I remember the last great graffiti piece that demanded my attention. It was Banksy’s Free Zehra Doğan (the jailed Kurdish artist and journalist from Diyarbakir in Turkey)on the Houston Bowery wall. It stopped me mid-track along with other passersby, whose camera phones immortalized the breathtaking image into the digital clouds. And perhaps more importantly, they started to Google the subject of the piece, the woman who fought for democracy with her pen. I thought, that is the purpose of art.
I remember watching Exit Through the Gift Shop on Netflix, which is perhaps the gateway film for all of us who have a soft spot for graffiti / street art. I was transfixed by the infinite varieties of artists whose signatures become their art: there’s Shepard Fairey, the Invader, and the main event, of course, was Banksy. There’s a sense of mystique with people like Banksy, whose presence is like that of an idea, a legend rather than flesh and blood. I think of Banksy the same way I think of Zorro, or any of the costumed superheroes, swapping the mask and cape for provocative images and a recognizable style.
I remember the first time I incorporated graffiti into my daily landscape, a process that I considered to be an essential rite of passage for starting a life in NYC. For me, graffiti art has always been a cultural phenomenon that is here to stay, despite its transient nature. I’ve come to expect it as part of a city’s personality – any city that’s alive and constantly evolving through growing pains.
In This is Modern Art, this city is Chicago, and the play, produced by Blessed Unrest, takes you to 2010 when a team of artists painted a fifty-foot graffiti piece on the wall of the Art Institute’s New Modern Wing. The play, commissioned by Steppenwolf Theatre, brings into focus the young men of color whose artistic identities are usually ignored by what’s considered “mainstream” and “high art,” and asks the audience to re-consider the definition as well as the validation of art. Playwrights Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s poetic and dynamic script offers a fast-paced, thrilling story; it is a crash course on street art; and it not only details the unfolding of the events as well as their aftermath, but also creates an ensemble of complex characters.
Seven (Shakur Tolliver) is the idealistic leader of the pack, with a penchant for being impulsive. We learn he got his tag “7” through a homonym of the Chinese character “Chi”. JC (Andrew Gonzalez) is the quieter, more introspective artist, who draws his inspiration from Mexican mural art and has the unique capacity to see beauty in every unlikely place. Dose (Landon G. Woodson) is hot headed and passionate, but also the most practical one of the group. Then there’s Selena (Nancy McArthur), who joined the group out of curiosity but stayed for love, both for Seven and for graffiti art.
First important question: is graffiti real art?
In the definition-obsessed art circle, the answer might be a solid “no.” The controversial nature of graffiti has often made it difficult to be categorized. It cannot stay on a canvas; you can paint a picture with graffiti elements, but when it’s under gallery lighting, is it still an act of rebellion? The graffiti painter explains how people never seem to say things like “this is nice” when seeing street art, but instead, they say “how did they get away with that?” What they’re doing is really what all artists want: to be noticed, to be appreciated, and to be remembered. Except that graffiti, despite its emphasis on putting the “tag”, the “signature” of the artist front and center, is art by the anonymous, and for the anonymous.
It’s almost never a pleasing image to take in. But that’s never the point. Finley Peter Dunn once said that the job of a newspaper is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and I consider that to be the main goal of any art. Through graffiti, those who live on the fringes of society can make their voices resonate. It says loud and clear: there are voices in this world still being ignored, or worse, silenced. “It’s the ‘I’, the ‘we’, the ‘me’, and the whole damn team” says the painter, and indeed that’s who their work is for.
This is Modern Art gives the audience insight into each of the artists’ inspirations and personal histories: the street artists’ styles come not only from hip-hop culture, but also Caravaggio, M. C. Escher and Salvatore Dali, just to name a few. They are intelligent, eloquent, each with a keen point of view. Yet their creations are deemed offensive, or altogether dismissed. The play also asks the audience to consider street art as a whole and see it against the grand scheme of art history: the high art of our time might chase away graffiti painters like criminals, and sand off their creations because they’re blasphemy. But if we look back in time, how did the public receive the works of Matisse and Duchamp that we call masterpieces today? People also burned effigies of them right outside of the Armory Show of 1913 where they made their debut.
It’s worth mentioning Matt Opatrny’s simple but effective set: the cardboard boxes that outline the silhouette of the Chicago skyline unfold into various props and scenes (including a full dining table complete with table cloth and plates!) and eventually an impressive mural at the end of the show.
There isn’t a dull moment in the production, with director Jessica Burr applying Blessed Unrest’s kinesthetic style to this electrifying play. The cast also gives a breathtaking performance that makes the production a transformative experience.
This is a play to be reckoned with. It doesn’t give you easy answers, but rather leaves you asking more questions, and creates a brand new platform for debates over subjects you might not have considered before. In an era when we’re drenched in and desensitized by mass media, we’re often too exhausted by sensory overload to pay attention to anything at all.
And because of that, graffiti art might be the last line of defense for effective advocacy. What is a piece of graffiti art, if not a splash of color against the cityscape in greyscale, a reminder of what always deserves our attention: the here and now? It jolts us awake from the habit of fawning over dead poets instead of listening to the ones whose heartbeats resonate between traffic lights: they are amongst us at bus stops and deli counters.
This is Modern Art runs to June 23, 2018. More production info can be found here.