New York Times
Street Art Comes in From the Cold
By APRIL DEMBOSKY
Published: March 4, 2009
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL stands before a canvas the size of a movie screen. The milky greens, blues and pinks, rendered in pa int-by-number patterns and connect-the-dots figures, seem as if they might swallow him
and his id whole. But Mr. Marshall and, he hopes, visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art can hold the Crayola madness in check by studying silhouettes embedded in the landscape.
The two three-story murals depict Mount Vernon and Monticello, the estates of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Planted in Where’s Waldo fashion among the bushes and trees in this childlike maze are outlines of the slaves who maintained the estates of a new nation’s champions of liberty.
“The coloring book stuff seduces people to become engaged and has them acknowledge the subtext of these places at the same time,” said Mr. Marshall, who painted the work over a two-week period last month with a crew of local muralists.
Mr. Marshall, a Chicago artist known for exploring racial identity and black history, said he wants people to acknowledge the contradictions that underlie the veneration of the founding fathers. “I think a more realistic
representation is appropriate," he said, rather "than the kind of mythologizing that goes with Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence and Washington as the father of the country."
Although he developed the sketches long before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, he said, the election of the country’s first African- American president makes the mural as relevant as ever. The mythic sense of power and leadership, the ability to save the nation with which the people endowed Washington and Jefferson applies to President Obama as well, he said. Yet because Mr. Obama’s success is exceptional, he added, it will remain problematic until it becomes common. “I think one always has to understand how complicated America is and start to be more specific about the kinds of changes they think can take place and will take place,” he said.
In many ways the political goals of this work by Mr. Marshall resonate with the mural tradition here. More than 1,000 murals are on view across San Francisco, addressing subjects like the plight of immigrants and farm
workers, the impact of the political wars in Central America in the 1980s, AIDS in Africa, gentrification in San Francisco and the joys of bicycling and buying locally grown produce.
“There are very few Republican murals around,” Henry Sultan, board president of the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitor Center, said dryly. Muralists from his group, a nonprofit arts organization based in the city’s heavily muraled Mission district, were hired to help paint Mr. Marshall’s massive design, which is to remain on display until the spring of 2010.
On one level the group’s role in realizing the vision of an established single artist working in an established institution seems at odds with its mission. For more than 30 years Precita Eyes has consulted with neighborhood residents to paint murals that reflect local concerns. The notion is to create art that is physically and conceptually accessible to the people who live around it. Local residents or students often design and paint the murals with the help of experienced muralists.
But Precita Eyes hopes its involvement with the Marshall murals will bring it more recognition and more commissions. It also points out that the San Francisco museum’s atrium is free to all, and that the museum’s education department is financing a program in which Precita Eyes muralists will help high school students from nearby Oakland paint a mural in response to Mr. Marshall’s in a skate park.
Still, some argue that his art violates the philosophy of public art that many San Francisco street artists hold dear.
“I don’t even think of them as murals when they’re in a museum,” said Megan Wilson, a local artist and muralist. “They’re just wall paintings.”
For many of the street artists who paint buildings, electrical boxes and manhole covers around the city, the whole point of murals is to avoid the sterile white walls of a gallery and interact with all the irregularities of the urban environment. The point is to catch people unaware as they walk to home, church or work, an audience that either can’t afford or is otherwise disinclined to enter a museum.
Nonetheless, some younger artists intend to paint in public only until a gallery owner pulls them indoors. And some others, like the artist Rigo 23 (born Ricardo Gouveia) have embraced a kind of compromise, accepting museum and gallery commissions while remaining committed to public art that challenges viewers to reflect on their relationship to the cityscape.
Rigo 23 is known for his series of downtown murals in the style of street signs, including a large one-way sign at a freeway entrance that reads “One Tree,” pointing to a lonely gum tree on the roadside. He is also the creator of a blue-and-red Interstate sign on a high-rise, low-income housing complex that reads “Innercity: Home.”
He said he prefers working in public spaces. For him going to a museum is like going to a grocery store, whereas viewing public art is akin to visiting a farmers’ or flea market. Unlike a publicized exhibition, Rigo 23 said, unexpected public art requires the viewer to “negotiate a response on the spot,” as if he was bargaining with a local farmer for a bunch of kale.
For the muralist Mona Caron the function of a mural is less about the finished product than about the community’s involvement in making and viewing it. She and her assistant, Lisa Ruth Elliott, are now working on a mural in the Tenderloin district, one of the city’s grittiest neighborhoods, known for its large homeless population, oversaturation with drug dealers and services for the mentally ill. The wall they are painting has been a regular backdrop for graffiti tagging and food fights among visitors to the soup kitchen across the street.
Over the course of several months Ms. Caron talked to residents, schoolchildren, single-room occupancy managers, clergy members, historians and sex-club owners before coming up with a design. This one will celebrate the neighborhood’s hidden past, its once-vibrant jazz scene, its demolished Art Deco theaters, the struggles of its big refugee population and the hopes for an improved but ungentrified future.
In that utopian future people would use public space to meet their neighbors rather than brush past them. In the months it takes her to complete a project, Ms. Caron often finds that this dream is partly realized as her painting process alters people’s relationship to the space. “People start changing the way they walk by,” she said. “People slow down. Sometimes I look back, and there are 12 people watching.” They often offer suggestions that she later incorporates into the mural.
If San Francisco muralists see the street as their canvas for social change, Mr. Marshall sees fine art institutions as his.
“If 90 percent of the images you see when you come to the museum are images of white people and figures, you think that’s what you’re supposed to see,” he said. “Part of my role is to make commonplace the experience of encountering images of black figures in the museum. That’s my job."