After the disaster in New Orleans, it felt like even the fervent Bush supporters fled the Republican camp like water rushing past a broken levee, and not since Watergate has one generation been so stoutly against the head of state, this writer included. But there is something to smile about. Our generation is not only vocal about these beliefs, but we’ve utilized every medium available to express them.
Altered Esthetic’s Guerilla Art group show is a must-see for those of you still teeming with anger over this past year’s political debauchery. The art was produced by a wildly diverse crowd, from students still hoping to graduate from art school to practiced professionals nearing their 80s.
The crowd’s diversity is second only to the plethora of media employed. Day-Glow tinted screen prints reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s pop perfections, portraits constructed of chunky paint strokes, photos of downtrodden young men on the street and in church, spoken word recordings, video displays, and sculpture made from rusted engine parts fill the winding gallery space on Quincy Street. Their uniting theme is simple: each artist has something to say about today’s government.
Notable names on display include New Yorker Aldo Tambellini, a spoken word artist known for his counter-culture efforts during the sixties. And in Chilean Rodrigo Pradel’s painting, “The Great Election,” a crowd of pale yellow and red figures waves flags at the foot of their leader: a hulking giant with sharp features and a sharper frown.
Another piece that brings awareness to the exploited and downtrodden masses is Dorothy Joan Riley’s “I Know Enough Hate,” which depicts a scene from Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice.” In it, a black man is trapped in a hole with a Caucasian woman and child, while an unmoving crowd watches from afar.
Bush’s visage is seen throughout the gallery: at one point smiling from a glowing screen print; at another, his lip curls as he sits on the john.
Equally common are newspaper clippings announcing wiretapping scandals and more violence in the Middle East. These headlines, which we’ve quickly become accustomed to, are occasionally painted over until one can only barely read the chilling words.
A few miles across town, the 555 Studio is paying homage to another form of anti-establishment artwork: graffiti sprayed onto the sides of trains. These are activist artists of another breed. Under-credited and unpaid, they often work in train yards under the cover of night, where they risk being slapped with criminal charges for the act of self-expression. Often these artists are too unknown to infiltrate the gallery world, and also too anti-establishment to even attempt to enter mainstream venues. Until now.
555 Studio curator and tattoo artist Tom Reif has managed to capture the spirit chugging through the underground graffiti culture in his current exhibit, Rolling Stock. For artists who hit freight trains with their work, only to watch it roll out from the station and encounter places they may never see, passing people they will never meet, the chance to display their names, illustrations, or political ideologies on a static surface is rare, as is the opportunity to do it in a legal, socially acceptable fashion.
Instead of knocking out walls to roll a row of tagged trains inside, Rolling Stock consists of 25 built-to-scale model boxcars. Each 1-by-4-foot tall figure is crafted with incredible attention to detail, right down to the painstakingly small rust discolorations and water spots. The paint, in bright, glowing hues, is a striking contrast to the realistically faded railway logos they cover.
“Hope 4… hope” and “Coupe” are emblazoned on two models, while the epitaph “R.I.P. Heist Phrite” adorns another. Artists used various materials, from paint markers to acrylics to perform the challenging task of working on the curves, textures, and doorframes on the miniature trains.
“The pieces take on a life because they’re on what they are,” says Solo, one of the 45 artists displayed in the exhibit.
This number is a bold indication of the Twin Cities’ thriving underground culture. Reif originally intended to show only 10 artists’ work. But when so many artists clamored for the chance to join the exhibit that he actually had to turn people away for lack of gallery space, Reif realized a second show might be necessary.
Yet graffiti art, and those who create it, are a long way from being accepted by the masses. A front-page headline sitting in newsstands near the 555 Studio reads, “Graffiti from California gang invades Longfellow.” The article’s first line, “Don’t call them artists,” is barely the tip of a long-standing debate over whether graffiti is art or simple vandalism.
While Rolling Stock is a clear example of the former, one can only wonder whether the same critics who hob-knob at prestigious venues like the Minneapolis Institute of Art will turn out at the opening—and if they’ll recognize the hours of work that went into each tiny etchings of spray-painted tags and bombs. It’s not often that a truly original artistic voice shines through the nonsense we’re bombarded with today. So take advantage of it.
Guerilla Art: Art as Activism, will be displayed at Altered Esthetics until Sept. 29; . Rolling Stock will be displayed at the 555 Studio until Oct. 7; .