Art Preserving Art


by Caroline Newman

The UCLA Fowler Museum is currently exhibiting “Street Art: Photographic Elevations of Los Angeles, Paris and Berlin by Larry Yust,” which explores the often over-looked art form, graffiti, within these three prominent cities.  For the past eight years, filmmaker and photographer Larry Yust has been capturing images of urban landscapes and compositing anywhere from 70-80 photographic images to create, what he refers to as, a single “photographic elevation.”  Using this artistic technique, Yust creates a new kind of urban landscape; one that is impossible to see with the naked eye, one that cannot be reproduced, and one that can be preserved.

Yust’s images are a few feet high and around 15-20 feet in length, yielding a unique and enthralling photographic experience.  While directly facing and maintaining a constant distance from his subject, whether it is a wall, building, or fence covered in graffiti, Yust moves parallel to it, capturing many precise images.  These images are flawlessly composited to create an extremely long, horizontal, and practically 3-dimensional urban landscape.

While the idea of combining almost 80 photographs to form a single image seem overwhelming, the end result for Yust is compelling.  Graffiti usually runs in a horizontal direction; the direction in which the artist moves along the street or sidewalk while creating it.  The graffiti artist is using his canvas, a building or wall, which is largely horizontal.  The exhibit is located in the walkway surrounding the Fowler’s atrium.  Each wall contains approximately two or three images, all of which require one to walk the length of the wall in order to view each image entirely.  The viewer’s interaction with the work is refreshing and compelling, and causes one to wonder; How is it that people disregard graffiti on a daily basis, yet when displayed on the walls in a gallery it is looked over with care and enchantment?

While some of the graffiti covers abandoned buildings in Berlin and some is found in glamorous parts of Los Angeles, the location is overshadowed by the concept.  The impermanence of graffiti lends a fragile quality to the works, yet at the same time, Yust’s precise documentation preserves and memorializes the street art.  The incredible detail enables one to see the effect time has had on these unsheltered surfaces.  This idea is successfully explored in two photographs both taken at the same place, with the same frame, and the same composition, yet the photos were taken years apart.  The earlier image shows a wall covered in graffiti, while the later photograph shows the same wall covered in white paint.  This comparison does more than show a  ‘before/after’, it creates art while at the same time preserving art.  Yust’s juxtaposition of these two photographs evokes the idea of time and impermanence, yet his earlier photograph has made the graffiti permanent and will be forever preserved.

Yust has previously used this technique to photograph other urban landscapes including Paris’ metro stations.  That body of work was exhibited a few years ago at the Louve and at the Fowler Museum.  “Street Art” confirms the importance and beauty of this art form, graffiti.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Yust about his art a few months ago.  When I asked him why he was drawn to graffiti, he responded simply with, “It’s the most important art there is.”

On view through January 16, 2011.

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