Beyond The Streets of London at Saatchi Gallery February 2023 – Yes, you do have to exit via the gift shop, but then this is Saatchi boxing up your culture and flogging it back to you in the form of an expensive gallery exhibition and a nice big glossy coffee table book (49 notes a go!), It would be easy to wear a cynical smile and scoff at it all and, well, as Mr Vague just said on his social media feed in response to one of the West London photos that takes up a big space early on in the show; “now commodified. Oh the irony!”. Really though, the first thing to say before anything else, is that this is a very very good exhibition, that there’s loads here to explore and enjoy, that this is pretty much a must see show, that there are far more positives than negatives in here.
We thought we’d wait until the dust had settled and catch it on the Monday after the night before rather than what would have inevitably been a messy private view and a busy first weekend and yeah, I know, we didn’t have to pay the twenty-five quid each to get in, easy for us blaggers to say the show is well worth your ‘ard earned (ICJ in the house, to pay is to fail) And yes, as good as this is, if this rather large exhibition is some kind of history lesson, if it is? If it is, then it is a rather selective one, there are big holes here, but let’s not kick off on a negative. this is a really good exhibition, it is well worth going to see (if you can afford it).
So, Monday morning, first week of the show that lasts until May, the opening party has happened, the social media feeds have been plastered with opening night photos, the dust has settled and we’re on the sadly depleted brand-encrusted Kings Road heading for Saatchi’s big gaff. Now it would be fair to say I’m no fan of Saatchi or his gallery, I certainly don’t like the way The Other Art Fair refuses to address the issues down Brick Lane, I don’t like him or the selective ways of his gatekeepers, you don’t often find me heading this way but then this is a big event, this can’t be ignored, this is important. This exhibition is big in more than just one sense of the word…
“From defiant train writers to powerful large-scale muralists, over 100 international artists are featured in Beyond The Streets London. The exhibition, supported by Adidas Originals, is the most comprehensive graffiti & street art exhibition to open in the UK, and takes over all three floors of London’s iconic Saatchi Gallery”. So reads the blurb on the Saatchi website (so that’s any other sportswear company written out of the history then? The gallery staff are all in black Adidas tracksuits, the glass cases in the gallery are full of Gazelles and the rest it, not a hint of a Nike swoosh or a Puma puma to be seen)
“Following successful exhibitions in Los Angeles & New York, Beyond The Streets London features new works, large-scale installations, original ephemera and extraordinary fashion that capture the powerful impact of graffiti & street art across the world”. The big sign outside on the Kings Road talks of Graffiti, street art, hip hop, punk rock and such – “Curated by graffiti historian Roger Gastman, Beyond The Streets London examines the fundamental human need for public self-expression, highlighting artists with roots in graffiti and street art whose work has evolved into highly disciplined studio practices, alongside important cultural figures inspired by this art scene”.
There’s a lot of history here, “the history of self-expression” is a good way of putting it, lots of good stuff, lots of good art, lots of good pieces and posters and cassette tapes, ephemera, bits of cultural treasure, damn good to see early 80’s Covent Garden up there. Covent Garden was important, Alternative Arts and getting there early enough to sign on the list of dancers, crews, or in the case of half of us Organgrinders, Robot teams. Yep, we’re old bastards now, long in the broken tooth, good to see a screen up there showing videos of the dance and writing culture of early 80’s Covent Garden, it was a big big part of the London scene at the time, as was the Capital Hip Hop Jam that the GLC put on down on the Southbank back there (was it raining? Don’t think it was? The trees were certainly full of people trying to find a vantage point), good to see a small poster for the jam on the wall of that record shop installation (should have asked us, we’ve still got the ghetto blaster with all the stickers on it from that day). That record shop installation piece is rather good as well, damn pleased to see a Gunshot record in there, not sure about Skid Row though? Was mid 80’s hair metal ever part of it? And that’s the thing you see, you can go through this and for every “good to see that in here”, there’s a bit of “why is that there?” or a “but where is so and so or thingy?” There’s a Taki 183 tag reproduced, didn’t see a Samo anywhere though… Good to see that Newtrament 12″, last time we saw him he was homeless and living in a tent on a Hackney street, not that long ago actually, hope he’s okay, disappeared when Covid hit us all…
What we have here is a more than healthy mix of installation, history, big pieces of art, music posters, pieces of clothing, recent paintings from names both old and new and more besides. And so much of it, almost feels wrong to go picking out highlights, so many good things to see here, the big Jenny Holtzer wall of words is as powerful as she always is, love the VHILS doors, excellent to see a Futura 2000 in the flesh and we can never see too many Martha Cooper or Henry Chalfant photographs – always loved that Dondi one of him silhouetted between the two trains – yes, like everyone else, I’ve got a well thumbed copy of that book, ordered it as soon as it came out, has any art book ever had more of an influence than Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s vital 1984 book Subway Art? (and yes we did use some of it for backgrounds when the first black and white photocopied cut ‘n paste hand spray painted edition of Organ came out in ’86, indeed the book is still to hand right here in touching distance right next to me in the studio right now). Those Faile pieces are wonderfully good, and no, not tired of Shephard Fairey‘s refined colours yet. Damn good to see Malcolm Maclaren‘s Duck Rock featured strongly (and the original ghetto blaster recreated), Duck Rock was an important album back there. From what I remember, before the excitement of Martha and Henry’s book (I was a teenage fresh-out-of-school art foundation course student at the time, picked it my order from the book shop at lunch time, took it back to collage in the afternoon and we spent the rest of the day arguing about it – rather violently as I recall – some of the old school art lecturers did not like it! Fair to say it had a big affect on my life), before that book there were exciting glimpses of graffiti and street art things via videos of people like Blondie or Grandmaster Flash on the telly and then there was the brilliant sound of Mclaren’s Duck Rock album and all that scratching making me itch – there was that and then there was the main source for graff imagery that was the underground punk/skate scene, the zine and tape trading culture, the glossy skate magazines that came over, the underground thrash, speed metal and hardcore punk publications that was fusing things together (the Beastie Boys and their hip hop is well represented in the show but hey, they were an underground shouty hardcore punk band stages with Agnostic Front, Murphy’s Law and the likes well before that brought in the hip hop flavours, go find the dubiously named Poly Wog EP) – all that underground punk, not the NME version of punk, the real word of mouth stuff was coming over from America and mixing with the underground zine and tape fuelled UK hardcore punk/crust/squat scene that in turn was a rather big underground deal over here at the time. All about those skate mags, punk tapes and photocopied zines and tape trading lists and distros and cans of Halford’s car spray if they’d let you buy it (why do you want all these colours? What make of car did you say you were painting? No we’re not selling it to you!)
So yes, as good as some of those posters are. Toby Mott‘s Wall of Noise kind of misses as much as it hits, all those gig posters up there, but so much not there, big big holes. Sure there is a nod towards Poison Girls or Stonehenge and he just about squeezes in a Club Dog poster right down at the bottom there but where the hell is the hardcore punk, the zines, the skate/thrash crossovers? And as good as some of the bands were, there are some rather strange inclusions up there on Mr Mott’s big wall. Actually the whole exhibition feels a little disjointed, vital connections missed out, selective histories, not quite knitting together and as strong as the list of featured artists and writers is, you always are going to be asking yourself where’s so and so? Why isn’t thingy in here? And the big big glaring hole that is always there with things like this, the big part that’s always missing in terms of the UK and graffiti, where is the football culture of the late 70’s? Where are the tags (as they weren’t really called back then), where’s the spray painting your mark on walls in their territory? At their railway stations? That was always something, and those tags got bigger as the decade closed and they grew slightly more elaborate – who is this Robbo asked United? Arsenal? Who? it was a starting point for so many who then went beyond football and started to write just for writing’s sake or just for the thrill of it. Those Inter City Jibbers on Southern raids, the ICF or them Headhunters spraying on Northern walls. it was surely the football crews who wanted the right Adidas before anyone else? The firms who started taking can of Spray paint with them to away matches? The Clash under the Westway? Nah mate, the Cockney Reds did it away at Chelsea before the bloody Clash! As Rotten once said, The Clash were six months late with everything! But then you might say no one claimed this exhibition was a definite history did they?
Back to the future or at least back to this week, The 10 Foot installation is of course “interesting”, how could it not be? “What?!” I hear you cry? 10 Foot and mates in an establishment gallery like this? Surely that’s wrong? Yes! So wrong it might just be very very right?! Something akin to Jonny flogging butter on your TV screen maybe? Tox 23 in Saatchi Gallery, what is going on? Tongues in cheek? Love it! Good bit of 10 Foot writing as well, actual writing, almost an essay, up there on the gallery wall, important stuff, good stuff, good good good…
It is all a bit London centric of course, that and American, there was a lot going on back there in other cities, good to see some of the Birmingham/Wolverhampton history, it wasn’t just Covent Garden, talking of which, if you’re going to have “Clapton is God” on the gallery wall then you surely need “Astle is King”? Wolves fans won’t like it being said, but that was the most famous bit of graffiti in England back then – large letters on the bridge, over the canal, Netherton, heart of the Black Country, celebrating West Brom’s centre forward. Hey look, I swore I wouldn’t hole pick and go on about this or that not being in here, we’ll be asking where the Under Fives are next or about that time Vins and Eva went home and tagged the Eiffel Tower. And sure, there is a sad irony in the Vivienne Westwood shop bits being in here and not on the rather depressingly bland Kings Road itself now but let’s not moan like some boring old fart about how it was back there and you kids know nothing and I once saw the Pistols down the ‘undred club now then now then. Preposterous tales and rather like how it is in here, I might be hole picking but I do like this show lots and lots
Yes indeed, note to self, don’t be moaning, don’t be point-scoring, don’t be a grumpy old bastard, this is a damn good show, this is a big show, an important show, this is excellent – to see that big Swoon over there is brilliant! And great to see that group of relatively big Connor Harrington paintings in here, and the recent Paul Insect pieces are rather strong. The whole exhibition works in so many ways, it works partly because of the shape(s) of the building as much as anything, the following of the trail around the 12 numbered rooms, around the corners, up the stairs, love that wall of New York train cars on one of the stair cases and hey, it is rather busy in here for a Monday morning. But then there are big holes and there are bit that you question and where was this and that, and if we’re going to put punk and graffiti together and blah blah blah and the zines, the glue? And yes as excellent as it is, and there are far more positives than negatives, and as great as it is, the whole show does go badly badly astray around about room ten, that new kind of pop art stuff really is blandly underwhelming and what the hell is that Ralph Lauren bit doing there? Another of the sponsors? What was that leopard about, and well it did all kind of badly lose the plot at the end as it ushered us towards exiting via the gift shop. Let’s not dwell on that though, lets ignore the last three rooms and celebrate the Trouble Funk poster and things still smoking on the go-go scene, let’s focus on that fine 2022 Goldie piece, on the set of thrilling Crash canvases from the same year, let’s on the beauty of that Chaz Bojorquez piece and the detail within it if you really take the time to look at it rather than just walk past it – this is an exhibition that demands a good handful of hours, don’t let yourself rush it now, take your time and feast on the lines of that gloriously good Pride piece on the wall just there, on those really exciting Maya Hayuk pieces, adore her four letter word, her beautiful use of colour, brilliant!
And I love the energy and the quality of the marks made by Jason Revok, another 2022 piece (didn’t know his name was Jason!), I could spend hours just looking at just that one Revok piece, it looks like nothing yet there’s so so much there in those marks on the canvas and the way they’re made, the way the marks are placed. So many great pieces in here, so much to enjoy, to drink in, to celebrate, so let’s ignore the rooms at the end and the holes and the moaning about this or that not being here! This is a fine fine show, and yes, if you can afford it, then one not to be missed, feel like we’ve only scratch the surface with this review, let’s go round again, did I mention how good those VHILS doors are? or the Guerilla Girls? Or those Katsu Paintings? Damn good show, thanks Roger Gastman and team, a must see even if the bloody Clash feature way too damn much. (sw)
Beyond The Streets London runs at Saatchi Gallery until May 9th 2023, times and prices via the gallery website
As usual, do click on an image to se the whole photo or t orun the fractured slide show….