Art in the Streets exhibit opens at MOCA

Gothic, creepy, futuristic and steampunk-esque sculptures made from toy dinosaur parts, Darth Vader masks, and scrap metal, like work from the late graffitist/rapper/sculptor RAMM:ELL:ZEE, may not be what you immediately picture when somebody says the words "street art," but after traipsing through the massive new exhibit at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, entitled Art in the Streets, you start to realize just how expansive that term can be. Funded by Santa Monica College's own performing art center donors, Eli and Edythe Broad, Art in the Streets is the first extensive art exhibit of its kind.  That is: an exhibit exclusively showcasing the wide range of creative expression that falls under the category of "street art."

Featuring artists ranging from the notoriously famous Banksy and Shepard Fairey, to lesser-known newcomers like graffiti artist SABER or tagger Todd James, Art in the Streets is far from lacking in contributors.

The exhibit is deceivingly small-looking from the outside, with the front windows completely covered (therefore blocking any sunshine from penetrating them) by a huge graffiti tag reading "JOSH" in sparkly silver and matte black, but walk through the doors and as your eyes adjust, you're hit with the vastness of the exhibit; it practically comes out of nowhere.

An amalgam of artwork covered every inch inside of the museum; often brightly colored and always eye-catching, making it hard to know where to start.  Many artists' work exuded emotions like depression and angst, or reflected the general atmosphere, oppression and feelings surrounding the lives of poverty stricken youth (from the artists' respective neighborhoods).

Many works had accompanying videos, driving home the feeling of decrepit neighborhoods and the energy of the kids that fueled the birth of street art, more specifically: graffiti and spray paint art, skateboarding, mural art, video projection and even flash mob type performance art.

For George Abraham, a freshman at SMC and patron of Art in the Streets, a video capturing kids skateboarding with an invisible board was his favorite part of the entire exhibit.  "Graffiti and skating are parallel cultures, so the skating video was interesting for representing a different kind of visual stimulation amongst so much graffiti and color," he said.

But beneath the violently neon, intricately detailed, or just plain stunning pieces of work displayed at the Geffen, lied the gritty reality that was the inspiration.  From the dreary, cement-ridden neighborhoods that many street artists grow up in come splatter painted masterpieces, showing each artist's desperate escape to a cartoon world with much brighter color.

Best stated by featured artist Henry Chalfant, "turning deferred maintenance wrecks into brilliant canvases helps a person overcome the faceless anonymity of contemporary urban life."

But as is the case with most genres of art, there are always multiple reasons to create.  A high foot-traffic area of the exhibit was the "Fun Gallery," originally created in 1981 by Patti Astor and her partner Bill Stelling.  The gallery is described by a plaque on the white wall exterior as "an epicenter of early 80s attitude [and an] explosion of art, music and dance."

RAMM:ELL:ZEE's work takes up an entire room, 100 percent soaked in black light, with his rap music, often dubbed "gangsta duck" style because of his quack-like rapping style, blaring at you while you take in an overwhelming collection of sculptures that look like they were made in a dusty old basement by a loony agoraphobic dude.  Neon splatter paint covers all four walls of RAMM:ELL:ZEE's room, and it's filled with glowing, Cheshire cat-like levitating teeth due to the black light illuminating everyone's pearly whites.

The "gothic futurism" (a term created by the exhibit) realm of RAMM:ELL:ZEE, mixed with the adjoined "Cosmic Fun" room, a tiny cram-packed collage of yellow, green, pink and orange neon covered trash—organized in a cluttered mess type of way—haphazardly attached to what would've been plain white walls, completed by various iconic stick figure creations by Keith Haring or the abstract graffiti-like work of Jean Michael Basquiat.  Abraham added "the Fun Gallery was like stepping into a completely different world.  You could really get wrapped up in it."

Through Art in the Streets, which will be calling the Geffen Contemporary home until Aug. 8, 2011, street art has formally made its presence known in the art world, to be taken seriously as a new genre, capable of being compared to veterans like romanticism or modernism.