The phenomenon of street art exists in heavily urbanized environments from Tokyo to Toronto. Much of it is graffiti, that pestilence of territorial pissing by visually impaired halfwits responsible for little creative output beyond barely literate scratches of their own names. However, an informed eye notices that the seas of scribbled spray paint, stickers and wheat-pasted billboards polluting the sides of buildings are sometimes topped by a foamy sprinkling of intelligent work that competes in the same public urban space.
Barry McGee, a.k.a. Twist, whose wall paintings, drawings and mixed-media installations were among the first to migrate from the streets into galleries such as Deitch Projects in New York and museums like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, is one of the best-known practitioners. Shepard Fairey, whose Andre the Giant Has a Posse stickers and populist Obey wheat-paste posters can be seen from San Francisco to Singapore, exemplifies the multidirectional crossover of these artists into the gallery and into consumer products. Together with KAWS, Stephen Powers (a.k.a. ESPO) and James Marshall (a.k.a. DALEK), they comprise a movement of artists—coined “The Disobedients” by Tokion magazine in May, 2002—who use the aesthetics and distribution tactics of street art crossbred with a strange brew of pop culture, illustration, commercial toy production, critical intelligence and artistic integrity.
Nicholas Di Genova, one of shamefully few significant talents to graduate from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2004, readily admits their influence. In his debut solo exhibition, at Toronto’s tiny but edgy and inspiring Le Gallery, Di Genova offered drawings on mylar in ink and “cell animation” paint that displayed his attention to artists like Twist, Futura and DALEK. His nascent career has been noticed outside of Toronto and he has been included in group shows in New York, Detroit, London, Berlin and Singapore, as well as in “pictoplasma 2,” a German collection of the best in international character design and art.
Di Genova’s splotchy black outlines, flat fields of solid muted colour and clever suggestions of depth via mylar-and-Plexiglas sandwiches show the important influence of Japanese anime and manga. At times his drawings, with their intricate parallel linear shading, finely detailed outlines and gritty futurism, look like they could come directly from the pages of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira manga. Unfortunately, the work has none of the narrative brilliance of Otomo’s epic sci-fi masterpiece. Story and meaning are lacking. With silly titles like Lumphead Triclops and Biped Fish-Head Crabot, the works are loosely based on a post-apocalyptic/post-human world populated by mechanized mutations of animal species. However, it is a fanciful and naive view that fails to deliver any significant message or social commentary.
The sculptures included in the exhibition were also regrettable and cluttered the small gallery with irrelevant objects that showed only that the artist has much to learn before he can successfully tackle three dimensions. Yet Di Genova’s style is confident and original, and it forms a departure from his influences. The huge library of charming characters that he has already created will potentially function as the foundation of a rich visual language, one that will enable him to continue to participate in a vibrant, if as yet underground, art movement.
This is a review from the Winter 2004 issue of Canadian Art.