SF street art falls flat on gallery walls at 111 Minna

Alec Smyth/Staff

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Last week, Financial District art gallery 111 Minna became a shelter from the rain for the followers of three of San Francisco’s most prominent street artists: Eddie Colla, D Young V and Hugh Leeman. The gallery, equipped with two full bars, pumped a vibe-setting chill-wave playlist that made sure everybody in attendance felt adequately hip. The art on the walls, however, seemed a little less so.

Colla, D Young V and Leeman have each made powerful contributions to the highly decorated urban spaces of the Bay Area over the past decade. Their work, sometimes massive in size and almost always thought-provoking, can be seen under bridges, on sides of buildings, behind benches and in alleyways throughout San Francisco and the East Bay. At the opening, the artists displayed works created specifically for the gallery opening, including multiple collaborations between Colla and D Young V. While the pieces themselves were clear extensions of previous projects the artists have done on the street, the work’s relocation from the street to the gallery seemed to strip it of most of its meaning — rendering the art somehow mute and incoherent in the private setting.

One of Colla’s most iconic street pieces is a print of a bicyclist with a blue face-mask, a work the artist wittily placed at a busy intersection beneath the 880 and 980 freeways in Oakland. As cars go past, drivers are forced to stop and see the larger-than-life cyclist, like a frightened doe trapped by the rabid flurry of motorized vehicles wedging their way through the concrete. And for a moment, it hits you — the art has real effect. There’s something uniquely powerful about street art’s ability to make people stop and think or just look when they weren’t expecting to, and these artists are masters of that.

Colla, who started out with a marker doing subtle manipulations of billboards or advertisements in New York City, sees street art as an inevitability: “People are gonna mark stuff. That’s gone on since there were people. Look at Lascaux in France. It’s what we do.”

His slogan, which he has printed alongside a portrait of a sexy chick holding a bottle of spray paint, reads: “IF YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE GREATNESS STOP ASKING FOR PERMISSION.” And, perhaps as it applies to street art, he’s right. But that’s exactly what seemed to be the problem at the opening at 111 Minna: It was all just so damn permitted.

In response to a quite probing question about why he has shifted gears away from street pieces and toward gallery shows or T-shirt designs, Colla claimed, “You can do way more elaborate shit when it’s on permission. It would be impossible to pull off this kind of stuff (on the street) without someone stopping you.

Colla sees his artistic freedom expanded by the forum of private art galleries or walls set aside for a public mural. Undoubtedly, the work displayed in the show was more nuanced and refined than much of his previous work, but even his most technical pieces seemed to yearn for a more stimulating background.

The collection of pieces titled “Salvage Box” seemed like an attempt to recreate the texture of the urban landscape by printing portraits over welded pieces of aluminum and wooden posts. The portraits may have been interesting on the back of a metal street sign, but they felt too contrived jutting out from the clean white walls.

Is “sell-out” too harsh a term to describe an artist who quit creating work in public spaces and instead began almost replicating that exact work on canvases priced at thousands of dollars — to be taken home by yuppie faux art enthusiasts? The problem is not that Colla, D Young V and Leeman are switching forums for their art or that they’re asking to be paid for their work. What turned me off to the show was the absence of anything exciting or new from any of the artists, aside perhaps from Leeman’s cybernetic hawk and rat paintings, which seemed simply quite fraught. No doubt each of these artists has done some impressive work, and it would be great to see more of it. Hopefully, though, next time the art won’t be confined to gallery walls.

Contact Alec Smyth at [email protected].