"Wawa Run" by El Toro
"Wawa Run" by El Toro

All art is derived from other works of art. Street artists make this particularly apparent. While other artists often obscure their influences, street artists take pains to let you know exactly what they’re referring to — and what they’re sending up. Graffiti, the misunderstood cousin of street art, is a cornerstone of hip-hop culture, and hip-hop has always thrived on recontextualization. But many of the sources of the creative re-use that is popular among modern street artists preceded hip-hop. Ron English, the pop artist who has been active in and around Jersey City for decades, often seems to be carrying on the anti-commercial and anti-advertising work of parodist groups like Adbusters.  Billboard modification, Mad Magazine, Wacky Packages, and all-purpose Madison Avenue mockery: satirical strategies based around imitation have been around for a long time.

But are they effective?  Does transforming the Burger King logo into something that undermines the regency of the Burger King make a salient point about the brand, and fast food, and royalty, and consumer culture? Or is the presence of the iconography too strong for that?  Is a critique by simulation simply eaten and absorbed by the big monster of capitalism, much as a man would a big appetite might scarf down a Burger King burger?  Luckily for those of us who ponder such things, there’s a place in town that’s perfect for wrestling with these questions: Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison Ave.).  It’s our most reliable interface between indoor and outdoor art; a liminal spot that gives wallspace to artists who’ve also proven adept at graffiti-bombing buildings.  Aerosol titan DISTORT has shown his work there, as have Clarence Rich, Mr. Mustart, and the time-bender RU8ICON1.

Now comes “Savage,” an amusing, cutting show of roughly a hundred works by fifteen street artists, many of whom draw from advertisements, video games, official government announcements, cartoons, promo posters, and symbols from the American unconscious. Curator Sean 9 Lugo is a reappropriator and code-breaker himself: his drawings and paintings place the head of a Hallmark teddy bear atop the body of a typical young urbanite. In “Savage,” which runs until July 30, this hip-hop Winnie the Pooh appears in the guise of various rappers, including Conway the Machine, Sean P, and Crooked i and Joell Ortiz of the supergroup Slaughterhouse. (No Joe Budden, though, which surprised me, given the town that’s hosting the show.)  If that isn’t enough signifier-scrambling, he’s placed each of his teddy bear rappers on the cover of a vintage comic book. That’s a blood-spattered teddy bear Benny the Butcher, complete with his Montana chain, wearing an innocuous animal head from the greeting-card aisle, staring out from a Marvel first edition. A variant, of course: he’ll take liberties with characters, but he’s got his geeky verisimilitude down pat. 

Some of this is pure cleverness — a talented artist splashing around in the wide pool of consumer culture, following his nose, and making the instinctive connections that excite him. Sean 9 Lugo’s murals, which are now very much part of the landscape and character of Philadelphia, are similarly playful and similarly nostalgic. Not everybody in “Savage” takes the same approach. Some of the best work in the show isn’t even particularly figurative. Viro Rivera’s four-canvas series “First Fall Far From Home” consists of delicate, diamond-shaped images in acrylic that simultaneously evoke snowflakes and autumn leaves. The spray-paint and mixed-media pieces on paper by the Peruvian artist Entes feel like fragments of tagged walls, little cake slices of a city written and overwritten.  A fascinating diptych by the enchanter Doug Nox feels like the covers of twenty fantasy novels at once. Cats’ eyes, hatchets, swords and shields, angelic maidens with Medusa-swirls of hair, spellcraft patterns in electric pink, hearts and bunnies and scribbled, illegible characters leading to at least one smoking sphere of annihilation: Nox, amazingly, holds all of this in balance in his pair of giclée printouts. These could be the twin payoff screens of the best computer role-playing game you’ve ever played.  None of this imagery is particularly novel, but it’s worth defeating the end boss to see how masterfully Nox fuses these fantasy tropes.

Nox’s work is also a reminder —  and really, the whole show is — of the marvelously nerdy qualities of Deep Space Gallery. Sophisticated as the work at Deep Space can be, it’s rarely all that far removed from the pages of comic books, graphic novels, sci-fi flicks, and the covers of classic albums. This may be a statement about the dispositions of outdoor artists in general as much as it is one about the gallerists who love them. Muralists love making avatars, and Sean 9 Lugo is hardly the only street artist who has created his own cartoon character. Deep Space favorite BARC the Dog, whose work isn’t included in this show but certainly could have been, is so closely associated with his blue canine character that it’s hard to tell where the creation stops and the artist starts. Chris RWK, who occupies most of a wall in “Savage,” reproduces the same slash-eyed, slump-shouldered, lovelorn robot in all of his pieces. There’s very little doubt that the sorry little guy is meant to be a figure of the artist himself.  Then there’s El Toro, who is so attached to his orange-bodied gremlin in acrylic that he can’t let the figure rest in place.  Point your phone at ‘Wawa Run” or “Sk8,” and if you’ve got the proper app installed, you’ll be treated to an animation, right there on the spot. 

Might these artists have branding on their minds?  Probably.  A cartoon character is certainly easier to market to a popular audience than a landscape or a still life.  But even superheroes are often expressions of their creators’ insecurities — dramatic compensations for intense feelings of outsiderdom.  Lugo, who grew up in an immigrant Weehawken family, often inscribes his sense of dislocation and alienation in his street art. His half-man half-bear is neither one thing nor another, caught between two worlds, attempting to project ferocity and tenderness, both fierce and plush, big enough to intimidate and tiny enough for an infant’s carriage. 

It’s also not entirely his.  It’s a collaboration with Hallmark, that All-American company; a bit one-sided, true, but I won’t tell them if you don’t. El Toro’s orange alter-ego totes a Wawa bag, and Chris RWK superimposes robots directly atop a page of Archie Comix.  These artists live in a world of logos, mass-produced franchised characters, symbols pounded flat and simplified, and that world is, of course, our own.  Just like we do, they’re doing the best they can with the digitized and infinitely reproducible images that surround them.  Some of the artists in “Savage” simply surrender in creative ways: Lace In The Moon gives us, among other things, a lovingly stitched PacMan ghost, a crocheted tube of Crest toothpaste with a curly yarn extrusion, and a squeezable Prozac pill that could double as a pillow.  Andy Warhol might’ve smiled; Claes Oldenburg would understand, too. Kid Hazo’s work is pure post-Adbusters satire, including send-ups of old Circuit City and Dairy Queen logos. Marisa Velázquez-Rivas places Lady Liberty’s famous torch in a modern manicured hand with dagger-like fingernails. 

Then there is the show’s most audacious example of adaptive reuse. City Kitty fills an entire Deep Space wall with service-change posters from the MTA that he’s aggressively enhanced with pen and pencil decorations of snowmen, Baby Yoda, the Count from “Sesame Street,” New York landmarks, and a three-eyed fantasy feline that is very likely a stand-in for the outraged artist. Most of these illustrations are comments on the specific nature of the service interruption: some of his characters make their confusion manifest, while others are justifiably profane. The series is called “Four Years of Frustration, Delays, and Missed Appointments,” and it’s unlikely there’s a single commuter in the metropolitan area who won’t sympathize. In order to created the installation, the artist needed to engage in an act of civil disobedience: he had to swipe the posters from the subway stations.  In this case, pilfering is part of the art.  Unlike some of his “Savage” partners who’ve played nice with establishment images and signifiers, City Kitty makes his derision manifest.  More than anything else, it’s the clarity about the meaning of his gesture that makes his work a standout in this amusing, lively, thought-provoking show. 

(Tonight, Deep Space will be showing the first episode of “Sprayin’,” a documentary series about street artists.  The film focuses on aerosol virtuoso Mustart, who’s certainly no stranger to the gallery, and who’ll be on hand for a Q&A.  7 p.m., 77 Cornelison, people. Visit Deep Space Gallery)

Featured image: “Wawa Run” by El Toro

Tris McCall

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...