Recap: "Deep Space" feat. Matta, Futura, Rammellzee, and Phase 2
Like MOCA’s Art in the Streets last year, Deep Space is an important step in the canonization of graffiti artists in the pantheon of fine art history. It is also an exhilarating must-see display of high quality work.
The turn out for the opening reception was stellar. Thousands of fans and luminaries came through the massive space. Out of the four artists in the show only two are still with us, and they both showed up. Futura stayed for the whole evening as usual and Phase 2 made a brief appearance as well. Sadly, Rammellzee had passed away in 2010 and Matta in 2002.
Futura, humble and charming as usual, was signing black books, jackets and exhibition brochures. It always feels good to see a hero of a movement who is a gracious and approachable host. Not only was the show a successful turnout of the hardcore fans, the historically legendary, the fashionable and the wealthy, but also a significant exhibition with serious intentions that was brilliantly curated, containing many high quality paintings by these four artists.
The co-curator Nemo Librizzi, who grew up in NYC with a graff background as well as being part of an art-world family, managed to pull together these three seminal graffiti writers with a fan’s love of their art and an insider’s understanding of their positions within the subculture. In the exhibition brochure, Librizzi not only compares and connects these three artists stylistically and thematically to Matta, one of the great painters of the twentieth century, but also sums up their places in the history of graff in a succinct and poignant definition:
“If Futura may be considered the greatest innovator and Rammellzee the greatest theoretician, Phase 2 is the great originator.”
With new and old paintings on display, Futura is well represented across the span of his career. It was in the early eighties when he made his first “break” from letterforms into abstraction with the infamous whole car simply titled “Break.” The second painting as one enters the gallery, which he said he painted in 1982, displays an incredible facility and imagination in the exploration of materials, the creation of dense layering, and a powerful compositional sense for abstraction. The painting is a masterful feat comparable to any great artist from any time period and movement. It displays Futura’s stunning range, proficiency and agility in the use of the primitive new tool, spray paint, especially considering the low quality of the pigment and the imprecise caps that were available at that time. Unique from other expressionistic abstractions, which were generally painted with oils or acrylics, the painting is a compendium of the possible techniques an artist could that can be executed with pigment projected by aerosol from a can with a plastic cap
Rammellzee’s paintings are all in one room, which is illuminated by black lights, reminiscent of his apartment/studio “The Battle Station” which was a dark alternative universe where his paintings and sculptures were permanently on display, glowing and menacing as examples of the semiotic power of his theoretical Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism treatises. The paintings here are all from one collector and are wonderful examples of how Rammellzee was also an experimentalist interested in abstraction, expressionism, and graffiti materials used in a painterly manner. He also consistently utilized the technique of collage in his paintings. From ripped apart dolls and other three-dimensional pop detritus to scientific diagrams and ancient alphabets, Rammellzee cut and pasted in the same way a hip hop DJ would cut and scratch beats to create a song, but with an outsider artist’s aesthetic.
Phase 2’s paintings are all from this year, therefore creating a consistent series exploring his obsessions with abstraction, wildstyle and biomorphic iconography. They are a combination of expressionistic backgrounds with a top layer of graphic line work that depicts abstract flowing wildstyle shapes. The top layer consists of swooping elements that are reminiscent of vines, pods, and flower bulbs, while other motifs are more realistically rendered images of teeth, mouths and eyes that mesh into the abstract gyrating forms. Like most of the paintings created by these three graffiti artists, or aerosol artists as Phase 2 would prefer to be called, his paintings are also “all-over” compositions created with an experimental use of modern materials culled from a graffiti writer’s standard arsenal, such as paint markers and spray paint.
Like Rammellzee, Matta had also made paintings thirty years earlier that were meant to be displayed under ultraviolet rays. One of his black light paintings is also in that room making a connection between the two artists and emphasizing Matta’s desire to constantly innovate and explore modern materials and means. Matta was one of the great painters of the twentieth century, falling somewhere between Surrealism in pictorial content and Abstract Expressionism in painterly experimentation with a Mexican muralist’s obsession with massive size and revolutionary content. During the sixties and seventies the content of his work turned towards the youth rebellion and psychedelia, which could also be seen as connection to these younger artists of a new generation and movement.
Obviously this show was curated to reveal the correlations between the fine art world of Matta and the street aesthetics of Futura, Rammellzee and Phase 2. The co-curators, Joseph Nahmad and Nemo Librizzi compliment each other with backgrounds in fine art and graffiti respectively. Together they have created one of the rare exhibitions that not only has an awareness of fine art history but also an understanding of graffiti, as displayed by their choices of these four seminal figures from their respective communities. A book-length catalog will be released shortly. If the excellent essay by Librizzi in the brochure is any indication of the quality of the book, then it will be well worth seeking it out to have as reference material and souvenir:
“To see their work for the first time on display beside a venerated modern master, we are compelled to consider the many striking similarities in pictorial space and aesthetic sensibility, leading us to perhaps reevaluate the caliber of their genius, against the outsider stigma imposed upon this still-new art by bigoted minds.”
Text: Daniel Feral
Photo: Ethersock and Daniel Feral