actual art contained in the work is just as broad as the mounting techniques, while being clearly grounded in graffiti. The base for much of the work is collage, which captures glimpses of AKO’s personal life and the city around him. Bus passes, parking tickets, bottle caps, stickers, stamps, slides, newspapers, matches comic books and found photography are just some of the countless devices that are layered and decoupage onto pieces of wood and cardboard. Despite the fact that Los Angeles is home to this show, the San Francisco aesthetic is literally palpable. Many of the collage components stand alone, they appear to be meticulously planned and created because of their relationship to one another. Many of the rectangular pieces of paper are placed in a grid system, while underlying chaos is apparent. Ripped edges and aged paper create a faux feeling of decollage despite being layered from the base to the surface. Other wood panels contain nothing more than hand painted typography that has a formal essence while still maintaining its street feel. Scattered among the featured works of art are small robot like characters that are graffiti influenced and child like in nature. The droopy eyes and Dr. Octopus like arms are playful and innocent while still retaining a demented feeling. The sketches of these characters feel like a combination of refined style and the doodles of an innocent child, quietly interacting with the structural landscape provided. Other items include; sketches of old automobiles and a series of highly detailed abstract color and line paintings. These items fill in the gaps and serve to stand in for sound in my opinion. As the viewer steps back, the abstractions begin to look like the snow on a television set, and lend to the visual din that is created. The “noise” that is created is an abstraction of the sound that is around us at all times, an expressive take on the literal work of a composer like John Cage in the piece “4’33””. The noise reaches a crescendo in the corner of the gallery where several ‘wet paint’ signs climb up the wall, distributed between small framed photos, aged sheets of paper and street signs, a message designed to repel everyday people that now compels the viewers to come closer. All of these devices combine to create an urban aesthetic in a gallery setting that has a feeling of authenticity despite the fact that in reality it is nothing more than a white walled box in the suburbs of Pasadena. While I was happy that I was able to temporarily suspend disbelief of my environment, it made me ponder the nature of work like this in a gallery setting.
As much as I don’t want to sound like the jury at the 1st exhibition of the Society of Independent artists, I find myself wondering if this brand of art actually has a place in a gallery. As much as I enjoyed the show in its present incarnation, I couldn’t help but think about how much more powerful it may have been on its intended urban stage. I was reminded of an exhibition I visited at the Brooklyn museum in 2006, titled simply ‘Graffiti’. The exhibit featured works by some of the classic east coast masters who helped shape the movement, yet despite the presence of these street superstars, the most compelling part of the exhibition was a 20’ X 10’ white wall where patrons were allowed to tag, scrawl and “vandalize”, to their hearts content. It is my belief that it was the expressionistic nature and interaction with the actual space that was sorely lacking in the Brooklyn show. Webster’s defines graffiti as, “ The illegal or unauthorized defacing of a building, wall or other edifice or object by painting or otherwise marking it with words, pictures or symbols. Based on that definition, a gallery show is the antithesis of the movement. A sterile white piece of wall with cheap overhead lighting is not the essence of street art. In the July 2007 issue of 'Juxtapoz', graffiti artist and Seventh Letter Crew member Retna states, “ I came from the school of thought that didn’t approve of being a graffiti writer in a gallery. From what I had learned, graffiti in galleries wasn’t supposed to be there.” While people like Retna and AKO work hard to create an authentic mood in a gallery setting, there is no way to duplicate the qualities of the street. While the work represents and embodies the street, the interaction of the actual place with the work is lost. Kasmir Malevich once said, “Feeling, afterall, is always and everywhere, the one and only source of creation.” In the gallery setting the true source of the art is lost and so too is much of the feeling. In their attempts to bridge the gaps between commercial and street success, many artists seem to be losing sight of what makes the medium so interesting. One of the major components of street art is motion, motion of cars, gesture, people, color, and other everyday proceedings. When put into a box, much of this motion is destroyed by the confined setting. Another key aspect of street art is temporariness, the fleeting feeling that you get from graffiti. This art on a street was created with the idea and acceptance that one day (maybe immediately) this piece of art will cease to exist. Resigned to be washed away by the rain, peeled off by a commuter waiting for a bus, or just written over by an outsider. This same temporariness is demonstrated by the limited amount of time provided to these artists for the purpose of creation. A squiggle on the street can be visually impressive because of its unexpectedness and its anti-establishment connotations, while in a gallery, that same squiggle looks unfinished and perhaps even half assed. With the legal nature of the gallery setting the need for speed and the element of danger is eliminated for the artist who then seemingly becomes just a robot, going through the motions of applying paint, rather than recreating the emotion of committing a crime. Los Angeles graffiti artist ‘Rime’ talks about the gap between the new breed of urban artist and their exclusively graffiti based predecessors, “Graffiti is often portrayed by emerging “urban artists” as that thing they “used to do”. Some choose to talk about the act of painting graffiti as if it is childish, but still insist on milking the subculture to give them that sort of edge. And there are also plenty of posers that never really did anything for the graffiti scene but get represented in galleries as graffiti artists.” This edge, in reality is non-existent and when the artist denies the roots of street art all hope at creating an emotional work is lost. That being said, I think that AKO is thinking progressively in his approach to a gallery setting, by creating works that have the fundamental elements of the street embodied in them. The artist is aware of this alternate environment and properly treats it as such, creating gallery pieces in the mind frame of the urban façade. While the medium of street art in a gallery setting is a work in progress, we have to take a step back and see what is pushing the medium forward in this formal setting. Artists like AKO illustrate a progressive attitude in presentation and representation of an ever-changing artistic movement. As a fan of this show, I recommend that people attend. As a fan of street art I recommend taking a Guy Debord inspired ‘derive’ through South Pasadena observing the many examples of legal and illegal art in an urban setting. Often times the greatest gift a street artist can bestow is the reminder to observe the world around us. The world is our canvas, but the canvas isn’t our world, AKO realizes this and that is why his show at the Bent gallery is successful.