City as Canvas

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Carlo McCormick documents the archival work of artist Martin Wong in his recently published book, City as Canvas. Wong’s works leap off the page in the exhibit of the same name, currently at the Museum of the City of New York on 5th Avenue.

McCormick and the MCNY work to boost the efforts of the underexposed artist, who died of AIDS in 1999. In addition to being a fixture of the East Village art scene of the 1980s, Wong is now revealed as the most prolific collector of pieces from the underground graffiti movement. Working at a supply store on Canal Street, he met young artists whose careers he would later promote. Following his diagnosis of AIDS in 1994, Wong donated his collection to MCNY.

The exhibit captures the spirit of the graffiti movement in a preservative way typical of the MCNY to let history do the talking. Rather than coming at the observer with the obvious passion that exhibits at the Met or MoMA tend to do, it’s more distant, yet still appreciative. The works from Wong’s collection do a good job of exhibiting the eclectic range of the youth graffiti scene—from Rammellzee’s hip-hop infused lyricism in works such as “The Walk” to Lin Felton’s comic exploration of race and equality in “Talking Quik” and “Secret Mission.”

Despite an education at the Pratt Institute, Felton spent most of his time painting in train stations. The subway station was a common starting canvas for these artists. Andrew Witten (“Zephyr”), for example, painted his first subway train at fourteen years old.

Watching the transition of graffiti art from its start as unbridled expression of artists, seen as vandals and hoodlums, to a respected art form is fascinating. Aaron “Sharp” Goodman produces unparalleled works. His unconventional and mesmerizing use of multimedia is hypnotic, dimensional, and cinematic; one work attempts to bring “abstract techno-symbolism” into the artistic vernacular.

In keeping with their emphasis on history, the exhibit sheds light on the controversy surrounding the graffiti movement. The exhibit includes a short documentary on Black Books, sketch pads displayed and circulated among graffiti artists. A section of the exhibit is also dedicated to some of Wong’s acrylic on canvas works.

“City on Canvas” is open from now until August 24.

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