‘Street Level’ exhibit at the ICA is a quiet show of loud work

The Boston Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) is currently hosting a small show that, despite its size, packs a punch. Though it only highlights three artists – Mark Bradford, Robin Rhode and William Cordova – “Street Level” is a challenging exhibition that stands as a milestone for “street” artists slowly entering the art world.

Those that are familiar with street art know the underlying narrative of the show well: Urban artists, unable to afford space for a studio or organized space, turn to public places to show their work. Though the line is blurred between street art and graffiti, there has been a division created in recent years between those tagging buildings with spray paint and those aiming for higher artistic aspirations. A controversy has arisen over the future of street art, whether or not the art should enter the art world or stay away from the hustle, the politics and the money.

The work of the three artists featured here is strong in every sense of the word. Their pieces, ranging from digitally constructed video to sculpture to collage, are strong both aesthetically and conceptually. Bradford, an artist whose star has risen rapidly in the past year, displays particularly good work. Upon first glance, his collages have the look of large-scale abstract expressionist or minimalist canvases; his “Black Wall Street” (2006) brings nothing to mind more rapidly than a Clifford Still. The jagged red gashes and strong, acidic colors of the collage are a perfect contemporary match for the strength of presence of Still’s work.

The difference shows through when considering the materiality and process of Bradford’s work. He takes torn-down billboards, the remains of advertisements and posters, and amalgamates them into a new whole. The finished product has none of the pretension of an oil-paint canvas hanging in New York’s MoMA; rather, Bradford’s collages take on the look of things pounded by wind and time and the footsteps of thousands of people. They have been lived. They are made up of the detritus of images that we see every day and ignore. Instead of glancing past the wall of ads on the street, Bradford turns them into works of beauty and intricacy. They access the aesthetic traditions of painting with their vivid colors and swirling compositions, but they also use the heritage of pop art in appropriating commercial images and incorporating them into a new context.

Rhode’s videos and serial photos are a product of the YouTube.com generation just as much as they descend from the heyday of graffiti in the 1980s. Stop-motion animation, combined with tricks of the camera angle, make Rhode’s two-dimensional spray-paint drawings into interactive spaces in which he places himself, turning paint lines into a car that he lifts far above his head like a superhero. They have to be seen to be understood, but their poetry transcends the usual stigma of spray paint and street-wall graffiti. They are immediately accessible by any audience, a kind of narrative of childhood, imbued with innocence and fun.

Cordova completes the trio of street-influenced artists in the show. More conceptually oriented, his pieces don’t tend to be the visual blockbusters of Bradford and Rhode. In one particularly ironic gesture toward the divide between street art, graffiti and the art world, he dedicates an austere graphite work on paper to Mary Boone, a highly recognized and accomplished artist from New York City. Antiestablishment? Working outside the system? Hardly.

Looking at “Street Level” as a whole, it is immediately apparent where the problems lie. Works hang on stark white walls, set off against a slate grey floor. White-Cube syndrome. The atmosphere denudes the work of its inspiration and vitality by removing it from the atmosphere that created it: the street itself. The show does not feel bombastic or alive enough. One is tempted to suggest that ICA make use of its own environment, engaging the waterfront or its tremendously empty surroundings, to get more impact out of the work. To place a Bradford collage in the corridor overlooking the waterfront at the back of the building would be to connect it intimately to the bustling, busy, messy life in which his work strives. A vacuum is not the right context.