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Little Scratches Grow Up In This Vibrant Street Art Show

LIFE ON THE STREET ART: (from top) One of Kelly Towles familiar boxing-gloved figures; a Carl Thurman portrait; Chris Lavoie's installation.

By Deborah McLeod | Posted 8/15/2007

Above ground on North Howard Street, south of the hustle of Lexington Market, thick glass doors admit the inquisitive into No. 118, a quiet, manicured apartment building with a receptionist. It's only the subsequent double series of remote elevator flights downward that prepares you for the amazing netherworld of Sub-Basement Artist Studios.

Anonymous Rage is its current show. Baltimore writer and freelance curator Justin Gershwin has organized a group of artists who have a past involvement with graffiti art. His mission was to subdue the at-large cultural phenomenon adequately to fit it through a regular door; to comb its wild spray paint-matted hair with the fine-toothed comb of gallery protocol, track lighting, and formal announcement. Gershwin's intention is to introduce Baltimore to its street art's practitioners, not as lawless, nameless vandals, but as legitimate, vanguard artists in their own right, ready to abandon their anonymity to the art machine.

Gallery walls may be the assumed adjudicators of art undertakings, but they are girls in a bar, too, all with a different idea of Mr. Right for the Moment. Meanwhile, professional art world-sanctioned artists have long been picking trash out of the alleys and gutters for their assemblages or mark-making in public places. Thanks to TAKI 183, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Fluxus, the borders between such highs and lows are fairly permeable by now. Graffiti's present legitimization is not so much the next new thing as it is hugely important to consider as a current first-person voice.

Gershwin does a pretty good job of walking the line between outside and in. He has selected seven artists--City Paper contributor Emily C-D, Alicia "Decoy" Cosnahan, Chris LaVoie, Kelly Towles, Carl Thurman, Kelli Ryan (with Jeffrey Kent), and Shadow Danial McCarrell--to illustrate the dimensionality of regional street artists.

Even though graffiti art is middle-aged, the artist sampling here is young. Owing to the hazards of risking it out in the world of vigilant property owners, sheer precipices with narrow ledges, train schedules, police patrols, and wakeful dogs, street art probably will always be the domain of the young. It requires both chutzpah and agility. That and the searing need to re-enact the birth scream with a second realization that there is no warm, reliably flowing nipple or feeding tube between the 20-year-old and his or her urban ecosystem. As we age and can't climb to the heights of a message that can be read from a distance, we accustom to this predicament and figure out minor inanimate ways to compensate. The young street artist, on the other hand, obsesses over the deficiency and reminds everyone that substitution stinks.

Emily C-D nails a concoction of industrial and automotive cast-asides onto a wall she has pre-painted with a design in anticipation of the arrangement. Her loops and bulges of bright wall paint both shadow and nudge the attached jetsam into a cohesive, somewhat symmetric form--an ungainly butterfly configuration. It's not overt enough of an association to cause it sentimental harm, and it might not even be intentional, but it does appear to propose metamorphosis. C-D's Baltimore la Pompeii plaster wall shards, "Permutation: Cool," are genuine delicacies. The plaster itself is overtly vulnerable, and the little watercolor and ink abstractions pasted onto the friable surface are brightly frail.

Kelli Ryan emphasizes the looping sensibility of a line that begins near the gut and follows the arm's full extension only to return, before looping out again. Her undulating lines cross the wall of "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah . . . "--like aerial maps of pink rivers or vascular systems--and often intersect with pastel-colored fallopian shapes, faces, and Great Mother breast motifs. Ryan interjects an anomalous gold door-knocker earring into this scene, her symbol for investigating and breaching.

Pink paint is used a great deal in this show, in fact. Alicia Cosnahan uses it for the striped backdrop of her polyptych "Wedgewood" and "I Love Paris." Her life-size line-drawn cartoon portraits of naked women are somewhat self-protective, or inward in gesture, for being so available to the voyeur, with one redhead in a famous Oskar Kokoschka self-portrait gesture, a gigantic rumpled hand held over her white heart.

The meteoric Washington artist Kelly Towles goes heavy on the pink, too, for his paunchy protagonist with Simon Bar Sinister teeth and hairdo, though chinless. He is accessorized with boxing gloves for arms too skinny to deliver much of a punch. But they do. Towles' images are most provocative for the emasculated attitude of his underdog character. An insectlike monster, he hasn't the wherewithal to use his fearful traits to his best interests, but hobbles haplessly with hangdog head(s), peg leg, and grieving vacated eyes. In this installation lines span outward from him to plug into other cartoon-character realities. You may have known this fellow before, in your own head even, on a really bad day.

There are other casualties of existence in this show. Chris LaVoie offers evicted furniture heaped in a pile with a fascinating Duchamp-looking chair stack and a Richard Serra piece of arced plywood thrown into the mix. A lone blue, seemingly submerged man floats in a deep-blue realm of anguish in a series of self-portraits by Shadow Danial McCarrell, while Carl Thurman presents a sequence of dissimilar works that range from portraiture to abstraction to painterly animation.

Anonymous Rage is a gathering of individuals who measure existence with different instruments and arrive at different conclusions. While neither anonymity nor rage is fully sustained inside this show, it is certainly alive outside, where the work and the idea were born. But rage is not the only emotion here.

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