Coded Languageat City Gallery Chastain defies the notion that graffiti writers just scribble on public property. Linh Ho-Carter, the international show's organizer, includes sculpture, paintings, drawings and projections along with an entire bus stop to prove her point. Behind the twisted letters, acronyms and symbols, she says, is a coded visual language that has left its stamp on fine art.
Kaws, a writer who has created animations for Disney, subverts advertising images affixed to the MARTA shelter on display. He breaks into the glass frontispiece and quietly paints his comic clown characters into the photos so slickly that they look as if they were meant to be there. A model in a Bebe poster ad, for example, gets a pumpkin orange face with Xs for eyes, though she keeps her full lips.
Totem makes his tag three-dimensional. A cluster of wall-mounted shapes spells out his name in taped-together cardboard that's spray-painted black. His comic alter ego, Kaiser Sosae, makes small stuffed ghosts out of colored felt, and paints mischievous little "Geists" (German for ghosts) into a series of thrift store paintings. One forest scene with a baby deer at the edge of a lake is haunted by pint-sized phantoms fishing for old shoes, roasting hot dogs and toasting marshmallows.
It's not clear what the decorative flower paintings by Ben Loiz have to do with graffiti. Likewise, the architectural renderings of robots on tracing paper by Peter Rentz and a re-creation of El Tono's work, which involves light projections of his tag on buildings in Madrid. The connection is more obvious, though, in Ryan Coleman's Rauschenbergesque paperworks under Plexiglas, which are composed of spray paint, photo transfers and drawings.
In one corner of the gallery, Shie renders an artsy version of the palimpsest that is characteristic of real-life graffiti. On a wall washed in pale green, he writes his tag in a lighter shade of green and overlays that with random black glyphs. He then spots the surface with paintings on canvas that contain stenciled elements and lettering.
If anything, Coded Language reveals how graffiti has been influenced by popular culture and technology. Focused on the "civilized" side of graffiti artists, the show effectively removes the genre's true romance. After all, isn't painting the town by moonlight the most titillating aspect of works produced by these contemporary outlaws?
Coded Language continues through Aug. 10 at City Gallery Chastain, 135 W. Wieuca Road. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-257-1804.