Beyond Borf, Graffiti That Makes Its Mark

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 4, 2006

While a certain Rust-Oleum-wielding Great Falls teenager serves a 30-day sentence in the D.C. jail, his spirit and tag evade detention in "Wall Snatchers," a rollicking exhibition inside a vacant Georgetown storefront. There, a handful of East Coast-based graffiti writers were invited to produce wall-size pieces and tags; a few couldn't resist mentioning Washington uber-vandal Borf.

That the District's naughtiest four-letter word pops up in "Wall Snatchers" proves what many already know: Borf is bigger than one incarcerated kid who used public property for a sketchpad. Borf's gospel of resistance, preached from the surfaces of news racks and sidewalks, inspired imitators. These impostors won't let the authorities gloat just because John Tsombikos sits behind bars.

A strong current of rebellion gives this Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran-sponsored show its spark. Absurdity grounds the exhibition and lends it humor: Its very content -- indoor, institutionally commissioned graffiti -- is something of an oxymoron. And when a gallery sitter invites visitors to mark the exhibition's public "tag wall" using the stash of markers she keeps up front, you can feel the street cred slipping away. No matter. Shelve your reservations and go anyway.

Of all the possible spaces for graffiti writers to show and hawk their wares (Mister Never T-shirts go for 25 bucks a pop, and Bask offers a $10 print depicting a baby inside a bomb), this linoleum-tiled, fluorescent-lighted expanse of disused commercial real estate feels like the right spot.

New York City-based collective Faile turned out pieces that most closely resemble commercial art. Its arresting wall work stars Roy Lichtenstein-style comic book heroines and is layered with references to movies and who knows what else. It would take several enjoyable days to tease it all out. Other writers painted dynamic graphics, some interspersed with words of protest and critique.

Though I could compare a few of these pieces to those by Sol LeWitt or Cy Twombly, trotting out art history references isn't the point. This exhibition is unlike most others. There are no price lists, no labels, no titles. That signatures are the art lends a postmodern kink to the proceedings, but too much theorizing feels forced -- especially when you know that these tags, like their counterparts on the street, will be painted over soon.

Just one piece will live past the show's closing date. It's Fi5e's clever, pseudo-scientific graffiti analysis project, a computer program that translates graffiti writers' gestures into algorithms. Visitors can click a mouse to see a variety of tags charted in velocity and rotation. Fi5e, aka Evan Roth, is serious about this stuff. He produced an 80-page PDF file that details the process.

Fi5e uses his technology to project graffiti onto public spaces for one-off performances. A TV monitor at the show screens some of those displays, including one in Manhattan's Washington Square Park. So long as Fi5e is projecting and not marking, the police have nothing on him.

Gen Aihara at Mu Project

Japanese-born photographer Gen Aihara picked up some remarkable skills from his boss, the photo-based artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. While Sugimoto's sublime installation hangs at the Hirshhorn Museum, Aihara shows a small but striking selection of black-and-white prints uptown at Georgetown's Mu Project. Like his mentor, Aihara makes work that's sexy and cerebral.

Aihara's subject is bubbles and condensation. Though that may sound banal, the photographer paints bubbles directly on photo emulsion using a photogram-like process that yields hyper-real images with intriguing textures. Aihara can conjure a touchable, suedelike surface with seeming ease. He breaks ladybug-size water droplets down into so many puckering mouths.

These water works are a marked improvement over a suite of 2002 prints in the gallery's rear room. Those pictures' surrealism -- a toilet seat emerges from a seaside fog like Excalibur from the mists -- comes off as shtick.

Lori Grinker at Project 4

U Street's newest gallery, Project 4, inaugurates its space with peacenik pictures that tug at the heartstrings. On view are selections from accomplished photojournalist Lori Grinker's 15-year project documenting and interviewing war veterans. She photographed survivors of most of the 20th century's major conflicts and quotes interviews with her subjects alongside her pictures.

Though her images are first rate, they're not the show's meat. Instead, it's the first-person accounts of war experiences that attract our attention. An Israeli soldier who lost his feet in the invasion of Lebanon is photographed floating in a swimming pool. The accompanying text is a tale of remorse from a hawk turned dove. Another image, of a Salvadoran man who lost a leg, is accompanied by the sad admission that his girlfriend left him after she saw the injury.

Grinker never shows preferences, taking care to document those on all sides of these conflicts with empathy and respect.

Wall Snatchers at 3307 M St. NW, 6-10 p.m. Friday, noon-8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 202-639-1828, through March 26.

Gen Aihara at Mu Project, 1521 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 11 a.m. -5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 202-333-4119, through April 22.

Lori Grinker at Project 4, 903 U St. NW, 1-8 p.m. Saturdays, 202-232-4340,through April 1.

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