UNDERCURRENT: Peck, Ehret, and Copeland at Loren Naji Studio Gallery
“Graffiti artist” is an easy label, and a tenacious one. It sticks like wheat paste to any artist who was ever known for illegally painting on other people’s walls. Such is the case for Bob Peck, Ron Copeland, and Steve Ehret, who all have some measure of street art in their pasts.
Peck is surely the best known of the trio, partly for the story of how he painted and hustled his way out of homelessness, “Lost,” as he used to write, as a young teen after his mother died of cancer. These days he shows canvasses in galleries, and gets hired to paint murals. In Undercurrents, the current show at Loren Naji Studio Gallery, Peck, Copeland, and Ehret explore wildly divergent paths that take off from that street art background.
Opening night of the show was charged with legal trouble as both Cleveland police and State Board of Liquor Control agents visited the gallery. That–and the legal battle and eventual ramifications, as virtually every gallery in the region offers beer and wine at openings, and accepts donations–make for a completely separate story. But it’s telling that an hour after the State police left–taking all the beer and wine with them, and leaving behind a citation–a crowd of perhaps 75 people stayed late to look at the art.
What draws artists to make street art and what they take from it is much more diverse than a person could glean from a passing train, or from a passing glance at the hip hop palimpsest that is the Red Line. In Undercurrents, you can see that as three completely different types urban graphic appeal–flourish in mature style.
Peck’s familiar abstractions draw from the aerosol medium, angular lines, and the eye popping convolution of color that you see on so many urban walls. It’s as if fragments of multiple pieces and tags– curves, serifs, and flourishes–were sliced out and reassembled without the words they once carried. You see the flow and movement of handwriting styles, but not a single coherent tag. It’s as if each piece were capturing line fragments that–combined on his canvas–communicate an amalgam of styles drawn from all over the city.
Ron Copeland’s assemblages sample another realm of urban graphic style. Copeland builds wall installations, table lamps, and furniture out of wood and plexiglass scraps, some of which are cut from old signs, but most of which are recycled material he has painted and distressed to look like old signs.
Like in Peck’s aerosol abstractions, you can see in his work fragments of lettering gathered and reassembled. But if Peck’s work gets its energy from movement of the lines, Copleand’s work gathers it like a slide show, one frame to the next: as if the experience of driving city streets and looking at one sign after another were compressed into a single moment. Some of the pieces carry implications of abandonment and failed rehab, in details like an old phone dangling from its cord, a paint can hanging from a string tied to a ladder, as if someone were trying to fix things up and walked away. There are elements of nostalgia, preservation and documentation here, but it’s more expressive than journalistic: these are visual essays, not news reports.
Steve Ehret is an illustrator and muralist whose figurative work places surreal, cartoon creatures in haunting, jumbled landscapes with mostly pastoral elements. They seem to tell stories about damaged people and places, nuanced with lament. What have we done? Can we trust the neighbors? It’s an eloquent, moody palate, and Ehret handles oil paint with worthy skill
Undercurrents isn’t a first show or even really an early show for these painters. But it definitely shows that no matter where they painted in past lives, they belong in galleries now.