Colors and chaos at Contra Galleries’ ’80s show

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“Untitled” (2019), by LA II, acrylic on canvas, 24 in. x 24 in., left, and “Kembra” (2018), by M. Henry Jones. Photos by Rose Adams

BY ROSE ADAMS | Colors explode and demons lurk in the “The Art of New York: 1980s,” an exhibition by WhiteHot Magazine at Chelsea’s Contra Galleries. The show brings together the past and present work of street-art luminaries from the ’80s and ’90s, like Rick Prol, LA II and Keith Haring, among many others.

“It’s a postage-stamp collection of a certain era,” said Linus Coraggio, the show’s curator. “It’s a selection of the best of the 1980s.”

Coraggio’s impressionistic paintings, motorcycle sculptures and steel chairs feature prominently in the collection.

While the works vary in their color and subject matter — some forgoing the era’s classic bubble-gum palette and cartoonish figures — they all embody a certain carefully executed chaos. T-shirts become canvases; scraps of metal bend into furniture. But while the materials may appear raw and haphazard, the precision of the construction is anything but.

“You’re always striving for one unified goal,” said painter Rick Prol, who has four pieces in the show. “There’s no parts.”

Each work combines elements of street art with the execution of a master. In one of Coraggio’s paintings, bright pink lines scatter over shades of green and turquoise. From afar, the piece looks like a tornado of color. But up close, its many strokes appear precise and purposeful, adjoined like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

“Untitled” (2011), by Linus Coraggio, acrylic on board, 22 in. x 30 in.

Other artists, like Prol, evoke the grittiness of street art by painting on found materials. To create his largest painting in the show, “Untitled” (2018), Prol slathered oil paint over a Visible Woman model kit, an anatomy kit from the 1950s.

“You can call it expressionist, but those terms aren’t really enough,” Prol said about his style. “It’s more alla prima” — a technique in which wet paint is layered over itself.

Through the artists’ use of found materials and psychedelic colors, many of the works in the show tell their own myths. Prol’s painting “Untitled” (2018) depicts a green demon balancing on a tightrope with a guitar in one hand and a bloodied dagger in the other. The subject looks downward thoughtfully, his mouth open, as if trying to decide which object to deploy.

All four of Prol’s paintings feature green figures whose varying expressions suggest their different dispositions, like characters in a play. Together, the paintings seem to exist in their own dystopian universe.

“It’s my language and my invention, and it’s never something I can’t tap into,” Prol said about his process.

The myths implicit in the show’s artworks speak not only to their own sub-universes, but to a lost era. Many of the artists and attendees at the show’s opening reminisced about the ’80s art scene, lauding it as a period of peak creativity and opportunity for New York City artists.

“It’s nothing like what it was,” Coraggio told me. “Each generation has their own version of it. But [in the ’80s] it was this mass bubble that burst.”

Rick Prol in front of three of his paintings.

Others lamented the market-driven nature of the current art world, the effect of social media on art consumption, and the sheer number of artists today.

“The real difference now is that, then, if the artist was good, [the art] would surface,” said an attendee. “Now that there are so many artists, there’s a serious possibility that a good artist could be ignored.”

As artists and collaborators perused the art, they exchanged memories of the 1980s, from the hardcore music played at gallery openings to their stories from the Lower East Side.

In a way, “The Art of New York: 1980s” does more than display an iconic period of art. It also tells a story about Manhattan’s lost art culture — a story that’s gritty, meticulous and somewhat mythical, just like the art on display.


“The Art of New York: 1980s” is on view on at Contra Galleries, 122 W. 26th St., fifth floor, through Feb. 28. The gallery is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information, visit https://contragalleries.com/pages/the-art-of-new-york-1980s