I’ve been riding the NYC subway lines for nearly a decade now and must admit that sometimes, when I’m waiting for a train, I look into the darkness of the tunnel and have an urge to jump down and follow the tracks towards the blue light and wherever they lead me. I actually thought that this must be a pretty common feeling, given the propensity of graffiti on the walls between stations, but when I revealed this desire to some friends a few weeks ago, they gave me a long, hard look and quite clearly told me that this feeling, was in fact, not normal. I think I need new friends. Well, don’t get me wrong, I love them, but sometimes I do wish that they were more adventurous. Especially when stories like that of the Underbelly Project breaks and it was revealed that yes, there are no shortage of people who are willing to hop down into the tracks and wander into the darkness in order to explore the bowels of the NYC underground and leave behind hidden treats for subsequent adventurous spirits.

And what a treat it was for street art followers on Halloween, when the most comprehensive street art exhibition ever put together was unveiled by a freelance journalist by the name of Jasper Rees in the New York Times and in the National (it was also in the Sunday Times London, but you need a subscription to read that article). Since then, the word on the lips of every street art junkie has been “Underbelly.” Except this exhibition was actually a trick: the art wasn’t on the street, and almost no one will ever be able see it. Aptly named “the Underbelly Project” because it’s part of the hidden underground of NYC, the Underbelly Project has taken graffiti and street art back to its non-commercial roots, echoing the prolific period of NYC subway art of the 1970s and 1980s.

It wasn’t hard to figure out which abandoned station the Underbelly Project resides in (as I always say, with a bit of fingerwork, you can figure out anything with the help of the Internet). Since the exhibition was made public, urban spelunkers and subway lore fanatics have pinpointed the site to be that of the Broadway/South 4th Street Station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The history of the station is also a fascinating one (read more here): back in 1929 and 1939, when NYC was working to build up its subway system, Broadway/South 4th Station was to be a major transfer and connection point for the IND Second System. However, work began before the city even knew if funding for the remainder of the line would ever materialize. When World War II and the subsequent onset of the automobile age put a grinding halt to subway expansion, the project was halted and the 6 track station remained incomplete. Therefore, the South 4th Street Station is not an abandoned subway station (as it had never been functional) so much as it is a forsaken dream. However, it was at this shell station that two NYC street artists, PAC and Workhorse, realized a different dream: to showcase the work of a collection of street artists (both graffiti artists and fine artists) together in a non-commercialized exhibition space.

For the past 18 months in a series of about 75 visits, Workhorse and PAC have been escorting a total of 103 artists into the station to leave their creative marks on the walls. The rules were simple: only one trip per artist, which meant that they had about four solid hours to paint and had to walk into the site with all the equipment that they would need to finish their work. What I personally find most fascinating about this project is the representative cross-section of street artists. An estimate by the organizers pegs about 10% of the artists as female (which seems fairly representative in my opinion). Additionally, there are a good mix of both established and new artists, and quite a few international artists as well. Most interestingly, graffiti artists and fine artists have works exhibited side by side without the disconnect and friction that is sometimes seen above ground. Works by graffiti artists such as Demer and Asylum are next to works by fine artists such as Swoon and Ron English.

The roster of artists drawn to the project by the organizers is very impressive (although we must remember that these are friends, or referrals, so please don’t think of this as a “Best of Street Art” list, but rather those who were both in the know and able/available to work in NYC). From various sources, we can identify the works of Boxi, Ethos, London Police, SheOne, Remi Rough, Stormie Mills, Damon Ginandes, Lucy MacLauchlan, Swoon, Logan Hicks, Aiko, Faile, Ron English, Flying Fortress, Imminent Disaster, Dan Witz, Elbow Toe, Ripo, Peru Ana Ana Peru, Michael De Feo, WK Interact, Roa, Specter, Demer, Momo, Posterchild, Saber, Trusto Corp, Sinboy, Cash4, Rone Nick Walker, Revok, Ceaze, Know Hope, L’Atlas, M-City, Mark Jenkins, Meggs, Kid Acne, Lister, Jeff Soto, Smith/Sane, Gaia, Noh J Coley, Jim Darling, Thundercut, Daryll Peirce, Surge, Spazmat, Ema, Joe Lurato, Guilerme, JMR, Asylum, Gould, Indigo, Jeff Stark, Bigfoot, Kid Zoom, Strafe, to name a few (no particular order).

When Rees asked Workhorse why he and PAC have spent over a year curating an exhibition that nearly no one will ever see, Workhorse recited their statement of purpose: “In the beginning, street art was something you did because you didn’t fit in anywhere else. But for the last few years urban art was getting ridiculous. You could go out with some cute little character that you drew, or some quirky saying, and put it up everywhere for a few months, then do a gallery show and cash in on the sudden interest in urban art. It really was that easy for a while. Banksy pieces that were selling for $600 one year were suddenly selling for $100,000 a few years later. It was commercialism at its worst. The Underbelly was our way of feeling like we were an island again. We finally had a space in the world that collectors couldn’t contaminate. A space that couldn’t be bought.”

While I understand that this is a completely valid train of thought, I disagree with its sentiment. Look, I understand the desire to be naughty and self-indulgent and to go against the establishment. But street art isn’t just the newest hot commodity that’s been appropriated by every Sharpie-welding, sticker-slapping, stencil-making egomanic who wants to make a buck: it’s a great mode of expression and still attracts and inspires a certain type of recklessness. And yes, while a part of me despises the commercialism of the art game, we’ve got to realize that all this attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing: in fact, it’s legitimizing a form of art that should have been recognized as such decades ago. And I think that street art and graffiti deserves that kind of attention, and deserves to be recognized as an important urban cultural movement and genre in art history textbooks.

So in that sense, I completely agree with the lads at Graffoto (as in, don’t blame us for wanting to legitamize and expose your secret lifestyle). But I do respect and admire the fact that Underbelly has brought the risk back into art, and at least they’ve admitted that their interest was in creating art for the sheer sake of creating art, and that they just wanted to get a bunch of people together and do something a bit reckless that harkened back to the golden days of subway art. I’m glad they’ve gone to the press to let the world know about it, too. It might sound a little self-serving to the untrained ear, but the implications are much larger: art can exist everywhere, and artists are still having fun creating it. And with the shift of this type of art into the gallery-space, where trained curators will recontextualize it all and trained conservators will be concerned with its archival preservation, I think that this project was very important in that it it will serve to function as a last great guerrilla hurrah.

But of course, there are those of us who will still want to search out street art, or hidden architecture, or an urban adventure. To those of you who are tempted to search out this particular underground adventure, I would highly advise against it, as it’s both dangerous and illegal. Since news of the project broke, it has been revealed that much of the art has already been tagged up by a few disgruntled locals, and a few dozen people have been arrested in their attempt to climb down into the tracks in search of the artwork. The MTA, as is expected, don’t seem too pleased about the revelation of the Underbelly Project, and have taken a few measures of their own to prevent exploration, including stationing plainclothes cops on the platform. Though they have reiterated that such wanderings are deemed illegal as trespassing, they have simultaneously assured the public that they won’t be taking any measures to actively remove any artwork. (Though, as a conservator-in-training, I feel this point is moot and am forced to shake my head at PAC’s hopeful assessment that the pieces of the Underbelly Project will last three or four decades. In the end, it’s no more permanent than the art that many of these artists have created above ground.) Therefore, this unfinished station will retain these artworks as a poignant reminder that street art is ephemeral, and that no matter how hard we look, we’re bound to miss some of it.

Instead, keep your eyes and browser on the Underbelly Project website, which promises completion soon and will likely feature a comprehensive list of contributing artists, more photos, statements, and hopefully time-lapse video. Until then, the New York Times article has provided this video for your enjoyment. Also, please note that most photos in this post (except for the wide angle of the station, that was from the New York Times) were taken from Luna Park’s site. Definitely worth a visit, as she has managed to capture a significant portion of an unbelievable body of work.

I first heard about Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop earlier this year, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February. I was really excited to watch it because I was sure it would provide a glimpse into the life and thought process of the incredible infamous and equally elusive British street artist Banksy, whose works have appeared everywhere from his native city of Bristol to the wall that divides Israel and Palestine. His repertoire does not just include stencils and spray but playful installations and elaborate hoaxes. In fact, in 2009, he gained additional notoriety by pirating the walls of a public Bristol museum, where he hung his own artworks and captions, as well as through his dolphin ride installation, which had been done in response to BP’s oil spill. Most recently, he has even been credited with directing the opening sequence of the October 11, 2010 episode of The Simpsons.

But this is not a post about Banksy, nor is this a film about Banksy. “What?” you may ask, incredulously, “but it’s A Banksy Film!” At first, I was a little disappointed too, but to be honest, viewers knew that this would be the case fairly early on, when a hooded Banksy with altered voice gave a brief introduction to the film. Think of this film more as a Banksy project, if that helps you wrap your head around the massive amounts of disappointment that I’m sure you’re feeling right now. But take solace in the fact, dear reader, that although Banksy and his own art appear only sporadically throughout the film, Exit Through the Gift Shop still serves as a wonderful introduction into the world of street art, and its message makes this film a prime example of a Banksy project.

So yes, although this film was not what I had originally expected, it was still incredibly enjoyable and informative. Aptly termed “the world’s first street art disaster movie,” it definitely provides a rather candid glimpse into the nocturnal adventures (both failed and successful) of a variety of street artists. Aside from Banksy, big names such as Space Invader, Monsieur Andre, Zeus, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, Sweet Toof, Ron English, Dotmasters, Swoon, Borf, Buffmonster and their works all made appearances in the film. And although it was a movie originally intended to be about street art and Banksy, it soon becomes quite clear how and why it developed into a documentary about the eccentric man behind the camera.

Meet Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat living in Los Angeles, who ran a vintage clothing store and developed the rather peculiar obsession of filming absolutely anything and everything on his camera. While on holiday in France, he began filming the work of his cousin, street artist Space Invader and was soon drawn into the burgeoning street art scene. Upon returning to L.A., he continued seeking out the rising stars of the street art scene, a process that was aided greatly by his cousin, then by Shepard Fairey, who though reluctant at first, accepts Guetta as first a tagalong who happens to have a camcorder and then lookout on his nighttime wanderings. Guetta dives into his role with enthusiastic incompetence and films everything with a blundering sense of awe. His filming, finally having been given the direction and focus that it had previously lacked, leads Guetta to inadvertently take up the task of documenting this ephemeral genre of contemporary art.

Eventually, Guetta develops a desire to meet the infamous Banksy, an artist who he believes will complete his comprehesive record of street artists. Fate somehow brings Banksy to the West Coast, and Shepard Fairey introduces him to Guetta, who has developed the reputation of the man for out-of-town street artists to contact to get everything from supplies to information on the best walls to a nighttime ride. Soon Guetta is faithfully shadowing the elusive Banksy, even traveling with him to England to record his workshop and capture his projects.

Spoiler alert!! For those of you who want to find out for yourselves how this movie unfolds, and are only interested in the critical review and analysis, please skip ahead to the paragraph after the Life is Beautiful wall picture!

Meanwhile, inspired by the works of the artists around him, and eager to take part in what looked like a good time, it is revealed that Guetta has started experimenting with the mass dissemination of images via stickers and wheat-pasting under the psuedonym Mister Brainwash (MBW) and it comes to light that Thierry Guetta had been accumulating thousands of hours of footage with no real intention of editing it together to create a comprehensive documentary. Meanwhile, Banksy is preparing for his big debut show in L.A., Barely Legal. After this monumental US show, the commercial market for street art in contemporary art collections started to boom. It was at this time that Banksy decided that the time was right to show the world that street art was a messy business and that it had never been about the money. Faced with Banksy’s challenge to finally create a film, Thierry Guetta finally starts to edit his accumulated tapes.

Six months later, Guetta flies to London to show Banksy his almost-complete film, Life Remote Control. Banksy is absolutely flabbergasted and slightly terrified with the result, saying that the film was like someone with ADHD had gotten a hold of a remote control and was flipping through TV channels for 90 minutes. Keeping the tapes in an attempt to create a more complete and accurate documentary which would better portray the importance of street art as captured by Thierry Guetta, Banksy gives Guetta an assignment designed to distract: go home to L.A., create some art, and put on a show.

Thierry Guetta throws himself into this project, fully adopting the MBW persona, and invests in a production line of artists and assistants, working to churn out prints of altered pop culture icons in a thoroughly Warhol-esque manner (but with none of the Warhol irony). Eager to please Banksy, MBW excitedly prepares for his huge gallery debut, appropriating a huge studio for installations, prints, and other assorted projects. Meanwhile a change is occurring in this central character: the blundering but otherwise endearing Thierry Guetta slowly transforms into an art world douchbag. Constantly on his cell phone, he becomes concerned mostly with hype, and attempts to become the biggest and hottest commodity in L.A. He sells pieces ahead of the show with arbitrary price tags, most of which are dependent on the object’s size, and often in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hours before the show he transforms into a control freak who is concerned with only interviews and handshakes. But despite the massive amounts of disorganization and procrastination, manages to pull off a critical success of a show that is attended by thousands of people. After the exhibition, he appears arrogant and self-satisfied, pleased to have finally established his place among the legendary street artists he had been filming for the past decade. Meanwhile, Banksy and Shepard Fairey show a certain amount of disdain for the pointlessness of MBW’s art, and seem uncertain as to what to make of the public sensationalism surrounding MBW.

Directed and produced by a notorious and mysterious trickster, this film has been widely called nothing more than an elaborate hoax, and has even been classified as a “prankumentary” by New York Times film critic Jeanette Catsoulis. I personally disagree with her assessment because it’s absolutely possible for someone to fall into a career over the course of a year and a half and create massive amounts of art when they’ve hired a production line of assistants. Some have even speculated that MBW was created for the purpose of the documentary. But the question as to whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a case of life following art or art following life is irrelevant, because it’s the introduction and message that’s important.

The first act of Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary about street art, as seen through the exuberant eyes of Thierry Guetta, and the second act of this film becomes a documentary about Guetta as MBW. MBW becomes the perfect juxtaposition for street artists like Shepard Fairey, who has spent years finding his style, and Banksy, who is very thoughtful with his projects. While most artists spend their time developing their technique, finding their style, and thinking about the meaning of their works, MBW found his style quite quickly and almost accidentally, and uses repetition and gigantism without too much thought. Interviews taken during MBW’s debut exhibition show viewers praising the work as revolutionary, and assigning value to objects that clearly have none.

So perhaps this film isn’t so much a documentary, but more of an exposé. More than that, this film highlights the relationship between the world of street art and the world of contemporary/pop art in its second act. With a note of irony that only street artist can provide, this film raises questions regarding issues such as the monetary valuation of artwork, the commercialization of street art, and the appropriation of images. Perhaps most interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop underscores the pretentiousness of the contemporary art scene. So yes, this film makes you think. And, more than that, it successfully does what it was meant to do: provide the viewer with a glimpse into the chaotic world of street art and give them a good time while doing it.

Exit Through the Gift Shop will be digitally available for both rent and purchase on iTunes and Video on Demand channels beginning November 23, 2010 and available on DVD (with awesome extras, like a version of Life Remote Control) on December 14, 2010. I definitely suggest watching this film with some friends, not just because it raises a lot of quite interesting questions and topics that you’ll most likely want someone to talk to, but because it’s just that good of a ride. And the best part is that you don’t need to be a street art buff to love this movie. For all my analysis, it’s simply a great introduction into the world of street art, and just a lot of fun to watch.

For those of you who want more background on the film, here’s a wonderful interview with the producer and editor of Exit Through the Gift Shop with Movie City News about the documentary that never really existed. And, here‘s an interesting interview with Shepard Fairey about the film as well.

I first encountered Swoon peering out at me from a black doorway near the corner of Chambers Street and West Broadway during my senior year of high school (2005) on the way to my afterschool job. It was a print of a thin man who sort of stared out at the street from the corner of his eyes; a man who looked as if he were simultaneously emerging from and receding into the doorway. Amid the pedestrian traffic, I stopped and stepped closer. Even more impressive, I was delighted to discover, was the intricate level of detail in the print: a Chinese imperial roofed building had been integrated into his shoulder, and opened up further down into a street scene with dozens of people where his torso and legs should have been. The detail was stunning and the piece poignantly echoed the Chinatown community less than a mile away. Every day for about a week, I would cast admiring glances in its direction, stopping to look more closely if I had a few minutes to spare. Part of me hoped that other pedestrians would see me stopped and take a few moments themselves to look at this work of art (but aside from a few rather suspicious sideways glances, that never happened).

The paste-up became more and more ragged until one day, some thoughtless tagger scrawled a red mark across the man’s face and chest, completely blocking the intricate details that I had fallen in love with. I was almost relieved when, two days later, natural conditions left it in tatters and barely recognizable as the work it once was. After four years, I still couldn’t stop thinking about that man in the doorway. And so, during my senior year of university four years later (2009), for my Folk and Outsider Art History Seminar, I decided to finally figure out who the mysterious figure in the doorway was, and that I would do my research paper on his equally mysterious creator.

Google led me to Swoon, an artist who had moved to New York City for art school, and had become inspired by the rich street art scene. Her objection to the sedentary, institutionalized, and archival nature of academic art fueled her decision to create art using non-archival materials within a context that not only promoted the decay of the piece but allowed it to interact with its environment and reflect its community. Since 1999, Swoon has been a prolific street artist, and her wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate paper cutouts could be found in various corners of New York City, as well as in Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cuba, London, Berlin, and a number of other European cities. Swoon has worked with various artist groups and collectives including Toy Shop, Glowlab, Black Label, Change Agent, the Madagascar Institute, the Barnstormers, Justseeds, and is a founding member of Miss Rockaway Armada.

In the summer of 2005, Swoon was granted her first solo exhibition at Deitch Projects, where she installed her collection of wheatpaste prints and cutouts and transformed the façade of the building into a sprawling cityscape. Since then, she has shown internationally, both inside the institution and out on the street, and has become widely recognized as one of the foremost female influences in the international street art scene. More recently, her 2008 exhibition of paper cutouts called “Portrait of Sylvia Elena” in alternative Chelsea exhibition area Honey Space memorialized one of the first victims in the widespread killings of young women in Juárez, Mexico. Aside from her prints and cutouts, she has taken part in several homemade flotilla projects, including “Swimming Cities of Serenissima” in 2007 down the Mississippi; “Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea” in 2008 down the Hudson River and up the East River from Troy to Deitch Studios (at which she had an accompanying installation); and “the Clutchess of Cuckoo” in 2009 from Slovenia (in boats made of New York City garbage) to crash the Vienna Biennale. But most recently, Swoon has returned to her roots in street art by posting up her wheatpaste cutouts on the streets of northern Philadelphia for Philagrafika 2010, a printmaking festival.

Her recent publication Swoon (released May 2010 with an accompanying exhibition at Urban Art Projects in Brooklyn), which documents her prints as a street artist, finally revealed her real name to the world (it’s Caledonia “Callie” Dance Curry). Additionally, several of her pieces have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City. But throughout her success, her mission remains to make her art available to the public and to create a community in which its occupants are in constant dialogue with one another, or at least taking an active interest in their public spaces.

Although she has partaken in numerous projects since her arrival on the street art scene, it is her life-sized wheatpaste newspaper prints and intricate cutouts that initially gained the attention of the art world. Swoon’s prints can most frequently be found in the forgotten corners of otherwise obvious public spaces. Despite this, she picks her spots carefully, exploring neglected space and walls with interesting textures. Her backdrops include abandoned buildings, rundown warehouses, and broken-looking walls. Because she is interested in the history and texture of the wall, this feature is not hidden, but rather enhanced by the thin newsprint paper. Also, with her cutouts, the figures are intricately cut to reveal the wall that they rest on. This opens up a dialogue between the artwork and the wall, as it works to reveal the wall’s material and history (previous tags and works).

When she first began creating her block print posters, Swoon was heavily influenced by Gordon Matta-Clark, an American artist best known for his temporary site-specific works, specifically his “building cuts,” a series of for which he removed various sections of floors, ceilings, and walls in abandoned buildings in the 1970s. Because these buildings were slated for demolition, only a limited number of people would be able to see it. Similarly, Swoon’s wheatstarch newspaper prints can only survive for a relatively brief period, as they are exposed to the elements. Swoon understands that because of the fragility of her materials and the exposure to weather conditions, the pieces will soon disappear completely from the wall space.

The classification of Swoon’s art by its materials (newspaper and wheatstarch paste) are of particular importance because they stress the temporary quality of the work. She does not consider what she is doing illegal, and instead pastes her prints up unabashedly, sometimes in the middle of the day, which allows passersby to interact with her as she is hanging them, inviting a performance aspect to her piece. In spite of this impermanent aspect of her work, is it classified under the same category as permanent defacement of property.

But for the brief time that the print does remain, Swoon wants them to become part of the space they inhabit, and to interact with its community in “a human way.” And so, these life-size prints of people work to reclaim the visual landscape and to create dialogue and interest in the community through their presence. Additionally, because the works are based on snapshots of everyday city life, they create a dialogue between the viewer and the happenings of the city around them. For example, one piece with the man sitting on the box is based on a time that Swoon saw a man ticketed for the illegal use of a milk crate, which he was sitting on in the middle of the street. Swoon thought this was ridiculous, because people should be able to use the streets as public spaces. This, she feels, is equivalent to encouraging the people to not use the streets as public spaces. With this in mind, she immediately went to work pasting up men on milkcrates around the city.

It has been argued that community has been a casualty of the contemporary urban lifestyle. In urban settings, most people live without any sense of rootedness or belonging. Therefore, many cities seem not to be communities at all, but mere agglomerations of transient strangers. As with prison populations, those of us who live in cities have perfected the art of minding our own business, being disinterested, not making a fuss, and not maintaining eye contact for long. This disassociation is reflected in our lack of use and care of our public spaces.

Street art works to defy this mentality that we’ve created for ourselves. It challenges us to take back our space and become active participants in the public realm. It challenges us to stop and stare. Swoon has long been one of my favorite street artists because she uses her paper people to revitalize the communities that they inhabit. Through her artistic vision and expression, Swoon attempts to create a dialogue among community members about urban living, space, life, and meaning. Through the dynamic materiality of her life-sized subjects, she creates a dialogue between herself and her audience, and between her audience and her works. In this way, Swoon transforms disassociated and ignored public spaces into places and increases interaction with aspects of the urban landscape which would otherwise go unnoticed. By adding a temporary character to places we otherwise might have overlooked, she simultaneously reminds us to not take our surroundings for granted and that we have the right to enjoy our public spaces.

I haven’t provided many links to particular sites because Swoon’s been pretty widely written about. There are tons of photologs, articles, and interviews out there, so if you’re interested, get Googling!

Dear reader, I have a terrible confession to make: I have been putting off writing this post for as long as this blog has been in existence. I had first discovered Deitch in 2008, while researching street artist Swoon for a seminar class at University, and promptly fell in love with their whimsical website and unique mission. Soon after returning to New York City in June 2009, I went to visit their exhibition spaces and was instantly impressed with everything about Deitch. Imagine my intense sadness when I heard the announcement in January 2010: Jeffrey Deitch, founder and proprietor of Deitch Projects, would be closing up shop in June 2010 to become director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. It couldn’t be! It wasn’t fair! I had just returned to New York City and I was eager to revel in urban art and Deitch Projects was to be one of the mythical gateways that would allow me to better glimpse SoHo’s legendary contemporary art scene.

It was only with terrible longing that came the realization that I really couldn’t put this post off any longer, especially since Deitch’s last associated project had just recently ended. And so, a few days ago, I finally sat down to write this post. After my hiatus, it seems only appropriate that I open with both a tearful goodbye and a thoughtful reminiscence. I apologize in advance for the lengthiness of this post (and the lack of pictures in it), but there was no way, in good conscious, that I could minimize the importance of Deitch Projects. Therefore, dear reader, this post will be my testament and farewell letter to Deitch.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of an era. Mr. Deitch closed the doors of his remaining private galleries, and on October 3, 2010, the last event associated with Deitch Projects came to an end. Having once boasted three primary exhibition spaces on Wooster Street, on Grand Street, and in Long Island City (by 2010, this number had dropped to two shortly before Deitch Projects had closed, as the Grand Street location had closed earlier than the other locations), a wall space on the corner of Houston and Bowery Streets, as well as numerous other temporary installation sites around the city, Deitch Projects, for the past 13 years, has been synonymous with SoHo’s contemporary art scene. For over a decade, Deitch has been associated with the names of prominent contemporary performance and urban artists such as Yoko Ono, Vanessa Beecroft, Barry McGee (aka Twist), Jeff Koons, Dash Snow, Swoon, and most recently, Keith Haring, Os Gêmeos, and Shepard Fairey (these last three actually had magnificent projects exhibited with Deitch just this past year, and believe me, dear reader, I am sorry that I didn’t tell you to go see them as they were happening).

As is to be expected, Mr. Jeffrey Deitch is himself quite the character. Aside from his trademark designer spectacles, he had starred in the 2006 reality TV show Artstar (which, having lacked the personal drama and eliminations that characterize reality TV show competitions, would have been more appropriately billed as a Deitch Project art documentary/infomercial in 8 parts), and is well-known for his eccentricity and enthusiasm for hosting the most fabulously flashy and chaotic events.

The term “revolutionary” tends to be thrown around a lot in the art world (mostly in reference to artists, so I feel a little less guilty about using the word in this context), so trust me, I thought long and hard before deciding to use that word in my writings. However, Jeffery Deitch’s vision for Deitch Projects could indeed be characterized as such. Let me spin you a story: once upon a time in the 1960s and 70s in happenin’ New York City, art was being appropriated by a radical bunch of artists who regarded art as a vibrant expression and reflection of life itself. These artists were seeking non-traditional media with which to represent their radical modern ideas. They were looking to change the very meaning of the word and were inviting everyone to discover the true meaning of art with them. Artists did what they wanted, dammit. Meanwhile, art was springing up in unexpected places and was getting attention from everybody. Throughout the 80s, art became widely celebrated as a spectacle that was no longer confined to museums and as a constantly evolving force that both affected and actively engaged its viewers.

Sometime in between then and now, alternative exhibition spaces and workshops that reflected the lively nature of the art began dwindling in numbers (since NEA funding dried up in the 90s and rent throughout the city began drastically increasing), and the wild art scene matured into a relatively tame fixture in New York City, giving birth to the hundreds of private galleries which now inhabit the Lower East Side in the process. Although they provided a departure from traditional spaces, such as larger museums, the atmospheres offered by these institutions were very much the same (albeit commercialized). The galleries no longer gave the artist total control. In galleries, no matter how contemporary the art, they have invariably come to be entombed in their bland prison cells…I mean, positioned carefully in spotless exhibition spaces that boast pictures in frames and objects on pedestals…which is of course, where they belong.

Deitch however, was no such white box. Deitch Projects realized that the best art came from unrestricted artists, and this made it a good time for everyone in the process. The physical gallery spaces comprised simply of a single white room, true, but it wasn’t just what was in the exhibition space that made Deitch Projects a pillar in the SoHo contemporary art world. The room was merely an anchor, a base of operation, for the numerous projects sponsored by Deitch. In the past, Deitch Projects has collaborated with musicians to create shows (such as Björk, Scissor Sisters, and Fischerspooner), sponsored extravagant annual art parades (seriously, Google some pictures), and affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood by inviting artists to utilize their façade and an otherwise broken-down wall less than a mile away.

Understandably, Deitch Projects attracted the attention not just of the art-lovers of high society and established contemporary artists, but simultaneously engaged a more radical and diverse audience and group of artists. The focus at Deitch was not only on the artwork(s) that inhabited the gallery space and the artist(s) who created it, but in actively rejoicing in the very idea of art through performances and events. By involving those working on the outskirts of mainstream contemporary art scene, Deitch Projects stepped out of the gallery and added a new dimension to the contemporary art scene. Also, by not limiting itself to its gallery space, Deitch Projects had invited a whole new audience to share the experience of art.

So the question remains as to who will champion the contemporary art scene in New York City now that Deitch is gone. Sure, Mr. Deitch has made sure that the artists whom he has represented have found alternative representation, and sure, anyone who has spent more than five minutes wandering around the Lower East Side will realize that there is no shortage of contemporary art galleries to continue propagating the well established and newcomers to the contemporary art scene alike. But as art critic and Paper Magazine senior editor Carlo McCormick has said, Mr. Deitch “understands how a T-shirt can be a signifier, or how being a skateboarder gives you a particular view of the world, or what it means to be a graffiti artist, and…[that] studio practice that isn’t just a shitty, watered-down version of what you do on the street.” And that, my friend, is the keen eye that the SoHo contemporary art scene is now without.

Unfortunately, some don’t appreciate the importance of Deitch’s work in New York City. Critic Bruce Hackney (who was previously the managing director of the Yvon Lambert Gallery in Chelsea and now runs his own management company for artists) has accused Mr. Deitch of simply creating a brand name for himself and his gallery. And that brand says “young, hip, trendy, cool: lots of chaos and irreverence.” Apparently, Mr. Hackney believes that radicalism in contemporary art is no longer necessary or relevant. But what you seem to be focusing on, Mr. Hackney, is the style of the creators without the context of their culture. What you seem to be forgetting, Mr. Hackney, is that art isn’t limited to the gallery, and that it is precisely for the reason that art can come from anywhere (even the L train, as much as it pains me to admit) and can affect everyone.

Mary Boone (of Mary Boone Gallery, est. 1977 on Fifth Avenue) has stated that she doesn’t believe downtown’s art scene will change much, despite the departing of this legendary figure. But I think Stephan Stoyanov (of Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in SoHo) understands it best: “It’s going to leave a void. He took a lot of risks over the years- I can’t say that for a lot of our colleagues in Chelsea. For the last several years, if you went to Chelsea, it’s always just painting, painting, painting. Jeffrey was never afraid.” And it’s true, because no matter how you spin it, through his unique collaborations and sponsorships, Mr. Deitch had spent over a decade striving to bring outsider art to the mainstream of the contemporary art scene, and to bring a new audience into the art world. Mr. Deitch was, in essence, redefining contemporary art the way the radical artists of the 60s had done. Through his chaotic events, Jeffrey Deitch was breathing a new life into the New York City art scene. And there is a distinct flavor that will be lost once the remnants of Mr. Deitch’s galleries stop functioning for good.

However, despite what I’ve made it sound like, Mary Boone was right after all: Deitch hasn’t died, he’s just moved on. The artists of New York City will continue to create art and the contemporary art scene will continue to evolve without his patronage. I know that Mr. Deitch will bring his unique energy and revolutionary vision with him to the Museum of Contemporary Art and to Los Angeles, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck there. It’s just that it must be said: Mr. Deitch, New York City will never be the same without you.

Please note, quotes were taken from The Observer article “Dear Jeffrey Deitch: Thanks for Never Being Boring!” from January 12, 2010.

A Note on My Lengthy Hiatus

Posted: October 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

While I do want to refrain from becoming overly personal in this blog (aside from interjecting my opinions on the urban landscape and artists, of course), I must admit that it’s become somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that I’ve taken a rather long hiatus relatively early into this blog’s lifespan. So let me take a moment to quickly explain: what with interviews for graduate schools in London in the Spring (I’ve been accepted and will be moving there in time for Fall 2011, just so you know), getting sucked into the World Cup this Summer (shoutout to Unsere Jungs, DFB ’10), and starting a new full-time job this Fall, as well as trying to actively engage in some semblance of a social life (I am, after all, leaving my lifelong home of NYC in less than a year), I’ve been rather busy. Therefore, my idealism in regards to updating this blog every week with an in-depth and somewhat academic review (and not merely “check this out” or picture posts) had been long since blasted to smithereens.

Each time I did get an urge to update this blog during one of life’s brief pauses, I became painfully disheartened by the fact that I hadn’t updated in such a long while, and soon gave up hope entirely for this now-defunct blog. However, as things came to settle down in my life (probably the calm before another storm), and with the gentle urging from a good friend from University whom I saw this past weekend, I have become excited to post once more, especially now that I have fully accepted that there is no way I will be able to update as often as I would like, and that I will nearly never be able to stay one step ahead of the urban art scene…

Unfortunately, in the course of this hiatus, I have missed a host of exhibitions, book releases, new documentaries, and events that I did want to discuss as they occurred, such as the closing of Deitch galleries this past summer, the reopening of 5 Pointz and their International Meeting of Styles this past fall, the release of Banksy’s movie “Exit Through The Gift Shop,” as well as a host of events from just this past weekend, such as the Trespass book launch, the “stickers” launch party, the Art In Odd Places lecture, the Conflux festival, the re:form school…NYC being the delta of the urban art scene that it is…the list goes on and on. Because I still want to discuss them, future articles posted will be more of a retrospective rather than current news.

So, dear friend, please excuse my extended absence, and know that I haven’t forgotten about the ever-changing street art scene, and that I am currently researching some articles to go up as soon as possible!

Like most underground hotspots, walking past The Garment Room is a very easy thing to do if you don’t know it’s there, especially because it’s literally underground. Located in the lower level of 112 Greene Street (between Prince and Spring Streets), the façade of the building is extremely unassuming and its only form of advertising are a poster in the window reading “The Garment Room” and a sign stand that says “Vintage Vintage Vintage.”

Though advertised primarily as a boutique featuring highly sought after vintage garments from haute couture designers, The Garment Room is not merely another trendy SoHo clothing store. In fact, it’s probably the one of the larger and more diverse testaments of street art in New York City. This becomes evident as you descend the staircase into the lower level (where you are first hit with an explosion of grunge-style art and are swept back into what a punk club or a subway tunnel must have looked like in the 80s). Inside The Garment Room, the juxtaposition of haute couture with the colorful street art is definitely unexpected.


Once known as the infamous 112 Workshop in the 70s and 80s, 112 Greene Street originally offered exhibition space for the first generation of conceptual and performance artists who emerged as the Vietnam War and racism were ripping the country apart and the economy was tanking. It was there that new genres of art such as installation and performance were invented and some of the most influential artists of the day came to create and collaborate. Most of the work was made on site and artists were given almost complete control to curate their shows and create works to challenge and inspire the public. Embodying the very nature of street art, artists used found and ephemeral objects to site-specific installations, accepting that their work would probably not last the week.

About a year ago, before The Garment Room moved into 112 Greene Street, monster street artist and Harlem native Royce Bannon (a central figure in the Endless Love Crew collective) curated a show with music producers Steven Loeb and John Robie that was intended to allow the space to reclaim its original purpose: being an alternative space for the exhibition of art. This show, in effect, created the backdrop to what would eventually become The Garment Room. The show “Work to Do,” featured dozens of street artists (many of whom are also associated with the Endless Love Crew collective), remained intact as the property was transferred. With paintings on the pillars, walls, floors, and ceilings, The Garment Room continues to be a veritable explosion of visual stimulation. Rather than delete this important part of 112 Greene Street’s history, owner Tiffany Nicole has maintained the pieces as a tribute to the spirit of collaboration and lively discourse inherent to this space. In this way, The Garment Room definitely stays true to the idea and history of 112 Greene Street.

The Garment Room’s website states that they have worked to fuse the “respect for expression and color, passion and dreams, hustle and triumph, and most importantly, respect for those who dedicate their life to the creation of beauty. The Garment Room is a tribute to any and everything creative. We are the sanctuary that welcomes the freedom of exploration and originality, a refuge void of restraints where nothing matters but the irrepressible passion for art and the desire to immerse oneself into the world around it.”

Tiffany Nicole is not only the owner of The Garment Room, but curator of current art exhibitions there as well. Staying true to the ephemeral nature of the space, she is constantly updating the space by inviting artists to add their creativity to the space by spraying on the walls (such as NME and Leif), creating installations (such as with the lightwork of Dean Radinovsky), and showcasing their artwork (such as Victor Koslov and Fernando de Souza) in The Garment Room. Adhering to the tradition of creation, a section of The Garment Room has even been retained as an exhibition room and active studio space for visiting artists.

Most people go to 112 Greene Street with the intention to shop, but to those who come specifically to look at the paintings and installations, the employees are very helpful in assisting with inquiries and are as knowledgeable in talking about a piece or an artist as they are in talking about clothes and designers. They let you poke around and explore the hidden corners of the shop which is covered to the last square inch.To take pictures, they ask only for a small donation that will go to funding visiting artists. I talked with Jason, who was able to give me some insight into the history of the establishment and point out some of the pieces, and Dean Radinovsky, an artist who dropped into The Garment Room as we were talking.

Although we can’t characterize this collection as street art because it does not influence the urban landscape, it is worthy of mention and a visit not only because the work of several dozen urban street artists are prominently featured in this space, but because it represents street-artist collaboration and a non-traditional collection as well. Whether you enjoy art, design, or fashion, there’s something for everyone who values culture to enjoy there. Normally open Friday to Sunday 1-7, The Garment Room is definitely worth a visit.

Special thanks to my good friend Ryan, who came exploring with me and took about 70 awesome pictures of this space. I only posted a selection because you really need to see this place for yourselves!

In 1985, a well-known graffiti artist known as Robbo colorfully tagged the underside of a bridge running over Regent’s Canal in Camden, North London. One of the first pieces to go up in London (and certainly the longest standing piece in London), Robbo’s piece has become known as something of a landmark piece for graffiti art enthusiasts and taggers alike. Many graffiti artists and taggers are considered lucky if their piece endures for more than a few months. However, for the past 24 years, aside from some toy graffiti and over-tagging, Robbo’s name has remained largely untouched.

Just this past December, change affected not only the scene along the Canal, but this towering testament to King Robbo’s legacy as Bristol-based street artist Banksy returned to London to continue his street art projects. Among them are his rats (a commentary of how the artist is the lowest form of being), a witty phrase evoking political commentary, a boy fishing, and a city worker.

It is the latter of these four project has generated the most amount of controversy lately. This is because Banksy has actually grayed-out a significant portion of Robbo’s locally familiar tag, leaving only strips of it to act as wall paper. The city worker, rather than removing the piece, is pasting it up using tools that traditionally refer to wheatpasters and in fact carrying additional wheatpaste rolls under his arm.

While some have said that this might be Banksy’s way of paying homage to the Robbo piece, from a territorial perspective, this modification comes as a rather biting slap in the face to Robbo- not only because Banksy has painted his own piece over the original, but because he has turned Robbo’s piece into a wheatpaste, a form of street art that is in general very much disliked by aerosol artists. Perhaps it’s in response to the actual slap in the face that Banksy received from Robbo, made public this past year in the book London Handstyles. In it, Robbo described a “tense encounter” between the two. Recalling how he was introduced to Banksy, Robbo claimed: “He asked what I wrote and I told him. He cockily replied ‘never heard of you’ so I slapped him and said, ‘you may not of heard of me but you will never forget me.’”

While internationally renowned street artist Banksy is busy premiering his new film at the Sundance Film Festival, graffiti legend Robbo came out of retirement on Christmas to again defend himself against the slight dealt to him by Banksy in London at the tail end of 2009. (Here it is important to remember that most street artists have teams, so what is going on may not directly deal with a single person.) Not only has Robbo eradicated the last traces of the original Robbo tag (including the rolled up paper under the worker’s arm), but he has written King Robbo (king being the term used to describe a graffiti legend, or one who has earned a considerable amount of street credit) so that it seems as if Banksy’s city worker is painting the tag rather than pasting it up.

A few days later, and the boy fishing along the Canal was altered as well. Rather than pulling out the slimy words “Banksy” from the Canal (originally meant to imply that Banksy was garbage in the way that his rat project implies that artists are vermin), a white sign now hangs from the fishing pole reading “Street Cred,” implying that this is what Banksy has lost by confronting Robbo.

Not since the days of Picasso and Matisse has the art world been so shaken by such a bitter rivalry. It was even said that Picasso hung “Portrait of Marguerite” in a room and threw (fake, thankfully) darts at it with his friends. Similarly, this most recent artistic exchange has caused many in Team Robbo and Team Banksy to take up arms against the other by taking to both online forums and the streets to battle it out. While many graffiti aficionados have lined up in either the Banksy camp or the Robbo camp (mostly arguing art and purpose vs. respect and territory), many are questioning whether the recent modifications are in fact the result of deep seated conflict or if they are simply the product of witty banter. (Some even suggest that this might be a publicity stunt, what with the recent publication of London Handstyles and Banksy’s venture to the Sundance Film Festival to release his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”)

Despite the story presented in London Handstyles, it’s rather hard to say. After all, despite Picasso and Matisse’s bitter rivalry, they spurred each other to new levels of creativity through their competition. Robbo didn’t respond by simply wiping out the Banksy piece and retagging the wall. Rather, Robbo (much like Banksy did for him), left a portion of the original piece by Banksy up while modifying the overall work to his liking (having the artistic “last word,” as you will). From the perspective of this street art academic/critic, Banksy did something that was not only natural in the world of street art and graffiti, but a big favor to Robbo by transforming the piece.

If you Google Robbo, Robbo tags, or Robbo graffiti, you will be hard pressed to find something either on the web or in images section that mention him solely, or provide an image of his tag other than the Regent’s Canal piece. Because Banksy is such an internationally-known name, it can be argued that he has brought Robbo to a more main-stream audience, and therefore inducted this piece (and, indeed, Robbo himself) into the international graffiti and street art scene.

If something becomes a permanent fixture in the landscape, it runs the risk of being taken for granted, and therefore leaves its viewers unaffected and unimpressed. While I recognize that the lifespan of this tag might be impressive to graffiti artists and taggers, once something becomes an accepted part of the landscape, it becomes fair game to street artists. This is because the true definition of street art is to challenge the way we think about our visual landscape through intrisically ephemeral and thought-provoking pieces. By revitalizing this relic, Banksy has forever immortalized it by giving it a new life and a new meaning. Because Banksy breeched the taboo of territory, he made it one of the current hot topics in the graffiti and street art world. Finally, by responding as he did to Banksy, Robbo crossed from the realm of graffiti artist and tagger into the world of street art. In this sense, Banksy has invigorated the environment of Regent’s Canal by changing the dynamic by initiating this creative dialogue and competitive exchange.

Many, including myself, will be tracking Banksy’s movements following the Film Festival and eagerly await to see what (if anything) happens when Banksy returns to London from Park City.