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The New York art world is currently in the middle of a wave of nostalgia for the ‘80s East Village street scene. As gentrification and rising rents destroy the last traces of that great burst of creativity, the memories and mementos from the streets have been enjoying new life in innumerable galleries over the past couple years.  

Having seen a wonderfully curated historical retrospective of street art in December, I hesitated to think I could learn or experience anything new from The Art of New York:1980’s. I was wonderfully surprised. Firstly, it is an extremely appropriate venue for holding an exhibition of this kind; the large open spaces the rooms provide, in an environment that isn’t sanitized in the manner the Chelsea spaces usually are, allows the viewer to experience the works in a way that evokes the open-air grittiness of the streets, as best as can be reproduced in a gallery. 

Richard Hambleton’s apartment door.

Upon walking in, my eyes were first drawn to the three Richard Hambleton works in the corner opposite the entrance. Richard’s career is undergoing a posthumous renaissance, with his creations now selling at high prices, after a deeply tragic and destitute life. The three pieces included here represent a brief snapshot of Hambleton’s variety of styles, two shadow paintings and one landscape, “beautiful painting,” made with the artist’s blood. To stare at Richard’s life force flayed out onto the canvas, at close up, is a moving experience. 

Directly facing the Hambletons are works by another East Village star who, in my opinion, has been underrated. Rick Prol, who collaborated with Jean-Michel Basquiat and the other more well-known names of his generation, draws cartoonish depictions of calamitous circumstances in a style influenced by German Expressionism that has been updated for the punk and goth era. Pairing his striking images that directly impact the front of the eye with the subtler Hambletons was a lovely curatorial decision.

Linus Corragio, the curator, was a member of the Rivington School, but his repertoire extends beyond the metal works that group focused on. His failure to hold himself to any one motif has been said to be the cause of his not becoming as established as some of his colleagues, but as someone at the center of so much of what occurred during the 80s, he deserves to have greater coverage. Some attendees at the show’s opening remarked to me that perhaps Linus had included too much of his own work, but I thought that, as someone who was personally involved with all of the other artists displayed, he was right to reframe himself at the forefront. 

Of special notice are three new collaborations Linus has made with the Anglo-American cartoonist (among his many other talents) Anthony Haden-Guest. The blend of Anthony’s pen with Linus’s scrap refashioning creates collages that tease the brain. 

Rick Prol.

Also on display are old and new works from Ken Hiratsuka, a delightful piece from the playful, unfortunately late FA-Q, creations from the graffiti and rap legend Fab Five Freddy; and some large, complex abstracts by Christopher Hart Chambers. Another 80s star who’s not as much in the broader public consciousness, Chambers came to make street art as a theoretical and aesthetic choice, and his works are perhaps the most intellectually challenging of this exhibition. There are many other artists featured here, in a space sprawling across three rooms and two corridors, all of whom were important movers and shakers in the art of the old Lower East Side.

As I write this, I see already that there are other street art retrospectives occurring. This one, however, I feel is the best, because the works featured are not the run of the mill kind that are now so commonplace, and with the mixing of the famous with the lesser-known, the viewer will be able to go beneath the standard publicized veneer of East Village art and actually begin to gain a better understanding of the history and thoughts that inspired these talents to make a studio out of their neighborhood..

The Art of New York: 1980’s

Curated by Linus Corragio

Contra Galleries

122 West 26th St. 5th Floor

Closes February 28th