Exhibition Statement


1) Prologue: HIGHlow @ Fashion Moda
If one were to read an entire wall of books, it would prove quite challenging to find one rubric that provided the answers on how to have a successful career in the arts. Social conditioning has taught us that taking risks is an intrinsic component of any artist’s career. During the early stages of researching source materials for this catalogue, I was surprised to discover the actual writing of the forward was unexpectedly turning into a totally different creation. Like so many times before, I once again arrived at that proverbial and perplexing fork in the road. Having no intention of working on two projects at once, I decided to place the writing of the longer story temporarily on hold. To develop a project slowly over time and have it suddenly detour into a stream of consciousness that rollercoasters to completion is a nerve-racking, but unequivocally, stimulating experience.

Exploration, experimentation and diversification are methods of choice for artists and musicians who combine high and low art to form uniquely hybrid and imaginative work. At a storefront in the South Bronx, a multifarious gathering of skilled and unskilled artists came together to produce art that soared above the surrounding urban landscape. It was in 1979 at Fashion Moda, a pluralistic outpost of science, art and invention, where I first encountered and embraced the hip-hop culture. Before hip-hop broke loose in the seventies, the hippie culture was a widespread phenomenon throughout the world. In San Francisco, Sly and the Family Stone promoted a gospel of compassion and celebration of differences in their funk-driven songs. Comprised of both male and female musicians, this interracial band recorded their own song, Everyday People in 1969. The lyrics, “I am no better and neither are you, we're all the same whatever we do” addressed acceptance and harmony among all races. Today, this philosophy continues to be upheld by one of the leaders of the hip-hop community, Afrika Bambaataa, who has redone the song in a vital message from the heart to the street in an exciting funk rap interpretation.

2) Forward: Portrait of Twelve Explorers
As a teenager living in Queens in the sixties, I discovered my own idiosyncratic style by combining hockey with art school, music with handball, and using park house paint to spell out a cryptic message in big white letters on the façade of the building. Early signs of formulating street art tactics with a hip-hop ideology: do what you want, where, and when you want to do it.

This philosophy led me to a decision to use this catalog space as a backward and not as a forward. Backward from what you might ask? Recently, I’ve come to realize that a half-century of existence disappears faster than a flash of lightning against our ever-changing skyline of New York. Undertaking this curatorial work was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on some past project locations with camera in hand; as well as discover new ones such as the Wiechquaekeck Trail, a paved-over trade route of the Algonquin Indians, known today as Broadway.

Curiosity of the unknown is the driving force that compels most artists to relentlessly pursue their vision. For most individuals, uncertainty is a confusing, and unsettling situation; but for an artist, it provides a fertile position to challenge oneself. For those budding artists considering a career in the arts, you better be prepared for two things…taking chances and no seconded guessing. These words of advice are not meant to damper the spirit, but to serve as a cautionary warning. The twelve artists in Tawkin’ New Yawk City Walls share a sensibility in questioning, searching and discerning what is obscure to most individuals. What I respect most about their art, whether it is on the street, in an exhibition space, or on a screen, is that an honest attempt is being made to strive for an ideal that is not always attainable: making a connection with an audience and shaping an emotional bond with the viewer.

3) The Setting: Crumbling Bricks and Mortar
Since the emergence of environmental, conceptual and graffiti art in the seventies, creating public art without an official permit or community board approval has intrigued a bevy of artists living and working in New York City. The most strategic locations to site their work were architecture-based; abandoned industries, the subway system and other underground infrastructures. While most city dwellers were asleep or going about their business, artists were diligently pursuing their nocturnal muse under cover of night in handball courts, factories, storefronts and subway yards in search of the ideal location. Trains were the preferred and perfect target: ‘moving walls’ that could be seen by the public at large the very next day within all five boroughs. Major projects could be easily completed on moonless nights and over long holiday weekends when city agencies operated at minimal staffing.
This exhibition presents a selection of artists who have examined and integrated the walls of New York City as an essential element within their creative investigations. The grid of the city constitutes a living canvas, a nexus for exploration, reflection and contemplation. Although the artists are not philosophically related, they share a fervent desire to reach a wider and diverse audience. Some of the artists are personally inspiring; some are collaborators, while others develop their own artistic visions and unique personal identities. This show is not so much about hip-hop per se, as it is about considering work that embodies and reflects some of the uniqueness and spirit of the culture.

4) Rising Action: Street Museum
Tawkin’ New Yawk City Walls features selected works from artists who have embraced this forever old, but enduring city. The concept of this show is to examine and react to the changing characteristics of our ‘surround wall environments’ of brick and mortar to newer semi-translucent boundaries. Whether they are constructed of brick, stone, projection screen or transparent scrim, walls may be perceived as a border or barrier, viewed as either inclusive or exclusive, depending on what side of the wall you are on.

The intention of creating this installation was to provide an arena for viewing the work of these artists in a new environment removed from the clutter and chaos of their original settings. On first observation, some of the work might cause a startled reaction or prompt laughter from the viewer, but subsequently induces a philosophical dialogue and deeper contemplation. Individually, these artists develop their own visual language and inject it into a mixed bag of street poster/logo/tag/sticker/video/film that may be deciphered, ignored or embraced by the viewer. The tools include pencils, markers, spray paint, automotive and oil paints, cameras and computers. Although some of the art is created on paper or canvas, some of the artists have recreated work that revolves around the concept of street intervention using kiosks, projections and live web cams installed within the physical fabric of New York City.

5) Conflict: Probing the Invisible Cities of Calvino
Since the advent of liquid crystal display (LCD) signs, light emitting diodes (LED), moving message boards and the Internet, innovative artists have infused their own work with the latest forms of technology. Intrigued by experimentation with electronic tools primarily in the hands of corporate advertising companies, new media artists began creating projects that were a synthesis of computer-driven images, icons, logos and text. The artistic results were often social, political, cryptic and subliminal, both captivating and confusing the viewer as to the precise nature of the message being disseminated on mainstream delivery systems usually reserved for brand names and news updates.

The pictorial overload in our image-ladened metropolis is absorbed into the psyche before you actually enter the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Witness the huge jumbotron amongst the proliferation of billboards as one is heading west on the Long Island Expressway toward the City. Approaching southbound from the north, you can drive four hundred miles from the Canadian border without hearing a sound until you reach the tollbooth at the Triborough Bridge and hear the latest rap song beamed down from a satellite. Try to locate a single wall of silence in that ultimate compressed and frenetic zone of electronic saturation: Times Square. New York City’s walls are not neutral like a white canvas or stark piece of blank paper, but exist as highly activated and expressive surfaces that may intimidate and overwhelm both pedestrian and motor traffic.

6) Climax: 9/11 and Beyond
If there is truth in the exhibition title that walls can talk, then surely they are capable of shedding tears. When the unthinkable occurred on that tragic morning in September, we began a new period in New York City, filled with an enormous complexity of emotions potentially capable of weakening us on any given day. Although we all seem to be functioning normally and life is moving forward, we find ourselves reacting differently to incidental events. Before September 11th, a pedestrian might have viewed an unlit outdoor electronic sign as a simple malfunction. In a post 9/11 world, we interpret a black unlit video ribbon board as an ominous and potential terrorist threat. Technological advances including phone cameras, computer hacking and surveillance cameras are not only recording your actions in real time, but also disrupting your privacy by storing your identity to a computer chip, videotape or flash card. The new tools at the start of our 21st century include faster computers, dv cameras, data projectors, web cams, DVD technology, plasma screens and an extremely versatile range of interactive software.

7) Resolution: Surpassing the Fifth Wall
Today, we are faced with a complex range of concerns including terrorism, Verachip implants, identity theft and environmental issues leaving us riddled with suspicion and doubt as to the right course of action to take in today’s society. Unfortunately, this assault dulls our imagination and makes us more apprehensive about the world and the future. Fear and secrecy have forced most of the population to escape inwardly inside the fifth wall. Does this wall exist somewhere within our mind? Or are we nothing more than captured prisoners within four walls, fixated in a blind stare at the fifth wall that continually provides a soothing, addictive calm, manipulating our perspective for growth and change? Giant television screens, computers and video projections are all culprits, inexorably controlling our pastime, consumption and desires. Can we move beyond these glowing planes of light? Can we uphold responsibilities for future generations? Perhaps proactive teaching standards will create substantial change with positive results. Optimistically, I believe that somewhere across the universe or on the next street there is a friend for every person just beyond the barrier of the fifth wall.

8) Coda: Reflection and Shout Out
During the preparation and layout of this catalogue, the differences between an artist and designer became quite evident. Admittedly, an artist may continue to explore even at the eleventh hour, whereas a designer must provide the perfect ideal solution and meet the deadline on time. If a designer’s calculations are off by a single pixel, point or pica, it could create turmoil during the printing production. As Director of the Digital Arts and Design Program at C.W. Post, I’ve gained numerous insights from my fellow colleagues that further my respect for the designer’s imagination and dedication in producing visually effective design.
For coordinating the many facets of this exhibition, I am extremely grateful to Jeewon Shin for her elegant and poetic concepts in designing the catalogue as well as our collaborative vision for the installation. Special thanks to Alan Moore for interviewing the artists and writing an eloquent essay. I would like to acknowledge Pete’s Tavern, established in 1864, a historical landmark in Gramercy Place where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi. The owner, Pete Belles (originally Blasi), was my mother’s uncle and our family resided for many years in the building at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place. This exhibition would not have been possible without the professional effort and guidance of Barry Stern, Director, and Barbara Applegate, Coordinator of Hillwood Art Museum. Lastly, as curator and a fellow participant of the show, I am indebted to all the artists who contributed their time, work and energy in sharing in my realization for an engaging and provocative exhibition.

9) Epilogue: Attack of the Fifty Year Old Rap
fifty years plus five-o five-o next its us to dust
yo chump times up you’re the next tiny mote
bout to circle the sun

John Fekner
Guest Curator
Long Island City, November 2004