Identity, the Institution, and Street Art

New Yorkers know: graffiti is everywhere. It is both controversial and comforting; a reminder of humanity and of the desire to smear one’s self-identity across the film of architectural skin which coats this city and shapes our everyday experiences.

Recently my life has been impacted by two different artworks which I have not been able to escape thinking about day or night. The first is an anonymous white rectangle in the uptown ACE subway at Canal street, and the second is a Banksy, deemed Hammer Boy, on the wall of the upper west side DSW.  According to various articles, the Banksy piece went up during his artist residency in New York on October 19, 2013. As of yet, I believe there is no writing about the white rectangle which has made it’s home in the bowels of the subway system and it’s evolution has undoubtedly taken place over a large period of time, which justifies my fascination with it.

rectangle on the uptown ACE at Canal St.

Enamel rectangle with graffiti on the uptown ACE at Canal St.

The first work, an enamel house paint, sharpie marker, spray paint composite piece was originally intended to be a space for posting fliers and advertisements. Today it sits unadorned, bare of its original intentions, fulfilling a new role in the world as breathing room within the subway system’s overwhelmingly maximalist aesthetic of general grunge and capitalist advertisements which coat nearly every other inch of space. Beneath the lacquered top layer of thin white paint various tags and drawings can be discerned, undoubtedly scrawled over a previous layer of paint. The work is placed dramatically in the center of the wall on the opposite side of the stairs, at first glance a beautiful contemporary homage to Malevich’s 1918 White on White. But the sexy, fashionable shine of the smooth white surface represents much more than a reference to bygone minimalism; it represents the gritty conflict for power between individuals and institutions.

In the photo that I took last sunday on my way to the cloisters (you can see my feet and a taxi reflected in the Zabar approved plexiglass which protects this work) a black silhouette of a child brings a hammer down in typical Banksy-esque style. This work has also been covered by authorities but with two crucial differences between this covering and the previous one. First, this cover does not obscure the hand of the individual but protects it. Second, the authorities responsible for coving the work are not anonymous, but proudly state their name and intention with a card in the upper lefthand corner which reads “Help Zabar protect this unusual artwork.” This work, although put up illegally by an anonymous tagger just as the work covered by the white rectangle was, is sanctioned by an institution simply because the individual is identified as an artist.

Hammer Boy, 2013, Banksy on a Wall near the uptown West Side DSW.

Hammer Boy, 2013, Banksy on a Wall near the uptown West Side DSW.

Why bring these two works together? One is an acclaimed, recognized artwork by a well known artist, the other, a totally unnoticed object with multiple contributors to its creation. Yet the connection that I feel for the white rectangle in the uptown ACE subway is inexplicable and far greater than my feelings toward the Banksy Hammer Boy, which represents the stagnation of the artist’s aesthetic evolution due to pressures from the market and Banksy’s subsequent need to be identified as Banksy. This aesthetic flattening renders the actual work on the wall rather inconsequential and instead draws attention to the institutional frame which is around and over it. Yet neither of these works exist within a traditional gallery space and therefore should lack the sacred atmosphere associated with that white cube. The Hammer Boy, however, has regained some of this sacred nature through its institutional plexiglass protection which designates the work as more valuable than any other stretch of wall space.

Both works have political connotations. Banksy’s oeuvre is pointedly political through it’s imagery and its medium. The ACE white rectangle is political because of the imposition of authority over the individual. There are layers of this struggle going back deep into the object’s skin; a layer of graffiti, a layer of paint, another layer of graffiti, another layer of paint, ad infinitum. This one object represents an eternal struggle which has happened throughout time and which will continue to happen simply by nature of societal structures and public spaces.

The shine of institutional material coats both of these pieces in glamour; one concealing, the other revealing. The hand of authority presents itself through this reflective surface, rejecting grime in one even as it glorifies it in the other. These works are embedded with a question that cannot be answered easily:

How do we decide which individuals are allowed to be seen and heard? And who deserves to decide this fate?

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