Thursday, October 2, 2014

Alphabet Soup 2: Evolving the Letter Form and Reaching New Audiences

Alphabet Soup 2, an exhibit at Galerie F in Chicago's Logan Square organized by Fullhearted, and sponsored by Modest is rapidly approaching its terminus, next Tuesday, October 7th. The show is a high caliber representation of diverse styles and great talent, exploring and developing the typographic form for an evolving and expanding audience. I had the privilege of attending the opening night for the show, and chatting with its organizers, Melon James and Fonzo.

Fonzo explained that the show "is an exploration of letter form and typography through the street artists. So, a lot of these guys, they don't necessarily have to do street art because a lot of them have evolved into different venues and what have you. But letter form definitely has to be a part of their production." Made up of primarily street artists and graffiti artists, the show offers a range of approaches and mediums. From simple prints to three dimensional train cars and cut wood pieces, the letter form achieves a kind of versatility and tactility that is rarely encountered.
Clam Nation. "Hinky Candor." Acrylic and Ink on found sign. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Jonski. "Speak of the Devil." Gouache and watercolor on paper. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Alter. "Quiet." Acrylic on wood. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Melon further elaborated on the goal of the exhibit: "We decided, Fullhearted, decided to bring together not only just local graffiti artists, but also graffiti artists that have also pushed new limits out there and are pretty much setting trends, and inspiring other graffiti artists...the idea of the show is basically letter form and design as seen through the graffiti artists, meaning that they are not necessarily typographers or graphic designers, they might have a degree in something, but you can't get a degree in graffiti.
Fullhearted. Melon and Fonzo. Galerie F. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Importantly, the show also pays homage to a street artist, Brooks Golden, who passed away earlier this year. Upon entering the gallery one encounters his signature owls with the simple placard "Not for sale." expressing poignantly the depth that his loss has been to friends and colleagues in the Chicago arts community. Within a glass display case are some of his sketch books, offering a look at the evolution of his style.
Brooks Golden. Not for Sale.

Tribute to Brooks Golden.

On the other side of the gallery are the participants in the show, including a Roy Lichtenstein-esque piece by Asend, as well as some atypical pieces by Melon, who departs from his iconic faceless women to take up a meditation on the opacity and transparencies of paint, letter, and form. One can see some aesthetic connections across the walls: Cove and Melon's pieces both explore the visibility and opacities in painted form
Melon, "Whitewash." Aerosol and latex paint on wood. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Melon observes, of "Whitewash":

"My pieces, I felt, were more much deeper than what I normally do with the girls [that he paints] and stuff like that. I think what it was was taking something, because it was letter form and design, I wanted to veer away from the character form, for a little bit, and I wanted to focus my attention on the letter structure , and how could I make this work. I started to think about if I just did some hard core graffiti, or graffiti that is noticeable, how would somebody react to hanging that in their livingroom, or somewhere in their house, you know? So I decided I wanted to use that and kind of make it delicate, and soft, and push it to a more contemporary style, and I succeeded, I think. I think it did pretty well. One of my inspirations was that I had a mural that was whitewashed not too long ago, with NMOS, and so I felt like taking that and using that, the idea of the whitewash. I played with that for a while. I was going to do a matte white on a glossy white, and it just didn't feel right, so I think I did it really well with the colors and the way I balanced everything out on the canvas."

EGGS investigates different physical textures and dimensionality, using the name tag and the accumulation of spraypaint to create a sculptural sensation that made this viewer muse upon the palimpsests of paint across the city, and how the name is both visible (as tag) and invisible (as physical body).
EGGS. "Hello my name is." Spraypaint on wood. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
TUBZ, too, explores how the letter takes on form, in expressing the letter through its reduction of material, in wood burning. This style echoes stylistic boundary pushing by global figures such as Vhils, who remind viewers that urban scenes are structurally based just as much on reduction and destruction as they are on construction and accumulation of materiality.

TUBZ, "Beauty." Pyrography on wood panel. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
A similar experiment in material reduction and layering appears in Jash's work.
Jash. "Alpha Echo." Mixed media framed. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

Jash. Detail. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
A key element of the show is its attempt to translate graffiti to a new audience without giving up on the letter form. If one asks enough graffiti artists, and reads enough books about the genre's history, a clear division emerges between how the general public perceives and approaches characters versus letters. Characters are legible, identifiable, allow for emotional project. Letters, on the other hand, can be seen as illegible, threatening, oblique. What this show does so interestingly is try to make letters beautiful without necessarily caving to the imperative to be legible. Melon points this out when referencing Asend's work:
Asend. "Levels." Spraypaint on wood. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
"Asend is taking graffiti to a whole other level, to the point where I think he is still trying to understand his style. But because he already has a certain style and format for how he does things he is taking what he does and making it work for the art world. Making it work in a gallery, where people won't be ashamed to hang this up on their wall, as opposed to just somebody's name. Even if it says his [Asend's] name, he is going to do it in a way that people are going to like. Another guy, Tubz, he has also got some work where he does a lot of handstyles. People think that hand styles and calligraphy are just simple lines, or something like that, but there is more to it, especially when it comes to someone who pretty much focuses their study on that....that the show is pushing new heights, new levels of inspiration for people who are into graffiti... the show is basically pushing boundaries. We have people in here creating influences, not only to the younger generation but they are also creating influences to people outside of graffiti, and people who don't understand graffiti can actually come out and appreciate what graffiti artists...the work that they put into it."

Asend. Detail.
The effectiveness of the prior show (Alphabet Soup) in drawing a diverse audience, including non-graffiti afficionados, as well as devotées, was evident in the density of the crowd but also its relative (at least visible) ethnic, racial, and economic diversity. People who had no clue about graffiti were showing up and enjoying the work.
Bates. "Sign my name." Acrylic on Canvas. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Fonzo is not a street artist, but he supports them and through his comic art also explores textuality, the unconscious, and his own identity.
Fonzo. "Moon bats and space crafts." Brush, ink, and paper in found frame.
Fonzo explained that he came up with the characters eight years ago, while "living at the Salvation Army. Soon after that, one of my roommates who was a member of Earth, Wind and Fire, one of the drummers on the south side of Chicago. So through all my misadventures I think, Skid Joe is very relateable to my own personality, who I am and who I was, and the fun kind of naivete of his sidekick, Chinchilla, is very much who kind of got me into trouble, and its sort of a character who you don't necessarily know if he is real or just a part of his imagination. Some sort of bizarre protagonist...characters that I developed that have a deep connection to my inner psyche."

We talked a bit more about the characters. Like Freud's irrepressible Id, Chinchilla persuades and manipulates Skidrow Joe into impossible situations, and the comics explore shame (there is a lot of nakedness!), violence, and anxiety. These seemingly banal images are expressive of the deep structures of human experience, where, the unsavory elements of the Id can be sublimated into something smoother, and possibly beautiful.

Cosbe. "The Youth Demand My Vision in Question." 

Or, quite productively, it can remain a troubling reminder that humanity is not all smooth corners and comfortable belonging: it is scary, isolating, and unpredictable.
Angry Woebots. "Woes." Acrylic on Wood. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
This, I think, is also crucial in the context of graffiti (and street art's) increasing visibility for a more general audience. For it to remain critical, some of these hard edges must not be worn away. Fonzo's intense attention to detail, crispness of line and text, demonstrates how the typographic is not simply a means to an end, it is a vital component of public expression in a new machine age, one that deserves explication, and a wider audience.
Galerie F, abuzz. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

Thanks to Fonzo and Melon for making time to talk, and get thee to Alphabet Soup 2 before it closes!

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