Since the street is something we city dwellers can appreciate every day, bringing the street into the gallery seems potentially weird and fakey, like garden-scented aerosol spray for the bath or fruit pies that advertise real apples and artificial flavoring. In "Streetwise," a tie-in to Barry McGee's graffiti exhibit at Rice Gallery, Doug Lawing has puzzled together pieces (including some of McGee's painted liquor bottles) involving violence, trash, homelessness, cops, playgrounds, bashed-in cars, buildings, wheat-pasted posters and, of course, graffiti to form a virtual streetscape. But unlike the show at Rice, where the idea is simply re-creation, the mostly unknown artists in "Streetwise" provide interpretation.
Sometimes that's as simple as framing the action, and there's a certain "streetwise" authenticity involved in being there at the right time. You can't take the sensational documentary photographs Jesse DeMartino does -- of a skate punk in mid-ollie, for example, soaring over a group of louche, lounging friends -- without living and breathing your subject to the point of being able to anticipate every move.
But not all the artists here represent like DeMartino. Even before the falling trash scene in the Sex Pistols movie Sid and Nancy, squalor possessed an undeniable romance, and some fail to avoid the pitfalls of fetishizing what they see. Anthony Hernandez shoots what he calls "Landscapes of the Homeless," sneaking around in makeshift dwellings and tent cities when no one's home and photographing their dismal circumstances. Where DeMartino gives back to the skaters by capturing their glory, Hernandez comes off as merely voyeuristic.
Seeing and being seen, though, is a large part of public life, and those who frequent the street by choice expect a certain level of observation. In The China Girls: All American, shot from a vantage point in a public playground, Carissa Rodriguez explores the fine line between seeing and spying. What seems at first like aimless wriggling and telescoping of the video-camera lens coalesces hypnotically into a haphazard pattern. Rodriguez's camera is following the impulse of her eye, and, it gradually becomes apparent, her eye is following a particular girl. At one point in the video's gentle rhythm, the girl stops and stares quizzically but without malice at the camera, as if being under surveillance were just another thing to take for granted, like the Internet, cell phones and diaper bags.
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Sasha Noe's impulse is to isolate a fleeting street-level action, in this case a bottle breaking, and bleed it of emotion and violence through mechanized repetition. It's a good idea, cleansing the implications from breaking glass to leave only a lovely aesthetic happening. But Noe has overdone it by building a clever, Tinguely-ish machine. By way of a loud mechanical process, a beer bottle is rolled out of a chute and into position, at which point a hammer swings down and breaks it, littering the ground below with shards of glass. The whole thing is so elaborately in love with itself, it distracts from the starkly simple moment when the glass actually shatters.
Mailena Braun is more successful at reaching a somewhat similar goal. Instead of isolating an action, she has isolated a form. Her piece consists of a crumpled, tattered piece of brown paper, of the sort that comes on a roll, languishing on the floor. She has given the paper a coat of matching brown paint, conferring on it a flat, clean purity that distills the trash from its trashiness and connects it, despite its ephemeral nature, to the minimalist sculpture of Richard Serra.
Despite its snappy title, the politics that underlie "Streetwise" are gentle, once removed from the bravado of a graffiti tag. Lawing has once again demonstrated his thoughtfulness, assembling a show that comes at its theme from many directions, not all of them predictable. It shouldn't be surprising, therefore, that the heaviest work in the show comports itself as the most benign and quiet. Karen King has enlarged police "mug shots," head shots that every New York police officer has taken at the beginning of his or her tenure. The cops she has shown here, macho and scared, young and blank-faced, ended up in trouble -- one for "drunken behavior," the other for holding off a crowd while a white guy beat up a black guy with a club. But as with so many things you see on the street, you can't tell what the story is from looking just once. You have to take apart the pieces, sniff the ground and look again, and that's the opportunity "Streetwise" provides.
"Streetwise" is on view through October 9 at Lawing Gallery, 214 Travis, (713)222-2025.