Abstract Remix offers Oklahoma muralists a freeform forum for big ideas
When Pablo Barrera was earning his undergraduate degree at University of Pennsylvania, he saw an enormous amount of public art and murals on the streets of Philadelphia. The city is home to the largest public art program in the United States: Mural Arts Philadelphia, which began in 1984 and has since turned much of the city’s center into a canvas, invites local artists to convey Philadelphia’s character, concerns and hopes for the future.
Many of the murals were massive in scope, occasionally spanning the entire sides of multi-story downtown buildings, and they were often figurative, portraying local heroes and community favorites. As Barrera began talking to staffers at Mural Arts Philadelphia, he learned that much of the public art being done in the city was commissioned with specific topics in mind.
“Which is fine, you know — there's nothing wrong with that,” said Barrera, Oklahoma Contemporary’s associate curator. “It’s just that I did notice that when I started talking to the people who ran the programs, they weren't necessarily looking for the artists to propose a mural. It was more that they would search out artists and say, ‘We would like a mural on X theme and we'd like you to design it according to your style, but make sure it's looking like this thing that we want.’”
Fast forward to May 2021, when USA Today names Oklahoma City the nation’s “best city for street art” in its 10Best series.
“Oklahoma City might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about street art, but this city has become a veritable outdoor gallery,” the editors wrote. “Start your explorations in the Plaza District before continuing on to the Western Avenue corridor and Bricktown.”
In the six years since the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate began working with local muralists to beautify the bare walls of the city, Oklahoma City leap-frogged over more established cities and organizations to become a welcoming, hospitable place for large-scale outdoor paintings.
Along with the state’s growing support of public art, Barrera also saw that Oklahoma had flipped the script on the power dynamics surrounding murals — the artists had more say in the final results.
“It was really like, ‘Here's some walls; go nuts,” Barrera said. “I thought that that was really cool, because I think a lot of artists had input on the foundation of the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate and the creation of this program, so it was definitely for artists and definitely designed to showcase artists. I found that to be a very different flavor.”
That flavor gave rise to Abstract Remix, a new exhibition featuring the works of Oklahoma muralists Rhiana Deck, Codak Smith, Kalee Jones W. and May Yang, which will run Sept. 30-Jan. 24 in our Mary LeFlore Clements Oklahoma Gallery. The idea for the exhibition was to let go of figurative and portraiture work completely and embrace Abstract Expressionism, but to do so in a way that feels unique to the experience of the Oklahoma-based artists.
In 2017, Oklahoma Contemporary created another unique experience with large-scale works. It hosted Not For Sale: Graffiti Culture in Oklahoma, a group art show that featured 10 artists who have been an integral part of the Oklahoma graffiti scene. Artists painted their pieces directly on the walls of the gallery, transforming Oklahoma Contemporary into an amazing display of styles.
Jeremiah Matthew Davis, artistic director at Oklahoma Contemporary, said Abstract Remix is a continuation of the ideas explored with Not For Sale.
“Like Not For Sale, our 2017 exhibition highlighting Oklahoma graffiti writing and culture, Abstract Remix presents the opportunity to learn about art history and visual culture through bold, new works of contemporary art,” Davis said. “With this new exhibition, we’re inviting four artists — each of whom has developed a unique approach to abstraction — to paint murals right on our gallery walls. At the conclusion of the exhibition, the original works will disappear behind coats of paint, never to be glimpsed again.”
Barrera said this idea of creating art directly on the walls of the gallery will cause these works of Abstract Expressionism to be seen differently by visitors, and the idea that the works will eventually be covered by a new layer of paint creates a kind of urgency.
“I always say this over and over again when I talk about contemporary art: that I love how contemporary art makes us reflect on things that we think we're familiar with, to see them again in a new light,” Barrera said. “And so what I like about the title, Abstract Remix, is this idea that you take things that you know, but then you recombine them and sort of reinterpret them. You chop them up, you dissect them, you kind of start to spread them out. You start to figure out the components that matter, and you free them from their associations so you can have a whole different engagement with the material.”
This is what Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock did with their Abstract Expressionist work, which became a creative and commercial force in post-World War II. Later artists like the Neoexpressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who began as a graffiti artist in the late 1970s and then drew attention from the art world establishment, illustrate the transition from the streets to the galleries.
The Abstract Remix artists represent distinct backgrounds and approaches. Jones, a native of Texas who now makes Oklahoma her home, works with both paint and stained glass and hopes to merge the two media in the future. Yang lives and works in Tulsa as a mixed-media artist with Flash Flood Print Studios, where she combines her love of screen printing, painting and collage. Smith, a native of Portland, Oregon, works as a muralist and street artist as well as a tattoo artist, and Deck, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, works in acrylic paint, aerosols and occasional beadwork.
Abstract Remix will be installed in the Mary LeFlore Clements Oklahoma Gallery, a space dedicated to showcasing Oklahoma artists, and the artists will be painting their murals directly on the walls of the gallery. Barrera said Abstract Remix returns murals to their interior roots: from cave paintings to religious frescos of the Renaissance period, murals were largely an indoor phenomenon. In some ways, the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s embrace of outdoor muralism and the graffiti movement of the 1970s liberated mural artists to create more public art.
“There was more sort of a pushback against the elitism of the gallery space,” Barrera said. “There was a drive and desire for art that everybody can see and that everyone can look at, where you're sort of turning the exterior and the whole city landscape into the gallery.”
As the title suggests, Abstract Remix takes Oklahoma’s recent muralism explosion and creates something new from its seeds. For Barrera, it is pursuing a different groove from what he saw back in Philadelphia.
“I think remixing is in the DNA of our contemporary culture,” he said. “I think that we really, really let it become a major defining element of how we interact with media. And I think that's a reason why this idea of remixing applies across the board. It's not just the hip hop element. I think this is one of many different manifestations of this desire to take things that we know and to recombine them into all new experiences that are exciting or novel.”
Don’t miss a beat — join us for next Thursday’s opening and artist talk or visit our galleries to see Abstract Remix starting Oct. 1.
Images: Kalee Jones W., From Underneath, It Surfaces, 2021. Oil on canvas. 24 x 36 inches. Collection of the artist. © Kalee Jones W. Photo by A.J. Stegall. Codak Smith, Abstract Remix logo, 2021. May Yang, Obstacle Remix 9, 2015. Mixed media on wood panel. 12 x 12 inches. Collection of the artist. © May Yang. Photo courtesy the artist. Codak Smith, Essential Angles, 2020. Aerosol and latex paint. 144 x 204 inches. Collection of the artist. © Adam Codak Smith. Photo courtesy the artist. Rhiana Deck, Ont Falama la Chi (I Will Go and Return), 2020. Acrylic on canvas with satin archival varnish. 36 x 48 inches. Collection of the artist. © Rhiana Deck. Photo courtesy the artist.
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