Aiming too high

When the graffiti art collective Two Six first began making art at the turn of this century, its members were largely young artists cutting their teeth at the University of Manitoba. Having since taken divergent paths and developing individually as artists, the group has reunited for Aiming Too High, their first collaborative exhibition in over a decade. Such a reunion is fertile ground for re-examining these artists’ works, both individually and collectively, as well as contemplating how art has changed over the decade.

Though the show features works from Melanie Rocan, Ian August, Shaun Morin, Cyrus Smith, Fred Thomas and David Wityk, no signage is provided in the gallery to indicate which artists are responsible for which pieces. More than emphasizing the collective nature of Two Six, this choice also serves an aesthetic purpose. Those familiar with each artist’s individual work will be able to spot their diverse signatures from piece to piece, but the often contradictory styles of the works bumping up against each other becomes a style in and of itself.

In addition to the visual, the clash of styles has a thematic objective. Nowhere is that more clear than in the show’s centerpiece, Shame Wall, a massive collage of many smaller pieces by the group. Diverging widely in subject, the pieces carry political slogans, found objects like license plates and logos and familiar figures like Ronald Reagan, Troll dolls and Bob Ross.

While each of these pieces may have been composed with an individual thematic purpose, the collective takes on its own message. That message, intentional or otherwise, isn’t easily determined. But such is the nature of graffiti, multiple images from multiple artists piling one on top of the other in a public space until the space itself supersedes any individual tag or slogan.

This commentary on graffiti is perhaps Aiming Too High’s most compelling bit of subtext. The relationship of graffiti or street art to the art establishment is the essential story of popular art in the 21st century thus far. Two Six are a clear example of this relationship, originating with DIY, illegal art in public spaces, then moving into galleries and more conventional artistic success.

This movement from street to showroom has made graffiti art synonymous with fine art in recent years, making the distinction between the two difficult to ascertain, if not obsolete. Is graffiti in a gallery really graffiti? Where is the line between graffiti as a genre and its more ancient usage as a public declaration of love or protest?

Fortunately, Aiming Too High avoids street art clichés where it could easily have been a rehashing of popular styles of the last fifteen years. Each of the artists in Two Six brings a unique approach, none of which conform to obvious street art conventions. Whether it’s Morin’s cartoonish effigies, Rocan’s painterly hazes or Thomas’ repurposed rusty fragments of urban decay, these artists understand their role as a graffiti collective isn’t to parrot street art motifs and themes. It’s to speak their truths as individual artists, and let those collective truths speak to one another.

Aiming Two High is presented by Lisa Kehler Art + Projects.

Published in Volume 72, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 7, 2017)

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