Written by Erika Jarvis.
Artists of the letter have generally excepted themselves from the fine art debate. And because of their highly secretive—sometimes thuggish—nature, they've never really been invited. One person looking to end the stand-off is West Coast writer POESIA, who sees fundamental similarities between pieces in a grimy alleyway, and a 600-year-old painting in the Louvre. That's what he's going to address in his debut solo show tonight, More Force Than Judgment (Più Forza Di Guidizio) at Anno Domini Gallery.
"They're basically interpretations of Old Master paintings, " he says on a phone call from his Bay Area studio. "I took elements of the way I would paint a graffiti piece, and I've put them in. To me, it's about recognizing graffiti as important."
By "important" he means, considered seriously by art critics and historians. Somehow graffiti remains a footnote in art history books, even as it dominates the landscape of most North American cities. More Force Than Judgment draws on his art history background to establish strong parallels between graffiti and "more important" works, like those by the Old Masters.
"In the Renaissance, when these commissions were being done, there was no language or press,"
"I took elements of the way I would paint a graffiti piece, and I've put them in. To me, it's about recognizing graffiti as important." - POESIA
he says. "They'd say, 'OK, I want you to paint this story from the Bible,' but the artists, the only thing they had to work with was the figure. So every other year you'd start to see it get more stylized, more refined. Composition went from two guys standing next to each other, to intertwining. So in Rubens [300 years later], I see wildstyle: he's using multiple figures in one scene, all intertwining.
" If you think the comparison is slim, consider the phenomenally abstract turn graffiti has taken in the last few years, the best of which can be seen on on POESIA's famous "progressive graffiti" site, Graffuturism.com. With traditional outlines dropped in favor of something that looks suspiciously like fine art, the new direction is a pretty contentious issue. But for POESIA (who's been exploring abstract graffiti on and off since the '90s), this stage is inevitable. "In 40 years, graffiti morphed into an abstract the same way the figure did from the Renaissance, to when Picasso deconstructed it," he says.
If art history is anything to go by, POESIA thinks graff will seek out more structure again eventually. What he wants to know is why art critics won't discuss these developments like they do Picasso or the Old Masters. He suspects it's because graffiti is almost like a "second language" that most people don't speak. So by giving iconic, highly figurative paintings like the Old Masters a graffiti twist, he's hoping to offer some kind of translation.
"I feel like figurative is the language that everybody speaks," he says. "Everyone can look at a painting of a person and understand it. Graffiti, someone can look at it and they have no clue of what it is. To me, these paintings are about speaking to two different crowds at once, and letting them know that what we do is exactly the same as this. It's just you've got to understand how we write."
Until academics do start taking graffiti seriously, Graffuturism will continue to encourage the kind of theoretical discussion POESIA thinks is missing. Giants like HAZE, SABER, and MARE139 have been known to weigh in on the site, which is now so influential, some refer to any kind of abstract or deconstructed graffiti as "graffuturism." If that's the case, POESIA actually seems pretty non-plussed.
"Someone's going to choose the name for us regardless," he says. "That's OK, 'cause when they start writing and talking about it, that's when it'll be important. Right now, I don't see it as being important. If you have art critics you can talk about graffiti and why urban art is important, but they don't, because they don't understand it. And until those people do sit down and talk about, it then it's going to continue to be a misunderstood art form."
More Force Than Judgment (Più Forza Di Guidizio) runs from May 4—June 16 at Anno Domini Gallery, San Jose.