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Highlights From Bishop Gallery's New Show, "Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History"

The vibe at Bishop Gallery on Saturday, October 17th – the night of the opening reception for Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History – set the tone for the gallery’s latest show. The new group exhibit, a retrospective exploring the difference between graffiti and street art, features the work of fourteen graffiti and street artists who rose to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s. Co-curators Al Diaz and Christopher Hart Chambers based their selections for the show on the timely significance of each artist's contributions during what's known as the Golden Age of public art.

So what is the difference between graffiti and street art?

Both graffiti and street art developed as art forms in the 1970s; they both involve reappropriation of a public space, risk of legal repercussions, and the use of bold visuals. But, although often lumped together under the blanket terms “street art” or “urban art”, graffiti and street art are, in fact, two discernible art forms.

Graffiti, which is said to have predated and helped fuel the street art movement, is primarily calligraphic, is generated under the time constraints imposed by the threat of legal punishment, and is created on the spot, from scratch.

Among the works on display are those featuring SAMO, the tag associated with the graffiti done by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz (Bomb One) between 1977 and 1980. The idea for SAMO (often rendered with an ironic copyright symbol, as SAMO©) was originally conceived while Basquiat and Diaz were students at City As School High School. With help of fellow student Shannon Dawson, SAMO was further developed via the trio's comic-style endorsements of what became a kind of false religion. Henry Flynt, who photographed the work of the graffiti collective, describes how they “employed anonymity to seem corporate and engulfing….The implication was that SAMO© was a drug that could solve all problems. Soho, the art world, and Yuppies were satirized with Olympian wit.”

Al Diaz, as co-curator of Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History, chose to display the work of the graffiti artists Snake 1, FLINT, and Lee Quiñones, among others. Graffiti pioneer Snake 1 started “throwing up” in 1970 and is one of the originators of the Writer's Bench, a collective of artists dedicated to curating the history and influence of NYC graffiti culture around the globe.

The work of fellow graffiti pioneer FLINT is also on display. FLINT had become obsessed with “Kilroy was here” while learning about World War II in school; the expression, accompanied by a doodle of a bald man peeking over a wall, was the mark left behind by United States servicemen wherever they were stationed during the War. FLINT loved the idea of advertising himself through a secret identity. Furthermore, in an interview FLINT describes how, because he had hearing and speech problems, he couldn’t understand much of what was going on in the classroom: “This made me a loner, but I found something that could make me part of the world.... Things were changing, and I wanted to be part of it.”

Lee Quiñones, another among the most influential graffiti artists of the Golden Age, started painting subway cars in 1974 and was considered a NY legend just 2 years later; he was made famous for his huge pieces around the subway system that sometimes spanned entire subway cars. His work often included poetic messages, including the famous "Graffiti is art and if art is a crime, please God, forgive me", and is featured in one of the highest-selling art books, Subway Art.

Graffiti is said to have laid the groundwork for rise of street art. Street art, compared to graffiti, is a more conceptual form of expression, and is primarily image-based. Street art is often created beforehand and brought to location where, once applied, becomes the finished product. Creating street art carries the same risk of legal repercussions, but because it is often ready-made, the time constraints are not as intense and the work is often more developed.

Co-curator of Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History, Christopher Hart Chambers – one of the core members of the street art collective Avant – selected works from a number of 1970s-1980s influential street artists to represent the rise of this public art form. Among these artists are Richard Hambleton, Linus Coraggio, and, of course, Avant.

Avant was the first group to turn the NYC streets into an exhibition space for ready-made art. Before they started plastering their acrylic-on-paper works around town on walls, doors, bus stops, and galleries in 1980, all work that was street had been done on the street. Their distribution tactics – which mimicked those of commercial ad agencies – begat “a radical idea that aimed at a mass shift in public accessibility, awareness, and engagement” with respect to visual art, and fostered a worldwide movement dedicated to ensuring that the unique privilege of showcasing the avant-garde did not belong to the art world’s elite institutions alone.

Richard Hambleton, another living legend among the pioneers of street art, earned his renown in the early 1980s for his “Shadowman” paintings found around NY and later as far as the Berlin Wall. The life-sized silhouettes, often discovered “lurking” in an alley or just around a corner, were strategically placed for maximum effect upon unsuspecting pedestrians. Hambleton’s later creations demonstrated a shift in his artistic sensibilities; pieces from his Beautiful Paintings series, which the artist himself describes as a reaction to the popularity of figurative painting at the time, capture an entirely different kind of mood using metallic/mirror-like surfaces and sometimes even his own blood.

Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History also features the work of NYC native Linus Coraggio, the street artist who earned his renown through the invention of a genre called “3D graffiti”. His work, which is motivated by an “intellectual desire and curiosity to explore new compositional dynamics”, took the form of welded, graffitied constructions found bolted onto signposts around numerous major cities. Coraggio actively participated in the East Village art scene in the early 1980s and is credited with forming the sculpture collective known as the The Rivington School, which created massive sculpture installations on the Lower East Side from 1985 to 1997.

To see the work of all fourteen artists, visit Graffiti vs. Street Art: A History, on display at Bishop Gallery through November 14th.

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