Beyond the Street, a very large release from Gestalten and edited by Patrick Nguyen and Stuart Mackenzie, sprawls through “the 100 leading figures in urban art.” If I look through it as a collection of what essentially amount to magazine interview-style pieces, it both reads and looks great. Many of the images seem exclusive to the book — a bit of an accomplishment as most of the artists and works shown are from the last decade of Internet ubiquity. Yet to look at the piece as a whole, the flaws of Beyond the Street reveal something that the broader movement — call it what you will, in this case it’s ‘urban art’ — is crying out for: context. Tellingly, there is zero discernable order — historical, geographical, or otherwise — for organizing how the profiles are presented. Nor do the profiles interrelate in a meaningful way that would provide a sense of the progression from older artists to younger, regional differences, and so on.
Then of course, when putting together a list of 100 leading anything, there will be omissions and questionable choices. I have my own issues with their artist selection, but the non-artist choices in Nguyen and Mackenzie’s list feel worse, even cynical. An important, if not essential piece of the ‘urban art’ equation has been the DIY ethic of open participation: It is an anti-gatekeeper aesthetic. Yet nearly a third of the ‘leading figures’ are gatekeepers of one stripe or another: galleries, curators, and institutions — everything short of traditional publishers, because, well, the book’s on Gestalten and listing them or other publishers like Gingko would be weird.
Don’t get me wrong, many of these gatekeepers are great — several have made the fine choice to work with me in one way or another, even pay me, over the years, and are friends. But still, to highlight so many gatekeepers over artists is a strange move in an art movement so firmly rooted in the power of open group participation. That so many of the choices are entities that exist, let’s be honest, to make money gets a little yucky. And the choices, in particular, of all three of the very patrician old-guard auction houses Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s, as leading figures of urban art? Perhaps I cling a bit too much to a populist fantasy, but barf.
There’s great reading and looking to be had in Beyond the Street, plenty, in fact, to justify its purchase. But the book provides an unintended realization: It shines a bright light on the money that’s come into the game, money that at best changes and at worst undermines the most basic of tenets of the movement that the book highlights. And the absence of context is an issue that needs to be addressed. As this slice of contemporary art moves from galleries to museums — like the exhibition “Viva La Revolucion” at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, curated by Pedro Alonzo (also profiled in Beyond the Street) — that need will only grow.