SOMArts exhibit spotlights illegal expressions of art

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Your heart accelerates as adrenaline soaks through your system. The “high” is triggered by the SOMArts exhibition “I Am Crime: Art on the Edge of Law” where amber lights flash from a mock police car and panicked voices echo out of video sets. The show captures the weight of the risk, impending consequences and immense pride that can only result from saying — or shouting — “Fuck the man.”

“I Am Crime” lies at the crossroads of law-breaking and self-expression with more than 20 artists using legal transgressions as the motor force of their work. They explore the implications of coming a crime. Who can break the law? Why do it? How does this play into our current definition of democracy?

The exhibition is conceptually rooted in political theorist Chantal Mouffe and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose works examine resistance to norms and the place criminal acts hold in a democracy. While art today is often about breaking the status quo, “I Am Crime” takes this idea to a new level.

The artists revel in offending the system, satirizing and criticizing it. With a yellow painted bat symbol and an emergency siren, artist Corbett Griffith transformed a Porsche 944 into his very own Batmobile. The crime-fighting machine sits in the gallery’s center with photographs of Griffith’s arrest in the window (it is illegal to affix sirens onto a civilian car). The car’s presence inside a gallery space creates the unsettling dissonance that serves as a backdrop for further shocking interactions with the art.

Five artists, E. Claire Acuda Bandersnatch, Jeremy Novy, Jessica Hess and Nite Owl occupy the wall with stenciled and spray painted figures, text and symbols. They convey the message printed above the anarchic chaos: “Great Spirits Have Always Encountered Violent Opposition from Mediocre Worlds.” From the medium to the iconography, the group ridicules the rules opposing street art and shows the depth of beauty in this illegal form of expression.

In contrast to the shamelessly assertive tools of graffiti, watercolor and paper comprise Susie Cagle’s piece “Occupied Oakland, An Illustrated History.” Using the more traditional media, the journalist-turned-artist distilled her personal observations into a colorful Occupy Oakland storyboard. In the same way a reporter might arrange scraps of information to formulate a story, Cagle pinned to the wall over 50 illustrations, which include maps of tent encampments, sketches of police-inflicted wounds and overheard dialogue. With clear and concise illustrations, the narrative is both informative and poignant.

In showing the delinquency of each artist, the show also exposes the criminal embedded into every person, not just those deemed “artists.” The gallery left certain walls blank for future contributions by outside participants. Although this choice made the exhibit appear unfinished, the participatory element was a provocative addition to the show.

In “True Crime,” the art collective Critical Art Ensemble invites contributions of law-breaking art. Among those already set up for display were a handwritten playlist of songs ripped illegally from the Internet, three large canvases smeared with a marijuana-and-glue mixture and a photograph of a couple, the guy labeled 22 and girl labeled 15.

In condemning existing laws and norms, the artists reject these structures. They are setting forth new standards that depend on total freedom for the real creativity. Collectively, they prove that whether by calculated manipulation or by blatant oblivion, there is an art to breaking the law.

Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.