Graffiti artist Fishe with his work at ESMoA. Photo by Gloria Plascencia, contributing photographer
David Brafman, Ph.D., may be a curator of rare books at the Getty Research Institute, but at least one blogger and her followers aren’t impressed. “Mr. Brafman is lower than a cow gazing at a knot hole,” reads one post, to which someone else has added: “Mr. Brafman is a pimp. Nothing more.”
It’s not for me to gauge the accuracy of the bovine and pimping references, but we should take exception to the “Nothing more” assertion because Brafman has galvanized a most stunning treat – a literal “cathedral of graffiti art,” as it’s been called, or possibly a tabernacle or mosque of graffiti art for those bothered by the religious implications of “cathedral.”
Okay, so what the heck is all this about?
A while back, maybe two years ago, Ed Sweeney – a serious collector of contemporary graffiti art – approached Marcia Reed of the Getty Research Institute with the idea of compiling a black book devoted to Los Angeles street artists and tattoo artists. Among themselves, graffiti artists often carry sketchbooks or “piece books” and may ask someone whose work they admire to hit them up with a design or stylization.
As it turns out, these black books resemble the friendship books that were in vogue a few hundred years ago. There were known as a lieber anacoram, Latin for a book of friends. These were volumes with blank pages, and were filled in by a variety of people asked to write or draw something. Without belittling the concept, one analogy would be high school yearbooks.
Craola (Greg Simkins), whose talent is unsurpassed, puts it this way: “A shared tradition of our growing up in the graffiti movement was passing around black books and sharing ‘styles’ with each other, therefore leaving a mark and sharing our techniques a bit with those we respected… It was also how I honed my skills as I learned to create dynamic compositions to later be painted on walls.”
Pipeline to the past
Ed Sweeney brought several graffiti artists to the Getty and David Brafman showed them various rare books from the 16th, 17th centuries, and so on, that appeared to parallel their own approach to art. The 400-year-old lieber anacoram they were shown didn’t seem so strange or dated after all: “They said that’s exactly what a black book is.”
On that occasion there were 10 or 15 main artists, Brafman is saying, as we sit on the rooftop of ESMoA (the El Segundo Museum of Art), along with assistant curator Lisa Cambier and in-house curator Bernhard Zuenkeler. Two floors below us on this warm Sunday afternoon the cathedral of graffiti art is taking shape.
Those 10 or 15 artists were each given 10 pieces of paper of uniform size and told to hand them out to their crew or to other artist friends, with a deadline of three months to bring them back. In the end, 143 works were returned, by over 150 artists. The works were photographed, digitized, and bound, with only a thin sheet of archival cellophane between each piece, which were arranged not by area or affiliation, but alphabetically.
In this way, Cambier says, “there’s a range of styles and colors and forms, and it’s not separated by who reached out to who, or who considers themselves in the same crew.”
The artists, rather than the Getty, opted to call the bound volume L.A. Lieber Anicorum.
Because the artists or groups of artists were from different communities, which might also mean different ethnicities and affiliations, there was some concern about having them gather in the same room, even though they had all agreed to being in the same book. Apparently there was no mayhem on that account, although (as the title implies) to say they’re all “friends” might be roiling the waters a little. The scope of the project clearly trumps any irreconcilable differences, at least for now.
It would not be askew to wonder if any of the submitted works crossed the line of decency. Were any pieces rejected?
“No,” Brafman replies. “There’s always pieces you like better than others, but no.”
This writer has carefully studied each of the leaves – they are viewable in great detail on the Getty website – and they are not confrontational or subversive. On the contrary, they are often vibrant with bold, zestful, confident lines. Some resemble designs for tattoos, some resemble flyers for punk rock shows that you “rescued” from telephone poles in the ‘80s, and some will remind you of what you’ve seen on the sides of boxcars and railway trestles.
Brafman admits that he was surprised at how respectful the artists were of the border of the sheet of paper they were working with. “My feeling was,” he says, “if you want to hang a hubcap off of a piece of paper, and there’s some way we can bind it in, we’re happy to do that.”
And so, no little packets or pockets with bits of fabric, paint chips, feathers or pressed flowers.
Brafman has also been impressed with how respectful the artists have been to the property where they’ve been gathering en masse, as well as to one another.
Which brings us to how the show jumped from the page to the wall.
The Getty’s rare books curator David Brafman, third from right, and assistant curator Lisa Cambier, second from right, with four of the six artist-curators of “Scratch.” Photo by Gloria Plascencia, contributing photographer
Wouldn’t it be nice if…
Brafman met with Zuenkeler one evening, as well as ESMoA’s Brian and Eva Sweeney (no connection, I’m told, to Ed Sweeney), and said, “The one thing that bugs me is that I really want this more public experience of the artists looking at rare books and the artists’ work.”
They replied, Why don’t you do it here? And so the idea was conceived “to explode the black book on the walls and on the floor of ESMoA,” says Brafman, “to have the rare books in the cases and their stuff on the wall.”
Is the work downstairs – remember, we’re still sitting on the roof – a reproduction of some of the work in the L.A. Lieber Amicorum?
“Some of it is,” Brafman says, “but we didn’t ask for that. We knew we couldn’t coordinate 150 people, so basically we picked six co-curators” whose style they knew, instructing them to “reach out to five or six people or whatever, and do what you want.”
The gallery was divided six ways: the two end walls, and then the two longer side walls, divided in half. The artists themselves worked out who got what space, and about 50 artists have been involved, many of them standing on hydraulic lifts (scaffolding without scaffolding). They aren’t painting directly on the walls but rather on large wood panels that can later be removed and stored, and remounted elsewhere if the show travels.
Now, although so-called street art is an equal opportunity employer, the percentages lean heavily towards Hispanic and African-American artists, and that’s probably why our “cathedral of graffiti art” is less evocative of, let’s say, Kent Twitchell, and closer in feeling to the large-scale works of Siqueiros, Orozco, Rivera, Mexico’s los tres grandes, and their cohorts such as O’Gorman and Charlot.
Watching the artists in situ, dozens of them, in fact, with spray cans and paint brushes, locked into the creative process, is a show (and maybe the show) in itself. While the result, after all the gear is packed up, is bound to impress those who step into the lofty space, being there at its birth is another experience that can’t be repeated.
There are times when the full impact of an artistic endeavor cannot be grasped until the exhibition is up and running, and “Scratch” has the potential – as Brafman and the Sweeneys realized – to be one of those sensations that’s remembered and spoken of for years to come. One doesn’t have to like the genre at its worst, that is, when taggers spray gang symbols on your fence or in other ways defile neighborhood property, but here’s a chance to see a genre in its best light, and to realize that it’s not only at the forefront of 21st century art but in many ways not so very different from what was being created in centuries past.
The comparisons to Dürer that are floating about are not as farfetched as some people would have us believe. There’s room at art’s banquet table, you know? As for that dismissive comment about David Brafman and “Nothing more,” the response to that accusation speaks for itself: “Scratch” is one of the most splendid trumpet blasts of color, form, design and stylization that you’re likely to encounter.
If you go:
What: Opening reception for “Scratch”
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday,
curatorial remarks at 2 p.m.
208 Main St., El Segundo
Duration: Through Sept. 21
To learn more: (424) 277-1020 or ESMoA.org