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Politics, Art Unite in East Side Mural in Sunday's Buffalo News

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Politics, Art Unite in East Side Mural by Colin Dabkowski in The Buffalo News


The ruins of a crumbling century-old train terminal have become, however briefly, the most important art gallery in Western New York.

Last weekend, an anonymous graffiti artist or group left an indelible mark on the city’s culture by painting seven colorful panels honoring the late Buffalo-born comics artist Spain Rodriguez on the Central Terminal’s concrete walls.

Now that we’ve had some time to pick our jaws up off the floor after confronting the stunning visuals of the mural and the sheer audacity of its creation, it’s a good time to consider the piece’s deeper meaning.

The mural, like the work of Rodriguez now on view in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, reminds us that art achieves its highest function as a political tool. It is not merely a fanciful tribute to an artist someone revered, but a de facto extension of that artist’s radical notions about human equality.

It is, in a very visceral way, about the widening gap between the rich and poor in this country and around the world and about the desire of its creators to fight the status quo with any tools that happen to be at hand – including cans of spray paint.

The central figure of the mural, after all, is Trashman, one of the most radical superheroes ever conceived and the embodiment of Rodriguez’s sometimes questionably violent fantasies of social justice. The words the muralist or muralists chose to put in his mouth – “Can’t you see?! The foundation is crumbling ...?” – speak not only to the crumbling building the mural inhabits, but what Rodriguez and those he influenced see as the corrupt foundations of modern capitalism.

Whether or not you fully agree with Rodriguez’s unabashedly radical politics – which I find hard to do, especially where he seems to excuse past violence or advocate future violence – the power of this artistic statement is pretty tough to deny. It can and should be seen as an extension of the Occupy Movement, whose progressive ideals Rodriguez helped to keep on simmer long enough for them to be picked up in the wake of the latest economic crisis.

No one seems to be too upset about the fact that the work of this mystery muralist falls outside the law, nor is it easy to find many good reasons to do so.

The mural, in addition to trumpeting the values of Rodriguez and many who have spent their lives fighting the status quo, is also an example of an ideal symbiosis between museum culture and street culture.

Whoever made the mural clearly drew inspiration from the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s ongoing exhibition “Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels and Revolution.” The muralist’s depiction of a large thumbs-down sign came directly from the cover of an issue of the East Village Other exhibited prominently in the exhibition, while the face of Trashman seemed to be modeled on depictions of Trashman in the show.

For far too long, museums in American cities like our own have held themselves apart in key ways from the broader culture of the communities they were designed to enrich. The Burchfield Penney staff, especially “Spain” co-curators Edmund Cardoni and Don Metz, deserve a great deal of credit for putting the work of a radical comics artist from Buffalo on the gallery’s walls. That might not have happened a decade ago, and it points toward the ways in which museums can make themselves more relevant to the communities they serve.

But the mural and the exhibition prove that art, as an intellectual pursuit and political statement, cannot fulfill its purpose strictly within the walls of a museum – nor can it do so strictly on the street.