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‘THIS IS MODERN ART’: A love letter to graffiti

| Friday, November 12, 2021

Doug Abell | The Observer

Notre Dame’s Department of film, television and theatre debuted “THIS IS MODERN ART” on Wednesday. The play was prefaced by a lecture from Dr. Nicole L. Woods, assistant professor in Notre Dame’s Department of art, art history & design, who discussed the origins of graffiti in American art.

The play, originally directed by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, was inspired by anonymous graffiti group Made U Look, who illegally spray-painted a 50-foot mural on the side of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

The main characters in “THIS IS MODERN ART” pull off the same stunt: graffiti-bombing Chicago’s famous art museum. Main character Seven, played by Eric Ways (’18), is a young man who is addicted to art. His compulsive need to create leads him to convince his ragtag group of friends (dubbed Look Over Here) to help him get away with the “crime.” The play is mostly delivered in monologues that break the fourth wall. Seven and his crew romantically rant to the audience about the importance of graffiti culture in a performance reminiscent of Matthew Lillard in “SLC Punk!”

Seven tells his friends he wishes street art was not “boxed into the ghetto.” However, he believes the art museums don’t represent “the real artists, right now!” His emotional challenges reflect the tensions between graffiti as anti-institutional artwork and as a legitimately recognized practice. He advocates for the accessibility of art, screaming at the audience: “Who is this art for?!” 

The performances from the starring cast were phenomenal. Ways comes off as authentic and natural as Seven, passionately delivering monologues to the audience about street art and effortlessly joking around with the other characters. The emotional range displayed by Ways and his costar Timothy Merkle (who plays a Latinx artist JC) was impressive. Dose (Lamont Marino) is a great vessel for comedic relief and had the audience rolling in their seats. Seven’s girlfriend, Selena (Lyric Medeiros), is equally hilarious as the witty, street-art equivalent of Elle Woods. Although the romance subplot drags attention away from the true meaning of the play, the ensemble has palpable chemistry. 

Director Zuri Eshun (‘14) does an excellent job of bringing the play to stage at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The set design by Marcus Stephens and lighting by Kevin Dreyer seamlessly worked together to create an immersive atmosphere, given the constraints of live theater. Art projections from Karla Guerra and the use of prop aerosol cans added dimension by contextualizing and performing art. The costume designer, Naya Tadavarthy, leans into the creativity of the play’s characters with JC’s hand-painted denim jacket and the crew’s black coveralls, night-vision goggles and balaclavas for sneaking around.

In her pre-show lecture, Woods said graffiti has been around since the birth of writing itself. From cave paintings and hieroglyphics to tags on CTA trains and buildings, graffiti manifests our innate desire to be remembered. She said works of graffiti “are connected to the very process of writing [the] self into history.”

Street artists have been consistently marginalized and forgotten by both the public and the art world. By policing and criminalizing graffiti in urban areas, legislators conflated the criminal activity of gangs with provocative works of political activism from street artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Academies and museums tend to exclude graffiti from the contemporary canon, which subsequently deplatforms artists’ messages of protest. 

“THIS IS MODERN ART” isn’t just about graffiti. It is graffiti. It embodies the deliberate practice and memorization of graffiti artists through the cast’s dedicated performance, but also leaves room for spontaneous improvisation. It is temporary. Yet, it leaves an indelible mark upon the audience by giving marginalized art a voice and history.

You can still catch a performance of this production at DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.


Play: This is Modern Art

Director: Zuri Eshun (‘14)

Starring: Eric Ways, Timothy Merkle, Lamont Marino, Lyric Medeiros

Where: DeBartolo Performing Arts Center

When: Wednesday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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About Claire Lyons

Claire is a sophomore from Fort Worth, TX studying Political Science and English. Her #1 goal is to help other people. She loves Sufjan Stevens, sad indie movies and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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