The origins of humans making marks on walls for religious, ritualistic, political, personal, artistic or commercial purposes date back at least to the Paleolithic cave paintings of circa 38,000 B.C. These are assumed by scholars to have been produced because of their potential to make existence easier or more comprehensible.
In succeeding times, graffiti continued to serve multiple personal and merchandising ends: “Kilroy Was Here” was a World War II declaration by GIs. “Bird Lives” followed bebop musician Charlie Parker’s death. And “Black Owned” during the ’60s rebellions attempted to ward off arsonists’ flames. Walls of Respect murals followed in black communities across the country. The ’80s in New York City saw graffiti artists competing for public space with professionally produced advertisements. Exterior-wall artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat developed from their ranks to become style setters and gallery favorites.
The photographic documentation of these wall-altering activities is an art form in itself — Ben Shahn and Walker Evans are but two of the genre’s better-known practitioners. Lester Sloan, photographing the poster and text-covered facades in various European and American locales, joins this distinguished list and adds his social and philosophical concerns, and his technological innovations.
One of the negative results of the barrage of public visual information and eye-spam we’re assaulted by on a daily basis is our becoming numb to the possibilities of the beauty surrounding us. Equally ominous is our becoming gullible consumers of those posted, prepackaged, predigested images.
Sloan’s exquisitely composed pictures are digitized and their color saturations and contrasts are manipulated in the printing process. This lets him create a palette that radiates through the pixilated, sand painting-like textures of his surfaces. His images, composed to the point of abstraction, challenge us to look at and appreciate the familiar in new ways. They allow us to see — despite, or perhaps because of, the rip, rig and panic of the urban day-to-day — the universality and spirit of humanity shining through the patina of grime, the ravages of seasons and the conspiracy of neglect.
But these images are not headache-inducing equations, like some theorists’ cryptic deconstructions. They’re delightful tales being told in Crayola-colored tones, though not with frivolous intent. Compare, for instance, the two different-sized versions of Klee’s Wind Surfer. The kite shape in the smaller print is a bright yellow, angled contour next to a ragged vivid red rectangle. It has a childlike immediacy and a joy as dazzling as the experience of lofting a kite for the first time. In the larger version, with its much more muted tonality, the kite takes on a less playful feel and calls for contemplation of past possibilities, perhaps ones that were lost.
How to properly read the various works becomes a game — how to position oneself to be able to distinguish whether it’s the panorama of a wall of a partially demolished building being observed, or a detailed close-up of some portion of that wall. Is that an eye beneath a smudge of black and peeking past that smear of yellow? Is that really Mandela smiling beneath the lemon-colored stalactite that obscures most of the golden smile? Viewing Sloan’s work is like a game of intellectual and aesthetic hide-and-seek.
Sloan’s stated mission is in part to search for surfaces that speak. See them loud and clear in his “Urban Glyphs” at Dell Pryor Gallery (4201 Cass Ave., corner of West Willis, Detroit) through June 7. Call 313-833-6990.Poet and playwright Bill Harris is a frequent Metro Times contributor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org