ANY GOOD GALLERY opening should have a couple of criminals in attendance, and We Exist! scored well by that measure. There were plenty of "vandals" present to pass judgement on the Intermedia Arts show, which incorporates graffiti into its paintings, banners, and wall pieces. Their hooded sweatshirts and baggy pants matched the show's set pieces well: In one corner, a bus shelter rests next to a newspaper box, both heavily tagged. Next to that, Krylon spray cans, fat tips, markers, and brushes lay scattered across a table in a faux-studio.
But here's the fine print: Although We Exist! has garnered press for being a graffiti show, it isn't one. Instead, this is a show of graffiti-influenced art, and announces as much in its subtitle, Beyond Tagging: Graffiti-Influenced Art. Not that the artists lack for cred: Many have at least a few years' experience tagging walls, underpasses, and boxcars. But this Intermedia art isn't illegal, or, for that matter, outdoors.
Shows like this have been going on for more than a decade, and the question of whether or not graffiti is an art form, despite what cops and public-works officials say, has been pretty much settled in the affirmative. We Exist!'s curator, a man named Peyton, sees this show as another stab at legitimacy, a campaign first attempted by "these extremely famous subway artists in New York back in the '80s who got just mad fame. Today they should be the Jasper Johns, the Jackson Pollocks, the Rauschenbergs. But they're not."
But why bother with an art world that graffiti seems to stand in clear opposition to by its nature? Well, that question's not really Peyton's to answer. Sure, he's served time for his bombing runs, and he's quick to give props to the hard-core writers who stick to the street, but Peyton's more career artist than graffitist. As a man who also works in performance and india ink paintings on silk, Peyton's loyalties are more to the fine-art world. For his part, he insists that expanding the influence and definition of graffiti won't dilute its potency in the wild.
Which is why the work in We Exist! is for sale. And why spectators, critics, and buyers can now see throw ups and pieces in one central, climate-controlled space instead of out in the city itself. (Note to would-be collectors: A "tag" is a quickly scrawled name, a "throw up" is a two-color tag consisting of fat letters outlined with a second color, and a "piece" is a full-on mural, complete with intricate 3-D letters, characters, backgrounds, and anything else the "writer" has time to draw. That is, a tag should cost less than a throw up, which should cost less than a piece.)
It's also why Peyton has been criticized by some local writers for bringing graffiti above ground: Unfortunately, We Exist! is not the kind of exhibit that awes skeptics into silence. Many of the paintings and drawings come off as poor substitutes for the exuberant expanse of a brick wall, and the two throw-up banners and the wall piece seem rushed and unplanned. (They compare poorly with local public walls, such as the Merit Printing building on First Avenue North between Washington Avenue and Second Street, and the East Lake Street alley between Bloomington and 16th avenues.)
These disappointments probably owe less to the innate skills of the artists than to the nature of their assignments: A graffiti artist is trained to communicate outdoors, not indoors. For all its political undertones and ego-gratification, graffiti is also an effort to revitalize the cityscape, a bottom-up urban renewal without the red tape. Its bright splashes, metallic glints, and jutting angles form a visual language meant to compete with and complement the ambient visual clutter of stop lights and exhaust fumes. But take those same elements into the hushed space of a gallery--even one as charmingly chaotic and organic as Intermedia--and they can become overanxious and garish.
Peyton's efforts to give the work a context--the studio, newspaper box, and bus shelter--don't help. Instead, they stand as a sort of commodification-by-simulation: Looking at the set pieces, I couldn't help but feel like I was in some theme store at the Mall of America--Krylon City, or maybe Graffiti Town.
But, to his credit, Peyton allows dissent where a theme store would rub it out. The bus shelter now includes two stickers that weren't there when the show opened, and which Peyton is leaving up. One reads, "The legitimacy of graffiti is niether [sic] emerging nor an emergency"; the other, "Graffiti is not an indoor sport."
Here's a perspective that's going to be mostly absent in the above-ground debates: Who cares what art historians or, for that matter, City Pages, have to say about the state of graffiti? Between obsessive-compulsive government efforts to deter and destroy it and the strong reactions of passersby, graffiti artists get an exposure other artists can only imagine. Could be that some writers are as legitimate as they want to be. Could be that recognition is the least of their concerns.
We Exist! runs through January 18 at Intermedia Arts; call 871-4444.