Richmond, Va.’s arts district has gotten a new look — the look of “New Brow.” Washington gallery Art Whino has brought its third G-40 exhibition to Richmond to inaugurate the city’s new arts district with 19 outdoor murals and an indoor exhibition featuring more than 500 artists working in the “New Brow” style, also known as lowbrow, DIY, and street art. Previous G-40s have been problematic, though. Will the third time be a charm?
For the first G-40 event, in 2010 in Crystal City, two artists were arrested for felony destruction of property after tagging the outside of the Arlington building where the show resided. They say they had understood the whole building to be their canvas, but when director Shane Pomajambo learned of the vandalism, he kicked them out of the show. That year’s G-40 was derided by Washington Post critic Phil Kennicott for its mediocrity, and the following year’s exhibit got more attention for its parties and musical performances than for the art.
Many of the artists from previous G-40s have returned, which means that many of the themes that Kennicott noticed in 2010 could persevere:
Little girls, skateboards, tattoos, spray paint, space aliens, nerves and viscera, blood, skin, sex, adolescence, urban grit, bleeding hearts, skull and bones, hybrid human-animal figures, comic books, garbage, tight clothes, creepy sexual scenes, foreign scripts.
The repetition of these themes is, at first, bewildering, then depressing. Asian girls with big eyes staring at you with dreamy and suggestive looks of desire are everywhere — although curiously, this seems to be a predominantly male fixation. The hyper-sexualized pre-pubescence of this recurring figure is imploring, demanding, like the figure of an orphan in a melodrama. If mediocrity is defined in part by its insistence on being heard, she is the poster girl for the most basic of messages: Look at me.
Of course, the artists and fans of G-40s past would argue that mainstream acceptance or orderly law-obedience is not on their list of goals. But even though these artists think that their work exists outside the realm of institutional acceptance, street art has been making its way off the street and into the white cube for years now — so institutional acceptance matters to street artists now more than ever (think of Shepard Fairey). Several of the G-40s participants have gallery practices, where their work can sell for price ranges in the thousands.
The G-40 is curated, but with more than 500 artists, is still extremely inclusive. The range of quality at previous G-40 exhibitions has been quite broad. Some artists have national reputations in the street art world, while others are, to paraphrase Kennicott, mediocre and derivative. Some fall into both of those categories, with New Brow representing “perpetual visual adolescence, a dreamlike state of primitive sexual desire, associative thinking (and doodling), powerful narcissism and a general tolerance for low-grade obscurantism.” It may transform the landscape in Richmond, but will it transform art? Depends on who you ask.
The G-40, which encompasses several locations, opens Friday, April 5 in Richmond, with events continuing through May 5.