"Nathan 'Sloke One' Nordstrom: Another Side"

At its best, this solo exhibition captures the swagger of graffiti on the street and the introspection of the gallery

When I was an undergrad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, students were sent into a frenzy over a graffitied mural tagged on the wall of the newly opened, Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. "MODERN ART...," the letters said. The students were unanimously in favor. "Yes, graffiti is art!" they cried together. That's fine, but what impressed me at the time was how uninteresting a statement that was. No shit, graffiti is art.

Because it is 2017 and not 1980, the idea that graffiti – as a technique and as a culture – belongs in museums is no longer controversial or exciting. What is more interesting is the question of how one transfers a colloquial art form that is meant to be seen on grimy walls and distressed fences into a sterile space absolutely determined to take itself seriously. When it works, it's thrilling (see Jean-Michel Basquiat), and when it fails, it's either hilarious, or worse, devoid of the energy of the culture from which it originated (see Vanilla Ice). The most enjoyable thing about Nathan Nordstrom aka Sloke One's "Another Side" is that there is so much work that a viewer can manage to see a little of both.

The piece that best manages to combine graffiti's swagger with the introspection of the gallery is Sky's the Limit, an abstraction of spatters, streaks, and swirls resulting in a predominantly deep red surface. Despite the party atmosphere, the piece is controlled, administered with a precision subtly indicated by the series of obscure right angles populating the middle of the canvas like ghosts. These right angles keep everything else balanced, a sophisticated compositional move that gives depth to the wildness of the aerosol medium.

I don't need artwork to be "sophisticated," but if it's graffiti and it's not going to be under a bridge where it belongs, then it should be adapted somehow to its new environment, the gallery. Unlike medieval altarpieces brought from cathedrals into museums, graffiti doesn't have the staid tradition of religious iconography to rely on, so if the balance, such as that in Sky's the Limit, isn't struck, things can go south fast. There is the occasional miss in "Another Side," and I blame it on this inability to adapt. Heartbeat is wild with swirling aerosol lines in bright colors that I have a feeling would look wrong even on a brick wall somewhere. There's no definition to the piece, nothing to focus on except the swirling, and so it ends up feeling like empty language – form without content.

My favorite piece in the show may also be the corniest. Incar­cer­ated Expres­sion is a canvas-sized brick wall, painted with crescents and squares, and guarded by a set of prison bars locked shut by a set of heavy, dangling keys. Graffiti was central to the Austin neighborhood I grew up in, so I can appreciate the heavy-handed symbolism, especially as this is the only piece in the show that is not entirely abstract. After all, we are talking about an art form that has traditionally consisted mostly of people writing their own names.

Incarcerated Expression feels authentic, but what I'd really like is a whole gallery, a whole museum, of street scrawl: Let it be rude, frightening, ugly, and political. Anthropological even. A place where the tradition of art is ignored, and a new, explosive one put in its place. That is how change happens, new voices amplified, and old hierarchies dismantled. So keep it up, Sloke One. Power to the people.

"Nathan 'Sloke One' Nordstrom: Another Side"

Sam Z. Coronado Gallery, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, 600 River, www.maccaustin.org
Through March 25

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graffiti art, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, grafitti art, Nathan Nordstrom, Sloke

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