Graffiti is one of those inescapable facets of urban life that can be either annoying or inspiring. New York in the 1970s was a classic example of that syndrome as graffiti-slathered subway cars seemed to signify a great city's descent into decrepitude and blight — but that same milieu launched the careers of epochal artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat back when graffiti was a visual analog of the hip-hop and punk music of the era. Today Haring and Basquiat are dead and glitz has replaced grime in Manhattan even as graffiti lives on around the world as a democratizing force that sometimes lives up to its potential. Locally, Brandan Odums' vast aerosol spectacles covering blighted housing complexes and huge warehouses were compelling evocations of black history painted with a narrative sense that bordered on the Biblical, but most graffiti here as elsewhere is more enigmatic, like so many aggressively cryptic squiggles glimpsed briefly in passing.
This Top Mob show is a mostly local mash-up that amounts to an art historical survey of graffiti taggers dating back to the 1980s. Perhaps fittingly, it is exhibited in the Ogden's tunnel-like ground level annex, lending it an “underground” aura as physical as it is metaphorical. Here large numbers of small documentary photographs mingle with a series of street art paintings in elaborate baroque frames including some by familiar names like Lionel Milton, a conjurer of stylized back street romanticism who was originally known for lyrically edgy graffiti signed “ELLEONE” (top left). Some have reacted to the befuddling complexity of 21st century life by becoming agents of one-word branding--for instance “HARSH” is both this local artist's message and his signature, while “READ” appeared out of nowhere in 2006 with monosyllabic exhortations that turned up everywhere ever since. Works that elaborate the idiom's painterly potential include Go Fast, an aerosol pop expressionist canvas by Atlanta's “Dr. DAX,” above left, and King Cake and Sex, top, Los Angeles maestro Kelley “RISK” Graval's lush aerosol evocation of local sensuality. Top Mob: New Orleans Graffiti Collective Top Mob Retrospective, Through Nov. 6, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600.
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