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Eye-popping art goes urban, edgy in 'Icons & Vandals' at Austin gallery

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
At the West Chelsea Contemporary art show "Icons & Vandals," two pieces seem especially well-matched. In front is Brendan Murphy's sculpture, "Boonji Spaceman." Behind it is Retna's painting, "The Bottom Line Is Red."

The two pieces belong together.

One is a metal sculpture of a spaceman. He shifts his weight as if walking in uncertain gravity. The gold mask on his helmet reflects back the visual world in front of him, including any startled guest who happens to be looking in. White and black graffiti — equations, upbeat words, diagrams — cover his primarily dark-silver-purple suit and the gold metal star that serves as his pedestal.

Behind the spaceman is a large canvas on a long partition. Four lines of black script neatly hang over one line of red. The lettering, brushed or rolled lightly, suggests a mix of language sources. Its indubitable legacy in street art almost disappears into an elegant, ancient calligraphy.

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Both pieces give one a sense of stability and ephemerality, as if they were messages left behind by a superior being, now treated as artifacts of a lost time.

Brendan Murphy's "Boonji Spaceman" and Retna's "The Bottom Line is Red" headline a monumental, eye-popping show, "Icons & Vandals," at the reimagined and reconfigured West Chelsea Contemporary on West Sixth Street.

Formerly Russell Fine Art Gallery, originally established almost 20 years ago, what is now commonly called WCC dealt in old and modern masters as well as some art of today. Lisa Russell and her new business partner, Gary Seals, used the pandemic to rethink the gallery, putting greater emphasis on newer and more urban art, while offering a robust gift shop of books, prints and other objects that make the place more accessible and affordable.

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They hired Lindsay Hamm as a curator and projects manager. It shows. Although "Icons & Vandals" shares the work of more than 40 significant artists, its nearly 8,000 square feet of display space don't feel crowded.

Each artist's work comes with a short and clearly written biographic sketch — and you don't need a microscope to read them — while the gallery sells a handsome 140-page catalogue to go with the show, although a standard index or table of contents would improve its ease of use.

Are we in a museum? Close.

Despite the many nonacademic styles, materials and techniques on display, "Icons & Vandals" feels cohesive — respectful of modern masters, protesters, street artists, pop and neo-pop tricksters as well as today's Chinese and Japanese stars. It gets a little chaotic on the edges, but that appeals to guests who appreciate a dash of serendipity. Also, some chaos is a bit unavoidable, since WCC shares large, open portals with an inviting antiques shop next door.

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Among the more striking pieces in the show is Roy Lichtenstein's "Wallpaper with Blue Floor Interior," which was printed in a series of 200 as actual wallpaper and has been reassembled as a vivid set of panels.

This show goes far beyond big names and big art. One can learn a lot from its generous gifts of recent history and criticism.

On the other hand, if you've always wanted an Ai Weiwei, Banksy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Alex Katz, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol or Cey Adams, or just wanted to gawk at one, now is the time.

I'm on a gift-shop budget, but some serious collector reportedly paid $350,000 for Retna's "The Bottom Line is Red."

Austin is no doubt changing.

If you go

"Icons & Vandals" continues at West Chelsea Contemporary through July 11, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, and by appointment, 1009 W. Sixth St., wwc.art.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.