Review of Modern Cowboys at ArtGallery
by Michael Norton
Norfolk Fine Arts Examiner 01/13/10

Graffiti as art has been the subject of intense debate in the art community since Andy Warhol embraced a young graffitist named Jean-Michel Basquiat. Is it art? Or is it simply vandalism? If it is, indeed, art, how is it to be evaluated against conventional painting? If not, why are the paint happy deviants not in jail instead of being celebrated in highbrow art circles?

Perhaps the answer lies in that low art somehow strikes at the self consciousness of high art. Once art is pursued for its own sake its end necessarily is to define itself. Artists are always testing the boundaries as originality becomes the paramount virtue. Norms must be questioned, rules pushed, fences not mended but breached. This mindset is almost sardonically epitomized by graffitists who, like drovers in the Old West, are trampling fences erected to keep them out.

Thus Modern Cowboys, the latest exhibition by photojournalist Mike Wood now showing at ArtGallery in Norfolk, is one of the more important exhibitions to pass through Hampton Roads this last year. Wood spent three years documenting the daily lives of a local "crew". The result is a thought provoking and artistic look not only at graffiti, but at art itself.

A photo has more success than the police capturing the graffitists eluding a helicopter hovering overhead. The camera shakes as the photographer chases after the perpetrators, effectively encapsulating the anxiety and pandemonium. The graffitists are running away from the railroad cars they had been vandalizing, towards the fence they had breached to gain access and the woods, where wild things are welcome and free. The symbolism is exquisite. The railroad tracks and fence form classic perspective lines, away from which the graffitists, rebels against the straight and narrow, run, run away from responsibility for their actions.

Graffitists are an odd lot. As Lorrie Saunders, curator of the exhibition, observes, they meticulously "tag" their efforts so that it might be recognized as their work, yet use aliases so that they cannot be identified by the authorities. Not that the legitimate art world is any less strange, considering these graffitists are now being commissioned to create murals as public works. Taken from the base of a wall looking up as the graffitists plies his craft, another work from Modern Cowboys could be that of an abstract expressionist, if not for the spray paint can wielded by the artist. This photograph wonderfully portrays the ambiguous relationship between high art and what graffitists do.

But what exactly do graffitists do? Is it art? Or is it simply vandalism? Another of the photographs in the exhibition manages to capture the dualistic value of graffiti. The top shows a beautiful example of graffiti art. At the bottom of the photograph is an ugly collection of discarded spray paint cans, lids, and other refuse from the artists.