Often reviled as a symptom of urban blight and dismissed as mindless and destructive vandalism, graffiti is a highly controversial, defiantly rebellious and illegal form of public artistic expression. It is a tremendously vital and active medium that is not easily accepted or even acknowledged by the traditional art world. “Street Market,” an installation at the Deitch Projects, has shattered the notion that graffiti isn’t worthy of art world attention. Three of the most skilled and innovative artists of the modern graffiti movement, TWIST (Barry McGee), ESPO (Stephen Powers) and REAS (Todd James), have successfully transplanted the creative ethos and creative ingenuity of their craft from the street to the art gallery, graduating from the realm of creative crime to the world of artistic respectability. The result of their collaboration is one of the most brilliantly amusing, socially aware and thought provoking installations in recent memory.
Adapted from “Indelible Market,” a earlier installation at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, “Street Market” is centered around a structure that is based on the graffiti artist’s traditional studio space—a run down strip of urban businesses like a bodega, a car dispatch office, a liquor store and a check cashing place. The gritty sensation that the space inspires is bolstered by the presence of found objects discovered during a series of scavenging excursions—items like a ragged car seat accompanied by an empty beer bottle. The structure succeeds at both mimicking and celebrating the incessant barrage of “the visual noise of the cheap urban-retail experience” that dominates the routine reality of urban existence.
The space is complemented by an array of satirical and cartoonish advertisements and products that the curator of Indelible Market, Alex Baker describes as “mock consumer items, identified by the trademark tags and characters and/or invented product titles that refer to the feel-good states of being elicited when one ‘purchases’ their brands . . .” These items are symbolic of the importance of brand building in both graffiti art and free market Capitalism. In a successful attempt to create a cohesive visual environment, the surfaces of the installation are filled with scattered billboards advertising a wide range of absurd yet engaging products “endorsed” by ESPO and REAS. The goods range from “Slim Chances” to “ESPO’s Street Cred” and “Handmade Myth” to “Destiny’s Child” (which depicts lines of Cocaine being cut with a credit card by someone holding cell phone).
With their sarcastic approach to advertising, the artists have managed to subvert modern marketing tactics by using its methodology as a socially aware metaphor. The bodega portion of the installation is fully stocked with mythical products that serve as clever vehicles for further witty and sardonic social commentary. Brand names like [Sarcasm][ital] (“Subtle, yet Bitter”), [Delusion][ital] (“100% Reality Free”) and [Sweet Sticky Innocence][ital] (endorsed by Jon-Benet Ramsey) are visual decoder rings for enigmatic desires manifested through American Materialism. In a subtle and darkly humorous fashion, these products explore the corrupting influence of consumerism in modern society, a theme that has been tackled in varied mediums from the artistic sensibilities of Barbara Kruger to the political ideologies of Ralph Nader.
Easily overlooked in the intricate terrain of “Street Market” is one of the more subtly brilliant and complex works—a simple suit of armor, so enduringly generic that it transcends tradition. It is the material, the shiny remnants of empty Olde English malt liquor cans, that expresses the intended message of the piece. The sculpture is a profound metaphor for the destructively omnipotent presence of alcoholism as self reflexive defense mechanism against the bleak realities of impoverished urban communities.
Despite the installation’s emphasis on cohesive collaboration, one artist stands out in the sublime visual chaos of “Street Market.” TWIST’s arresting and distinctive figures are visual paradoxes that express the weary, vapid and dead end nature of “the cheerful hell of urban life. He creates faces that are fluid boxes with square jawlines and half circle craniums juxtaposed with drooping feature that represent a blue collar burden of deep existential uncertainty and bodies that look like machinery being held together by an arrangement of cogs and screws. These figures are complemented by drips, blotches and found images that amplify the grimy aesthetic of TWIST’s style. When these world weary faces are painted onto liquor bottles that seem more at home in gutter than a gallery, the artist uses techniques of ingenuity and innovation to express stifling and morose entropy. TWIST’s creations best capture the energy, vitality, and blunt brilliance the defines “Street Market” as a cohesive artwork.

Bronxville, N.Y.