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Declaring Aerosol Supremacy: Statik’s Manifesto for a New Chicago Aesthetic

Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes’ show Aerosol Supremacy offers an expert demonstration of “can control,” color choice, and formal prowess, but also keen insight on the various influences and multiple histories of graffiti art.  A sort of retrospective for and of the underground, Aerosol Supremacy pays homage to the Chicago graffiti scene. Through demonstrated aesthetic excellence, it also argues that the often demonized medium of aerosol art is deserving of recognition as an authentic global art.

I met Statik seven years ago doing research for an undergraduate thesis about public art, gentrification, and community identity in Chicago’s Southwest Side neighborhoods. Stumbling across Statik and RK Design’s gallery in the center of Pilsen within a house covered wall to wall with Hector Duarte’s emotionally gripping Gulliver’s Travels mural, he was one of the first artists I had the opportunity to talk to about the relationships between art, politics, philosophy, and community involvement. Showing me photographs of his vast collection of murals,many on Chicago’s South Side, Statik revealed not only a keen eye for color, form, and photorealism, but also an acute attention to philosophical questions about the role of the artist. These questions include how to balance making a living, and still living outside of the dictates of consumer culture, art as a form of political critique, and the relationship between the artist and their audience. Importantly, he also reminded me of the gritty everyday life of a mural—it can be used to rally community sentiment, but just as often would get peed on by winos.

Rahmaan Statik. Series of studies of pop art and cultural icons, 2013. Spraypaint. Howard Street Art Gallery, Chicago, IL. (Image Credit: Caitlin Bruce)

In 2006 Statik was already actively using cutting edge digital design strategies in combination with hand painted styles, a form of artistic design that was often criticized by proponents of more “traditional” public art processes. Seven years later, digital design strategies are increasingly in mural and graffiti art. From the very beginning he was developing strategies for self branding, and using practices that as of 2013, are still evident in his iconic style. Statik has traveled all over the country and the world making murals, from the Bronx to Houston, and from Chicago to South America. He relentlessly demands excellence of himself and of the Chicago scene, even at the risk of causing division. In his own words:

My work has been tremendously influenced by my travels… going to these different places I’ve seen a new standard, or a standard that is not as prevalent in the city of Chicago. I met artists that made me step my game up… made me be a bit more ambitious about improving my work and making better work…those missions changed [me] and gave [me] a lot of perspective about how and why I am actually producing this type of work and the realistic standards to produce it off of. At least for my peers I would like to influence them with what I’ve seen, which is a higher standard of painting with a spray can.

Aerosol Supremacy demonstrates Statik’s work ethic and focus. The gallery is covered floor-to-ceiling with large scale pieces that transform the  space into a dense tunnel-like atmosphere that evokes the elaborately decorated viaducts around Chicago’sDan Ryan and I-94.

Rahmaan Statik. Aerosol Cult, 2013. Aerosol and spraycan caps on canvas. Howard Street Art Gallery, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce).

Statik’s two favorite pieces, the piece depicting a “pile of women” surrounded by spraycan caps and his iconic Graf-fro pieces, offer another side to his style. He explains: “Well, the spray cap piece there is a lot of history behind that. It’s the past 15 years of caps I’ve been collecting from walls that I have been doing. And that piece sat for almost a year with just the women on it but I didn’t know what to do with the background. And I thought it would be a funny juxtaposition to pair up the used caps with the image of the pile of women. So its more about the juxtaposition than more of anything.” The Graf-fro piece was influenced by Film Noire posters, and Statik thought it would be “funny to mix in actual graffiti letters” in the women’s hair as a “modern day spinoff.”

The multiple female figures in the show figure as “muses” for Statik. He elaborates: “I am married, have a mom, sister, it has a lot to do with the ongoing relationship I have with the women in my life, which is all positive for the most part. That’s why you don’t see me doing any thing degrading towards women, if any thing its more empowerment if you will. And its more of a softer edge to my work, besides me coming through with pieces criticizing the government, anarchy and so forth.”

Rahmaan Statik. Life Styles of the Poor and Dangerous, Part 2, 2013. Aerosol on canvas. Howard Street Art Gallery, Chicago, IL (Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce).

The juxtaposition between more reflective pieces of strong women and more incisive and comic criticisms of the government is notable in his Tales of the Poor and Dangerous Part I and II series, which is an homage to figures that are totemic in underground graffiti culture. Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, Oscar the Grouch, Bode the frog, Einstein, and other iconic characters emerge from the walls. A combination of portraiture, invective, and atmospheric pieces collide in the relatively small space of the gallery. He explains: “Each piece in here focuses on a lot of different aspects of our philosophy on life and reality. Some pieces pay homage to indigenous culture, religion, some pieces are [of] pop art and pop culture, other pieces are just for pure practice of aerosol art and can control.”

One piece in particular, depicting a mushroom with two characters wrapping their hands around it in worship, recalls Jeff Ferrell’s commentary on the New York City underbelly project  where he describes graffiti artists as “shamans…painting in the dark.” Statik affirmed the classification of graffiti writers as shamans, elaborating on how graffiti art can move viewers through the “expression of colors and forms” a kind of emotional and visual form that the city desperately needs with the increasing privatization of public space, while citizens are “bombarded with privately owned images meant to promote and sell bad products. Whereas graffiti is more like grass roots marketing, marketing done by one person with no budget.”

Statik negotiates the tension between painting commercially to make a living, and painting as political and countercultural expression by pointing to the liberating effects of creative practice. He concludes with a polemic about the importance of painting to free the mind, and to create a global renaissance:

This show is meant to set the standard for aerosol art in Chicago. And let the world know that the city of Chicago has a standard for can control. I am Rahmaan Statik, and I am actually the artist that is trying to pioneer that and bring the Chicago standard of can control to the forefront, and let the world know that there are good artists in the city. That and I would like to influence other artists, other graffiti writers, painters, to do more art and paint. Less talking, more art. Less criticizing, more art. I would hope to influence people to do more art whether they would like to compete against me, just to do something to liberate their minds. Either way, that’s good to me. I would rather see people doing art than buying cheap products from shopping malls and stuff like that. Doing art for yourself, it’ll save your life, keep you out of trouble, and help you make better, more objective decisions, thinking of the world around you. It helps you observe the world around you with a much freer mind from an artistic point of view. You view the world  trying to find the beauty in it first, rather than everything that is wrong with it. Through an artistic objective standpoint… I hope to make renaissance in Chicago, in the city, in the Midwest, and abroad. At this point the world needs a renaissance of art to compete with the consumerism. We need a renaissance in art that combats the over-saturation of consumerism…So the [goal] of the show is to set the standard for can control and let the city of Chicago know that spray can art is real art and it is to be taken serious[ly].

Rahmaan Statik in front of “Graffro” piece. April 19, 2013. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce)

Aerosol Supremacy is on view at Howard Street Gallery, 747 Howard Street in Evanston, through May 5, 2013. Find more information here.

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