Spanning an expansive 2-floor gallery space in Williamsburg’s 25 Kent Avenue, Beyond the Streets showcases iconic works from a turbulent decade in history where artists created bold, public, tastefully tasteless works that overtly rejected mainstream society. The exhibition highlights street art from the earliest NYC taggers to modern artist-activist icons such as the Guerilla Girls and Shepard Fairey—all in a space overlooking the excavators and cranes, emblematic of the gentrification creeping over northern Brooklyn.
As a teenager who never experienced the more violent New York City of the 70s and 80s, when the graffiti scene was at its peak, seeing some of the installations in Beyond the Streets felt like entering a different world. Interactive installations such as a model of a Trash Records store full of boxes of vinyl covers and an almost life sized model of a young artist’s bedroom with colorful marker sketches of slogans and tags plastered across the walls and ceiling, offered a glimpse into what it was like to come of age in that era. Retrospectives such as the one for French photographer Maripol captured the diverse young people who made their name during the era, and their scowling faces were not unlike those of my peers (in fact, as I found out from a Beastie Boys retrospective, a couple actually attended my high school).
Many of the pieces included in the exhibit, particularly in the activism section, are relevant to today’s political climate. The gallery didn’t shy away from overt, at times brutal imagery. For example, the hard lines and violent images of state-sponsored violence depicted in the Cleon Peterson installation evoke the police brutality and prison-industrial complex that characterize our broken criminal justice system, as well as the bloodshed our country has caused through misguided military interventions around the world. In a time when FOSTA-SESTA is further marginalizing sex workers and women’s sexual and reproductive health is being threatened by a Republican administration, the blatantly sexual imagery of AIKO’s artsy sex shop installation, complete with sexual organs hanging from the ceiling and extremely NSFW tattoo-style images sprayed onto the walls, felt extremely relevant.
Yet as I walked through the exhibits, I couldn’t help but feel that by taking graffiti off the streets and placing it in a whitewashed warehouse, the pieces had their fangs filed down. Some pieces included in the exhibit could only be appreciated in the context of the streets– a recreation of the iconic Soul Train mural, one of the full-train-car murals which shot through the city at the height of the graffiti movement, doesn’t feel like it has the same vitality sitting in a gallery than it would have flying on a train, though the colors are just as vibrant. A Crash piece featuring a pair of green eyes with a deadpan, determined glare would have a more powerful edge staring defiantly from a brick wall than from a canvas. The only pieces that didn’t experience this were ones by the Guerilla Girls which used the gallery space itself as a form of protest. In addition, the historical contexts for some of the pieces were not always adequately presented, even when it is necessary for the piece to be fully understood. An OBEY poster using propaganda motifs to depict Mao, for example, or a full wall mural contrasting darkened soldiers with a blazing white dove, is appreciated more when the horrors of authoritarianism, imperialism, and war are explained with it. Without this context, though the images remained impressive and awe-inspiring, but it’s hard to know exactly what they were fighting for.
Beyond the Streets is impressive in the scope of its celebration of protest art and the wide variety of styles it presented, and daring in the graphic nature of some of the pieces chosen for display. It doesn’t shy away from presenting street art in all of its rebellious and ruthless glory. Yet with the lack of context for many of the pieces and the ironic view of a soon-to-be waterfront condominium that can be seen from building, I hope that gallery visitors will appreciate the art for its relentless, raw power and not merely for its instagrammability.