FABIEN CASTANIER GALLERY, Culver City
(May 14-June 11, 2016)
Urban Legacy is more than the sum of its parts — an extraordinarily vivacious series of abstract expressionist compositions from a titan of graffiti and street art which is also emblematic of a shift within the street art world toward the embrace of serious studio-based painting practices. When JonOne came up as an artist in Harlem and Paris in the late 1970s and ‘80s, the Wild Style graffiti writing explosion was in full bloom, its mannerist flowering festooning the railyards and subway trains of New York with a profusion of fabulously eccentric fonts and saturated palettes, kaleidoscopic flourishes and inscrutable arabesques. They existed on a large scale and were often seen at a distance and/or through the blur of motion as trains raced past and above stationary viewers on sidewalks and platforms. Not everyone felt this way back then, but the experience was amazing — beautiful and free — like pollen-laden tropical flowers and dark vines silhouetted against postcard sunsets. Graffiti, not vandalism, it was actually a resistance to blight, a kinetic cloud of monuments to individual creativity.
Though those throw-ups, not unlike certain traditions of ornate calligraphy, were more about imagery than legibility, they were, in fact, words. Twisted into abstraction, they were often laid over fresh color field backgrounds, and/or on top of other writing like a multi-layered crayon box meltdown. JonOne was one of the best at it, but that’s never been all he is. Like other street art-based painters, he has actively, purposefully recalibrated his painting practice for the canvas, for wrist rather than elbow, for expanses of blank white instead of distressed, palimpsestic steel. The libretto has all but vanished, but the opera of color, excited energy, palpable motion in the confetti of dispersed mark-making and seemingly infinite variegations of palette and qualities of impasto, still recall the dynamism of his Wild Style roots. Meanwhile, JonOne has become increasingly expert at constructing receding pictorial space, introducing quasi-architectural framing devices within the imagery, landscape-style boundaries against oceanic sweeps of purely abstract detail and a galactic array of individual points of contact between brush/knife/nozzle and canvas. Both a new and old art-historical style, it’s just as wild as ever.