Ray Noland’s Sweet Tea & American Values
By Allison Ashmore
At this point we are all familiar with the street art aesthetic. Banksy, Shepard Fairey and the like have entered the mainstream art world with increasingly commercial works, and to a wide spectrum of critical reactions. This increased commercial success has only added fuel to the fire in the debate over the nature, definition, and authenticity of so-called “street art,” a debate that has been longstanding between street artists and graffiti artists. One response to this conversation can be seen at a recent exhibition of Ray Noland’s work, Sweet Tea & American Values at the Chicago Urban Art Society, on view from June 11 to July 30.
Noland, an artist and designer working under the alias CRO, received his BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1995). The artist is best known for GoTellMama!, the poster, street-art and video blitz that promoted Barack Obama’s presidential campaign from 2006–08. His work toys with racial identity, pop culture, politics, and related social behaviors. The imagery in his arsenal is historical and contemporary, focusing on the forces that continue to shape American society.
The show features the artist’s meticulously hand-cut stencil work on canvas, board and the gallery walls. Recognizable to many Chicagoans, the stencils existed originally in alleyways and on street corners. With this presentation, a multitude of sizes, mediums and images are gathered together to provide a spectrum of all the artist’s stencils. Although the works are no longer in their natural habitat, so to speak, the show adequately negotiates the appeal of public art within the confining space of the gallery.
The bold, straightforward, graphic quality of Noland’s aesthetic remains strong within the show; there are no attempts to “legitimize” the work via canonical art historical references or “painterly” techniques. The traditional art context—stencils on canvas in gold frames—do not diminish the satirical pull of the work. Noland’s work retains political capital in the simplicity and integrity of the stencils, and the artist’s method remains consistent from the alleyway to the gallery wall. The artist simply transplanted the street into the gallery. In fact, he reclaimed gutters, doors, and awnings from various neighborhoods to provide backdrops for the works in the show.
In No Race Cream, an image with certain prevalence throughout the exhibition, vintage skin whitening advertisements of the 1940s and 1950s are referenced with satirical appeal. A few works humorously represent pop icons including Michael Jackson in Thriller Zombie. The most recognizable set of stencils are depictions of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, especially Run, Blago, Run. This image of the former governor on the run in a tracksuit, as he was often seen in his neighborhood, has been scattered throughout alleys and underpasses across the city since the former governor’s arrest.
Guerrilla-style art that has grown out of the graffiti scene has expanded beyond paint on cement. Duplication and distribution are inherent elements in Noland’s practice, and this show highlights and privileges the integrity of this system.
Sweet Tea & American Values at The Chicago Urban Art Society, 2229 South Halsted Street, Pilsen, through July 30