BY Sarah-Neel Smith in Reviews | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

Street Level

Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, USA

BY Sarah-Neel Smith in Reviews | 01 NOV 08

William Cordova, Wholesalers, Retailers & Bullshitters (detail), 2005

In ‘Street Level’ artists Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode scrape, scratch, layer, draw and dance in an effort to get under the skin of the cities they call home. Nineteen works – video, sculpture, giant canvases – face each other across three smallish rooms. Their sheer proximity to one another pushes them into dialogue; conversation proves to be electric. Physical artefacts and visual codes from Los Angeles, Lima, Miami, New York, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Berlin shift across media, uniquely reified as each artist formulates his own ‘language of the street’. In a world obsessed with reserving space, space and more space for art display, ICA associate curator Jen Mergel’s savvy rehanging of ‘Street Level’ (originally organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) suggests that there is no such thing as too small.

Bradford’s large cartographic canvases are a case in point: the fact that they are partially about shifts in scale eases their transition into the galleries’ modest space. Layered posters from the Los Angeles streets – worn, torn and faded – provide a topographical base for street grids made up of lengths of string and neon cut-outs. Bradford’s transferral to canvas of the colour codes used by city utility workers is a quietly insistent class commentary – a politicization of the familiar bird’s-eye view that is echoed in another of his projects, the jaggedly painted message ‘HELP US’ currently on the roof of the Carnegie Museum of Art, in pointed imitation of the devastating scene that helicopter rescuers (and President George W. Bush) would have seen in the desperate aftermath of hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Bradford’s Black Wall Street (2006) is punctuated by two bursts of red, yellow, white and blue: city blocks shaded in hots and colds suddenly look like a pair of exploding stars in space. Cordova too elevates one of his recurring ciphers – the lowly automobile tyre – to a celestial level in daniel boone, pat boone, y mary boone (or firestone) (2006–7), a large-scale collage hung directly across from the mammoth Black Wall Street. Hundreds of glossy tyres cut out from advertisements are sprinkled across a sheet of paper in an exquisite, makeshift Milky Way. Discarded tyres are but one of the common bodies of objects that unite Cordova’s drawings, collages and installations. As tyres, broken stereo speakers, stacks of old records and used books pile up across his work, we are faced with the problem of accumulation. What to do with these objects we once so rabidly accrued, but which are now a burden? Wholesalers, Retailers & Bullshitters (2005) sets the mood: a small container truck, covered in graffiti and missing a wheel, is at sea on an opulent flat ground of gold leaf. Bereft and damaged, the truck – once a glorious carrier of goods for mass consumption – is itself now valueless. But Cordova is determined to make us acknowledge, and even treasure, such detritus.

Any old object will do for Rhode: for him it’s more about the how and the where of their use. His videos and still photographs are conceived as successive frames tracing an Eadweard Muybridge-like flow of stop-action movement. He himself is the main actor in his mini-performances, which he stages in Johannesburg’s public spaces and in a Berlin studio. But most of his props are two-dimensional – nothing more than silhouettes drawn on a wall or a floor. In Catch Air (2003) Rhode appears to skateboard weightlessly through a half-pipe chalked on the ground; in Untitled (Dreamhouses) (2005) he catches a downpour of falling cars, tables and chairs with superhuman strength; and in Untitled (Harvest) (2005) he reaps a bed of spray-painted flowers with long, sweeping cuts. Rhode’s transposition of a typically photographic process into drawing is brilliantly done: the marks of erasure left after redrawing his props for each shot are utterly convincing as the false index of their trajectories through three-dimensional space.

Critics frequently invoke Rhode’s background as a mixed-race South African to explain his choice of objects, settings and media, but ‘urban-ness’ resists the hasty imposition of specific identity politics. His settings (rubble-filled alleys), his costuming (a sporty uniform of tracksuit, trainers and knitted cap) and his graffiti approach all testify that this thinking artist is also a city boy who knows what he’s talking about. If Bradford’s knowing reprisals of the bird’s-eye view single out the social inequalities and injustices built into so many urban environments, Rhode’s scenarios offer half-real, half-imagined alternatives – singular moments where, in the asphalt back lots of Johannesburg, he manages to transcend the constraints of the everyday. Beginning with objects and viewpoints that feel eminently familiar, all three artists send us on a merry journey of associations, only to give us pause when their diverse visual innuendos accumulate to do what every well-designed language should: give novel expression to their beliefs, beautifully.

Sarah-Neel Smith is an American art historian currently based in Istanbul, Turkey.