"I Play Gangster Rap Only" by Jeff Soto

"Pervasive Fusion" NYArts Magazine Vol. 10 (March/April 2005) No. 3-4.

            Here in New York where anything interesting in the overpopulated expanses of the art world is hard to come by exists a subculture. It's vocabulary is rooted in grafitti, tattoo art, hot rod detailing, comic book illustration, punk rock and hip-hop. It's practitioners look down on Andy Warhol as a vapid rip off artist who took their best ideas and made millions. They think Clement Greenberg was an asshole for devaluing their influences as mere kitsch. There is a value placed on craft, skill, labor and narrative representation that is a refreshing alternative to the sloppy slipshod shit that all too often passes for objects of worth at art fairs too numerous to count or care about anymore.
            Many of them are illustrators or graphic designers who want to say something more than what is allowed by their commercial shackles. Some are rock stars outright, some just rock stars in their own outsider minds. They don't care about Lacan or Foucault, Derrida or Baudrillard but look instead to Herman Munster, Joey Ramone, Ed "Big Daddy"Roth and J.R. "Bob" Dobbs for truth and meaning. They prefer Coney Island to Dia Beacon and if they have been to Matthew Marks Gallery they wondered why the hell things cost so much or why anybody gives a shit about what's there.
            It's called lowbrow art by one of it's chief proponents, Robert Williams, (painter and founder of Juxtapoz magazine) and Pervasive art by one of it's stars Gary Baseman. It's getting really big.
            Juxtapoz boasts readership that rivals that of Art in America and is competitive with Art Forum all without their exclusive endorsement and closed door insider bullshit. With the designer toy industry's boom, webzines like crowndozen.com touting their wares and magazines like Beautiful/ Decay, Alarm and Giant Robot or galleries like Fuse and Jonathan Levine providing a platform in the last several years it's gained tremendous steam.
            A fortress for this subculture exists in New York at Fuse Gallery which hosted the Supercalligraphic Show in November. A two person showcase of the work of young lowbrow bonafides Jeff Soto and Tristan Eaton, Supercalligraphic offered something fresh, colorful and exciting.
            Jeff Soto specializes in quasi robotic-looking creatures that upon closer inspection appear to be manned by smaller creatures from the inside. Some are one-eyed droplet eared beasts who wear spiked jack'o'lanterns as clothing while roller painting butterfly wallpaper (‘Manifest Destiny"). Others are hidden inside Iron Man-like metal helmets with boom-box tape deck bodies that play "GanstaRapOnly" (At least that's what it says on the tape inside the deck right?).
            All have long syrup-string arms that are spiked, holding flowers, or roller painting. The characters loom over city scapes, some in layers of cartoon green clouds, patterns of enamel squares or cubes set over spray painted black areas. Soto dabbles in the political with "Los Angeles" a piece that shows a cop's night stick spiked on fire and intertwined with pink, spikey plant stems in front of a smoggy city scape. And he susses out the spiritual with "Black Skull" and "Heart" whose title subjects are shown with either roots or stems growing out of them. Soto insists that interpreting his work need not be too involved a process- "It's about change" he stated when I met him at the reception.
            Tristan Eaton has already distinguished himself as creative director for Kid Robot, a major distributor and flashpoint for the collectible toy movement in New York. While the pieces shown draw from some of the same set of influences as Soto, Eaton's work is much poppier, shinier, and happier. African princesses, a constant in previous work, appear here again. Some facing each other divided by canvas edges lined by graffitti, some ballooned out and floating as though waiting for the Thanksgiving procession at Macy's. His imagery and characters have the snap and jive of sexed-up cereal box icons from the streets of Detroit or Brook'nam. Know what I'm sayin'?
            It was a cohesive and well-curated show. Both played off each others strengths well with analogous textures and color schemes. Despite the large amount of work it all fit tidily on the flat black walls of Fuse Gallery. The 3-D prints they collaborated on were pretty great as well. It was a fitting combination of artists in a great gallery from a subculture in need of more recognition from the High Art establishment. Ya heard?!

For more information on the work of Jeff Soto visit jeffsoto.com.

For more information on Tristan Eaton visit thunderdogstudios.com or kidrobot.com.