Joe Syer, Head of Urban & Contemporary Art
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Self-proclaimed as “the most comprehensive graffiti & street art exhibition”, the Saatchi Gallery's Beyond The Streets London unites over 150 artists across an enormous 70,000 square-foot space. Throughout the 13 rooms of the exhibition you are taken through an immersive journey, from the humble beginnings of Street Art to the over-hyped and over-saturated world of today. Though the Saatchi is - undisputedly - the perfect setting for the colossal survey, the White Cube space seems to stand in opposition to the free-spirit this exhibition champions.
From the moment you step inside the Saatchi, you are planted in the eclectic and subversive world of Street & Urban Art. No area of the gallery has been left untouched by the defiant hand and spray can of this international genre. Even the gallery staff wear head-to-toe Adidas Originals - who have supported the show's stint in the UK. From start to finish, this exhibition is dizzying, inspiring, at times shocking, and simply a lot to take in.
Among the tremendous list of featured artists are Keith Haring, KAWS, Shepard Fairey, Jenny Holzer, Robert 3D Del Naja, Mr. Brainwash, and Guerrilla Girls - to name a very select few. Curated by graffiti expert Roger Gastman, the exhibition is a clear passion project - uniting everything from old dance tapes, memorabilia, record cover sleeves, posters, paintings, sculptures, and anything and everything in between.
Throughout the three floors of the gallery, several immersive installations situate you in different eras and distilled moments of Street Art's conception and development. Before you even enter the exhibition, you are afforded a glimpse into Todd James' The Vandal's Bedroom, a small haven totally covered in colourful tags, with reference photographs and spray cans littered about the scene to show the graffiti artist's process of creation. From the get-go, Beyond The Streets London is a show which ignites inspiration in the viewer - almost urging us to pick up a can and leave our own mark.
On the ground floor, the first large installation is a record shop kitted out with a poster rack, hoodies fixed to the wall, and a working record-player where you can spin the disks on show. It's fun and interactive, like exhibition in its entirety. You get a sense here of the origins of Street Art, a movement which interacts intimately with the current trends of its age.
The pièce de résistance of these installations is Kenny Scharf's Closet #42 Bestest Ever. Concealed behind two black curtains, you are immediately transported into a cavernous and otherworldly realm. With a glittering disco ball and nearly every surface painted in fluorescent colour, this cosmic cavern champions the weird and wacky world of Street Art. These immersive installations speak to the international scope of the genre, and pull us into different places and times. They make us realise that Street Art really does lie ‘beyond the streets‘, affecting every part of pop culture since the 1980s.
From the record shop installation onwards, the indelible tie between Street Art and music is made crystal clear. Screens show the vibrant hip-hop scene at London's Covent Garden in the 1980s, and are a joyful show of dance and synergy. In a clear attempt to tailor the exhibition for the London audience, band posters are hung throughout which pay tribute to major players in Punk like The Clash.
Keith Haring's record cover designs for Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals sit in an cabinet of their own. Haring's cartoonish Barking Dog and human figures animate the cabinet, and show the Pop Artist's playful approach to McLaren's equally playful record.
One room on the top floor invites you in with the beat of A Tribe Called Quest's Electric Relaxation. This room had particular energy, with photographs of black artists and groups - like Funkadelic - lining the walls. However, in typical White Cube fashion these musical moments were confined to screens or small rooms. In an exhibition devoted to the sounds and voices of the street, audio could have been used to more exciting ends.
Likewise, the link between fashion and Street Art is cemented from the beginning of the exhibition. From the clothes worn by the Beastie Boys on stage to Adidas sneakers, clothes are shown to be an evocative tool and product of Street Art. In another ode to London, several cabinets highlight the histories of some of the city's most iconic alternative ateliers: namely Vivienne Westwood's Sex on the King's Road.
Upstairs, we begin to see how Street Art's relationship with fashion began to edge towards hyper-commercialism in the '90s. KAWS' advertisements for Calvin Klein impose his Companion character on two models, as though they had been defaced on the streets. The collaboration proves the power of Street Art, commanding attention in the fashion world - as well as the art world.
At times, the exhibition felt a little bit like a play-by-play of Exit Through The Gift Shop. There are three stencil works by the infamous Mr. Brainwash, the unassuming protagonist of Banksy's ‘mockumentary’. There is also an entire room devoted to Shepard Fairey, the ultimate graffiti-artist-turned-streetwear-extraordinaire. That being said, some key players from the movie were missing from Beyond The Streets, like Invader, STIK, and the ultimate elephant in the room: Banksy.
Indeed, it's hardly surprising that Banksy is absent from the exhibition. The elusive street artist has shunned institutions throughout his career. Ironically, the complete omission of Banksy seems to add to the drama of the show. Beyond The Streets is a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of Street Art, and not even Banksy - the darling of British graffiti - could be tamed for the Saatchi.
You end your circuit around the exhibition in two strange and sobering rooms. One is decorated floor-to-ceiling with distorted QR codes - seemingly an allusion to the possible future of Street Art. This uncanny space leads to a bizarre installation of a Ralph Lauren shopfront, whose mock-brick walls are crying out for a spray can. You are planted firmly back into reality, and find yourself wondering where all the colour and character went.
All in all, Beyond The Streets London does exactly what it promises. It is educational, entertaining, and a true celebration of graffiti's core ethos. In fact, one visit probably isn't enough to view and ingest the colossal scope this blockbuster exhibition has to offer.
Beyond The Streets London is running at the Saatchi Gallery until 9 May 2023 - get tickets here.