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Having been born and raised in New York’s Lower East Side, it is not without a certain affection that I came across the collaborative multimedia installation show, American Beach, at the SMFA. On view in the BAG Gallery until February 2nd, the exhibit brings together 15 artists, including Trevor Powers, Phil Fryer, and George Rosa, who, over two days, collaborated to turn a rather plebeian space into a messy visual wonderland.

Such creative impulses toward the everyday urban terrain is reminiscent of the way skateboarders turn concrete curbs and metal rails into athletic venues, local gardeners turn empty lots into community gardens, and street artists turn blank walls into canvases. I can remember as a child how the wall in the local handball court would become completely covered in intricate new designs every few weeks, the "Purple Man" who painted footprints all over the sidewalks that ultimately led to his extraordinary urban garden, or the feeling of excitement when stepping into (one of the few) really well painted subway cars.

American Beach is expectedly uneven, balancing on the border of blight and brilliance, new elements are discovered on each successive viewing. There are some really fantastic pieces — a video installed inside of a newspaper dispenser, works on wood with designs that come off the object onto the wall, one photographic portrait with the subject’s feet floating in a frame in front, another photograph laminated onto wood that is reminiscent of the cover of Paul's Boutique, strange sculptures comprised of a variety of found objects, many interesting character driven illustrative paintings directly applied to the wall, and my favorite of all, a pencil drawing of the Notorious B.I.G.; some of the other pieces seem little more than clutter, but the value of selective works isn’t the point.

The point really is the spontaneous exhilaration of the collective, coming together as a group with creative intentions to turn nothing into something. If much of contemporary art reflects themes of the ordinary and vernacular, here is art applied on the ordinary and vernacular. This creates a condition of art making which is always responding and at the mercy of, shifts in the social fabric. Community gardens become reclaimed for development, the work of well known street artists is removed and sold commercially, and like this show, walls are repainted and become blank once again.

Recently, a well known New York venue for street art slated for condo redevelopment, 11 Spring Street, attracted a number of well known street artists including D*Face, Black Cloud, and Shepard Fairey to come make work for one last time on its walls. Over the course of two months artists came and made work, but the exhibit lasted for only three days before the contractors came. Like Tibetan monks producing intricate sand mandalas to be wiped away, it is in the time spent together during the process of creation where the art occurs, and in its temporality where its value remains.


School of the Museum of Fine Arts

"American Beach" is on view until February 2nd in the BAG Gallery at SMFA.

All images are courtesy of the artists and the author.

About Author

Ben Sloat is a Boston-based photographer, critic, and curator. He is a founding contributor of Big RED & Shiny.

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