A love letter to graffiti // The Observer
On Wednesday, Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television and Theater launched “THIS IS MODERN ART.” The piece was preceded by a lecture by Dr. Nicole L. Woods, Assistant Professor in the Department of Art, Art History and Design at Notre Dame, who discussed the origins of graffiti in american art.
The play, originally directed by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, was inspired by anonymous graffiti group Made U Look, who illegally spray-painted a 50ft mural on the side of the wing Modern from the Art Institute of Chicago.
The main characters of “THIS IS MODERN ART” achieve the same feat: bombard Chicago’s famous art museum with graffiti. The main character Seven, played by Eric Ways (’18), is a young man addicted to art. His compulsive need to create leads him to convince his ragtag group of friends (nicknamed Look Over Here) to help him get away with “crime”. The piece is mostly delivered in monologues that break the fourth wall. Seven and her crew romantically rant to the audience about the importance of graffiti culture in a performance reminiscent of Matthew Lillard in “SLC Punk!”
Seven tells his friends that he wishes street art wasn’t “locked up in the ghetto”. However, he thinks art museums don’t represent “the real artists, right now!” Its emotional challenges reflect the tensions between graffiti as an anti-institutional work and as a legitimately recognized practice. He advocates the accessibility of art, shouting to the public, “Who is this art for?!”
The performances of the main actors were phenomenal. Ways is as authentic and natural as Seven, passionately delivering monologues to audiences about street art and bantering effortlessly with the other characters. The emotional range displayed by Ways and his costar Timothy Merkle (who plays Latinx artist JC) was impressive. Dose (Lamont Marino) is an excellent vessel for comedic relief and had audiences rolling in their seats. Seven’s girlfriend Selena (Lyric Medeiros) is just as hilarious as the witty, street-art equivalent of Elle Woods. Although the romance’s subplot distracts from the true meaning of the play, the whole thing has a palpable chemistry.
Director Zuri Eshun (’14) does a great job bringing the play to the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Set design by Marcus Stephens and lighting by Kevin Dreyer worked perfectly to create an immersive atmosphere, given the constraints of live theater. Karla Guerra’s art projections and use of spray cans added dimension by contextualizing and interpreting the art. Costume designer, Naya Tadavarthy, draws on the creativity of the characters in the play with JC’s hand-painted denim jacket and the team’s black jumpsuits, night vision goggles and balaclavas to sneak in.
In his pre-show talk, Woods said graffiti has been around since the birth of writing itself. From cave paintings and hieroglyphs to graffiti on trains and CTA buildings, graffiti manifests our innate desire to remember. She said graffiti works “are related to the very process of writing [the] self in the story.
Street artists have been consistently marginalized and forgotten by both the public and the art world. By monitoring and criminalizing graffiti in urban areas, lawmakers have confused criminal gang activity with the provocative works of political activism by street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Academies and museums tend to exclude graffiti from the contemporary canon, which then distorts artists’ messages of protest.
“THIS IS MODERN ART” is not just about graffiti. He is graffiti. It embodies the deliberate practice and memorization of graffiti artists through the dedicated performance of the cast, but also leaves room for spontaneous improvisation. It is temporary. Yet he leaves an indelible mark on audiences by giving voice and history to marginalized art.
You can still attend a performance of this production at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Cheek: It’s modern art
Director: Zuri Eshun (’14)
With : Eric Ways, Timothy Merkle, Lamont Marino, Lyric Medeiros
Or: DeBartolo Performing Arts Center
When: Wednesday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Clovers: 4 out of 5