Graffiti highlights night of firsts at Morris Museum, now a Smithsonian partner

Maliq Griffin in front of his contribution, Morris Museum, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Alessandro Fresco


By Marion Filler

The Morris Museum in Morris Township is celebrating some memorable “firsts.”

It’s now the first and only museum in New Jersey to be chosen as a Smithsonian Affiliate, which means it now will have access to traveling exhibits and loans from the Smithsonian Institution and 200 other Affiliates from around the country.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), and Morris Museum Executive Director Cleveland Johnson, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Alessandro Fresco

The partnership was commemorated last week by New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way, Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), and Dr. Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian Institution.

“Providing the Smithsonian a ‘footprint’ in New Jersey is an honor that the Morris Museum strategically embraces,” said Executive Director Cleveland Johnson.

“We look forward to helping the Smithsonian serve the nation, as we take advantage of the Smithsonian’s tremendous resources to serve New Jersey.”

The partnership started out with a bang and yet another first.

Aerosol: Graffiti/Street Art/New Jersey/Now, a showcase of work by 12 New Jersey and Philadelphia artists, is the first time any museum in the U.S. has allowed contemporary graffiti and street practitioners to paint directly on the gallery walls.

(And yes, it’s removable).

It’s a visual feast, bursting with movement and color, covering huge swaths of walls that are 14 feet high.

Slideshow photos by Marion Filler, Marie Pfeifer and Morris Museum. Click/hover on images for captions:

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In deference to the uninitiated, the basics were explained by a panel of eight artists who were questioned by Curator Ronald Labaco and co-curator Will Kasso Condry, aerosol master and artist-in-residence at Middlebury College.

Veronique with her graffiti art at the Morris Museum, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Marion Filler

“Aerosol artists of this caliber have come together to adorn a museum gallery in a way that’s never been conceived before,” said Kasso.

“The same energy that’s used on the street has been harnessed to create another world within a space that’s relatively exclusive.”

The first thing to know is the general difference between graffiti, which is letter- based, and street art which is figurative and representational.

“You’re a graffiti artist until the cops come, and then you’re a street artist,” quipped one of the panelists.

“Tags,” or fictitious names, were letter-based and the earliest manifestation of the genre in the ’60s.

“Burners” are large pieces that “burn” or completely cover a wall. A work that is produced in a hurry is a “throw-up.” Examples of each are included in the exhibit along with a primer on terminology.

All the artists in the exhibit like to work on a large scale and out of doors.

Co-curator Will Kasso Condry in front of his piece, ‘Homage to Jerry Gant,’ Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Alessandro Fresco

“We like people to see the art rather than selling it,” said Kasso. “It doesn’t need to go to a gallery.”

There is a hierarchy within the community and street artists such as Banksy are at the top of the international ladder. Everyone realizes that the work is ephemeral at best,  yet their creative spirit remains undaunted.

“In the competitive world of urban art, the name of the game is fame,” says Labaco. Getting your work in a highly visible space is major, but longevity is relatively unimportant.

Artist 4sakn equates a memorable but fleeting visual encounter with seeing a comet: “A beautiful flash.”

He also explains community acceptance as whrn a piece wears out or is removed; universal disapproval is when it’s painted over by someone else.

Q and A with graffiti artists led by Museum curator, Ron Labaco, Oct. 3, 2019. Photo by Alessandro Fresco

Is street art vandalism? Using the example of skateboarding, once a counter-culture pastime and now an Olympic sport, 4sakn feels that urban art has made the grade as well.

Graffiti and street artists have been legitimized and in many cases have found careers in advertising, teaching, and commissions. A museum show is demonstrable proof of acceptance, but so are specific areas in the East End of London, Berlin, Bogota, Los Angeles, and Bogota that have become tourist destinations.

See the work of 4sakn, Acet TM7, Dave Mek One Klama, Dean Ras Innocenzi, Demerock, Distort, Elan, Felipe Prox One Rivas, Jonathan Conner (Lank), Leon Rainbow, Maliq Griffin, and Will Kasso Condry at the Morris Museum through March 15, 2020.

The Museum is at 6 Normandy Heights Road in Morris Township. Call (973) 971-3700 for more.

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