Preview & Essay: ” Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment” at Museum of Art and History, Lanc

“Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment,” opening at Museum of Art and History, Lancaster (MOAH) on Saturday, November 11th, and curated by Lisa Derrick and Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre, serves as a fine complement to the documentary film “Dark Progressivism.” The curatorial statement for “Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment, is an appreciative and insightful academic perspective of what might be called “Rasquachismo.” Rasquache is a term from Mexican culture referring to something considered low-class, throwaway, or beneath respect. Rasquachismo is the ethos of creating something expressive out of those materials or practices considered to be rasquache.

Rasquache-inspired work tends to lie outside of the academy and institutional approval lineage. The show is rich with expressions of this ethos: Chaz Bojorquez, Big Sleeps, Prime, Rafael Reyes, Gajin Fujita and Gerardo Monterrubio incorporate Los Angeles-originated street letters and symbols into their work; Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez’s seemingly abstract work directly references autobiographical elements from street culture; Michael Alvarez incorporates “bad photography” artifacts into his paintings of street life; Carlos Ramirez’s potent mix of signs (literally) and symbols reflects urban facts of life; Jim McHugh collaborates with Big Sleeps and Prime to create gritty neighborhood portraits; Horacio Martinez creates a mash-up of Aztec and gang cultures; Peter Greco is a traditionally trained calligrapher now including work on public walls. Prime deserves special acknowledgement for using scribed cement as one of his material choices:

“Use what you know,”

he told me.

These are all examples of practices transformed from socially based traditions to personal expression using a fully formed personal aesthetic, visually and narratively.

There is a human predilection to be seen and acknowledged through mark making in the public sphere. It is especially clear where there have been civilizations with rules, and walls, that people have wanted to be part of a public dialog, high or low. Several early forms of graffiti from 79 AD can be seen preserved at Pompeii. These include political graffiti, popular graffiti (“I was here/John loves Mary”), and what scholars like to call latrinalia, “bathroom graffiti.” Crusaders left graffiti scribed into middle-eastern stone during the middle ages. Hobos marked railroad cars and established an elaborate set of symbols to communicate advice and warnings to other hobos. Cholo (Latino gangster) graffiti, literally scribed into the sidewalks, started a Los Angeles tradition in the early 20th century that evolved into arguably the first distinctive American outlaw font styles.

When you add youth’s need to be rebellious and give it a helpful push from western culture that so admires the anti-hero rascal, well, it seems inevitable that art forms would evolve from that.

Most of the artists in the show, if not directly using rasquache materials or aesthetics, still reference the not-shiny, not-pretty city and street life that gives rise to Rasquachismo.

The installation environments, “Payphone” and the wall by Fishe and Dreye, are usefully instructional for showing the distinction between gang writing and modern “style writing” graffiti. For those coming out of gang life, the wall writing in Payphone is so specific in style and purpose to that world that they don’t refer to it as graffiti, but as a “placa” or “plaqueaso” (plaque), “hit-up” or just “gang writing.” To people coming from gang life, it is the post-New York approach that is referred to as “graffiti” with its colorful and whimsical letterforms and abstractions. The borders between these two worlds and styles may be porous, but they are nonetheless different.

It’s interesting to note that all creative expressions of hip hop—graffiti, its dance for