Swoon, Leslie Stem and Chris Stain are visual artists who share a fascination with the culture and aesthetics of the urban environment. I hesitate to use the term "street art," but it's important to understand the context from which these New York-based artists, particularly Stain and Swoon, derive their inspiration, and in which they define their creative practices. Put simply, they see the outside world of pedestrians and walls as a more potent display space for their ideas than the comparatively sterile pretenses of art patrons and the white cube. Swoon, in an interview with The New York Times, once said that outdoor display avoids the "quiet, boring preciousness" of the gallery world.
Thrust into curator Lauri Mancuso's Dorothy 6 gallery for their collaborative show, Cultivating Alleyways, the trio are presented with the challenge of making sense of their work inside the space that they have largely built a reputation on escaping.
To be sure, cinder-block-walled Dorothy 6 is no white cube, and Braddock is no Chelsea; it is hard to imagine a better arena for this show than Mancuso's unorthodox, experimental project space nestled in an historically rich small town of overwhelming urban decay.
The trio have approached the challenge head-on and retained their disdain for the precious and mundane. They've overloaded the gallery with the external world, nearly turning the space inside out in an attempt to foster the environment appropriate to their methods. The backbone of this stunning show is a meticulous, constructed environment composed entirely of salvaged scraps from abandoned lots near the gallery. Old doors and plywood, chicken wire and fencing form interior walls, nooks and shrine-like mini-galleries for the artists' prints and photographs.
It is the sheer ambition of the execution that gives the newly cultivated alleyway-in-the-gallery such tremendous impact. The warmth and reverence that Stem, Swoon and Stain share for storied surfaces and materials resonates throughout. "I want to live here," one visitor effused as she walked through; that's not something you hear too often in a gallery.
Upon this impressive shell, the artists place their work. In terms of relating her breathtaking, life-size woodblock prints to the already dense visual milieu, Swoon is the most fluid. Her intricate, figurative images are wheat-pasted onto doors and planks in a manner similar to how she works (if you will) plein air. Her drawing style is at once furiously sketchy and decidedly representational, her prints flowing from portraits to collage-like landscapes and into messy abstractions.
Stain's crisp iconography also populates the walls and windows. Rendered in spray paint, his style is more graphic and his figures more gritty and less romantic than Swoon's gestural forms.
Stain and Stem also use constructed display spaces to showcase their more formal (precious) works. In an altar-like space, Stain presents a series of small stencil works on steel, a surface he handles with surprising delicacy and depth. His compositions pay homage to labor, poverty and working-class struggle. Stem, meanwhile, uses her display area, a fully enclosed one-person gallery, to showcase photographs of dilapidated surfaces and structural complexities in housing -- images which could have been shot in the surrounding neighborhood (though they weren't). The photographs are undoubtedly the most delicate objects in the show, and their subtlety is easily lost amid the visual noise, even within Stem's own enclosure.
Yet even here, in an installation that seems to playfully undermine the preciousness of art objects, there are still some very distinct separations between the objects and artwork. The nested gallery spaces, for instance, seem to contradict the show's most moving idea: that art can be made from anything and found anywhere. The craftsmanship and skill of these artists is best evidenced in the installation environment itself; the mini galleries seem a strange concession, or a resigned reaction, to the status quo of the cube.
That said, Cultivating Alleyways is full of amazing spectacle, and in its best spots it showcases ingenious combinations of images and objects. It is a must-see for anyone curious about alternative ways to make and view visual art, and anyone who's ever thought that cracking paint might be just as beautiful as a fresh coat.
Cultivating Alleyways continues through May 27 (hours by appointment). Dorothy 6, 264 Library St., Braddock. 412-951-0622