By Joel Kuennen

Nicholas Baurriaud coined the term “semionaut” in his book Postcommodity to describe an artist who “produce[s] original pathways through signs.”[1] You’d be hard-pressed to find a better description of legendary graffiti artist Kelly “RISK” Graval. Graffiti began as a system of place-making, signs used to demarcate contested space. It was also used as a way for individuals to become known. Both of these impulses, writing the name of a community and writing one’s own name, have the sign in common, the purpose of which is to make known. Semiotics[2], or the study of signs, is the origin point for everything from visual studies, anthropology, and contemporary art history, to literary criticism. To understand where we are in culture, we must look at the signs.

Over his 30-plus year career, Graval has moved from the impulse to make himself known to an artistic practice that seeks to make American culture known to itself. In one of my first meetings with him, he recounted a story from his childhood wherein his uncle climbed a railroad bridge that yawned over the main road into town and painted the town’s name on the side in big block letters. A forgotten fishing village in the bayous near New Orleans, this act of place-making served to unite an impoverished community even if the act was illicit. It made an impression on Graval.

In 1982, he and his father moved to Los Angeles where Graval was introduced to graffiti by a kid named A-TRAIN in his class that saw him sketching chunky letters in his notebooks and asked “what do you write?”[3]. Not long after, he adopted his first pseudonym, SURF, and he plastered it all over his school. The administration took note and he had a choice: stop or change his name and find another canvas.

“I wanted to be just like Coca-Cola.”

His was an addictive practice, fueled by a need to be known. RISK started appearing on forgotten walls, sides of liquor stores, railroad yards, and underpasses. The impulse to make known shifted from community to the self as he was surrounded by a culture collectively focused on “getting up”. The internalization of fame as a means to an end has its roots in politics, art, and literature but found its purest expression in advertising that promoted the consumption of goods through branding. In the 60s and 70s artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein brought the aesthetic conceits of advertising back into fine art, closing a circle of influence and developing a genre of contemporary art called Pop Art that deeply influenced Graval.

Graval’s early works can be seen as a reflection on the emergence of celebrity culture in the 80’s where personalities become brands that could be monetized through a complex array of media. These brand names could be leveraged to move value from a person’s fame to a product. Value in this equation is proportional to being known.

Within graffiti circles, “getting up” or becoming known has a wide set of variables outside of visual appearance that increase an artist’s prestige and could be argued to be part of a generalized aesthetic consideration including where a work is done, if it’s done over other’s works, the crews one is associated with, etc. Graval pioneered two modes of increasing his own value. First, he developed “the heavens”. In New York, subway trains became coveted canvases because of the number of people that would see the work. In LA, the corollary became freeway signs and overpasses. Graval was the first to get up to these “heaven” spots, getting in front of the circulation of traffic that flowed through LA. He also started doing trains in the yards of LA. These trains would circulate across the country, taking his work with it. To understand the impact of Graval’s contribution to graffiti, think of the last time you saw a train without graffiti on it.

In addition to Graval’s novel modes of installation and exhibition, his works were colorful, complex, and known for their visual depth. In collaboration with the crews he ran with, WCA and MSK, they defined a West Coast style of graffiti that came to define a genre of contemporary art for an entire country according to graffiti historian Roger Gastman.

“For the first time in my life, I’m not looking at fame anymore.”

After iterating his name on everything from subway cars to single-engine planes[4], and a decade running a successful streetwear label called Third Rail, Graval turned to making object-based paintings. He cut out pieces of studio wall marked by previous work for the series Collateral Damage. This gesture to highlight the leftovers of a work forces a consideration of what exactly is the work when done in a setting other than a pristine white cube.

He flattened spray cans, took license plates and scrap metal and riveted them together to create his series Metallic Tissue. These alloy canvases recall transience, the trains that lay in wait at the yards, they evoke the constant movement that defined the physical activity needed for Graval to complete his work. He’d spray these canvases with his signature, stencils that evoked the milk crates he used when doing throw ups, layering intense, saturated colors to create vibrant collages, like the urban was smashed into a two dimensional plane by a car crusher.

He then started adding neon to the canvases, sometimes writing RISK in the glowing, gaseous tubes. Other times, the neon was used to figure and accent characters like Felix the Cat, the Rolling Stone tongue, or the Buddha, using outline techniques borrowed from graffiti to bring depth and light to a work.

Graval’s new works are maximalist interpretations of his own graffiti practice. They condense the atmosphere of the urban field where his painting style developed, collapsing the far flung aesthetics of his street work into sculptural throw-ups that juxtapose the conflicting signs of the urban space in vibrant, life-affirming acts.

Joel Kuennen has been an art critic, editor, and curator publishing criticism on emerging artists for nearly 10 years. His written work focuses on the intersection of technology, identity, and society. Kuennen served as an Editor at ArtSlant for six years and as a contributing editor for Theorizing Visual Studies (Routledge, 2012). His work has been published in Art in America, ArtSlant, Elephant, Mutual Art, THE SEEN and many others. His most recent essay, “The Place of Gender in Technological Possibility”, published in Prototypes (Sternberg Press, 2019). Kuennen has curated more than twenty exhibitions including Strings: Data and the Self (2018) at California Museum of Art, Thousand Oaks.

[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction, 2002. Lukas & Sternberg, New York.

[2] Semiotics as a field of inquiry developed in the late 1800’s, formulated significantly by Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. Peirce defined “semiosis” as a relationship between object>sign>interpretation. De Saussure coined the terms signifier and signified to describe the active modalities of sense-making. Signifier refers to, for example, the word for an object and signified refers to the object itself.

[3] Trina Calderón, Zio Fulocher, Roger Gastman, Old Habits Die Hard, 2015. 1xRUN Editions, Detroit, MI.

[4] Trina Calderón, Zio Fulocher, Roger Gastman, Old Habits Die Hard, 2015. 1xRUN Editions, Detroit, MI.


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