Oklahoma muralists deliver their own chopped-up take on Abstract Expressionism in new exhibition, opening Sept. 30

OKLAHOMA CITY | Sept. 23, 2021 — USA Today called Oklahoma City “a veritable outdoor gallery” when it declared the city the best place to view public art in America. Now, Oklahoma Contemporary is bringing murals indoors with Abstract Remix, an exhibition of the work of homegrown Abstract Expressionists who use the large-scale format of muralism as a medium for their giant concepts.

Opening at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 with a reception followed by an artist talk featuring Rhiana Deck, Codak Smith, Kalee Jones W. and May Yang in conversation with Associate Curator Pablo Barrera, Abstract Remix focuses on non-figurative murals that convey the ideas of things rather than realistically depicting them. As the 20th century Abstract Expressionist Jay Meuser once wrote, “It is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples.”

Abstract Remix will be installed in the Mary LeFlore Clements Oklahoma Gallery, a space dedicated to showcasing Oklahoma artists, and the artists will be painting their murals directly on the walls. Barrera said Abstract Remix returns murals to their interior roots: from cave paintings to religious frescos of the Renaissance period, murals were largely an indoor phenomenon. In some ways, the Great Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s embrace of outdoor muralism and the graffiti movement of the 1970s liberated mural artists to create more public art.

“There was more sort of a pushback against the elitism of the gallery space,” Barrera said. “There was a drive and desire for art that everybody can see and that everyone can look at, where you’re sort of turning the exterior and the whole city landscape into the gallery.”

Barrera said that while much of modern muralism is figurative and character-oriented, he saw an opportunity to showcase the works of artists flying the flag of Abstract Expressionism, who found inspiration in the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock and then discovered their own vision and style.

Lines of red, orange and black swirl across a grey and white background.“I always say this over and over again when I talk about contemporary art: that I love how contemporary art makes us reflect on things that we think we’re familiar with, to see them again in a new light,” Barrera said. “And so what I like about the title, Abstract Remix, is this idea that you take things that you know, but then you recombine them and sort of reinterpret them. You chop them up, you dissect them, you kind of start to spread them out. You start to figure out the components that matter, and you free them from their associations so you can have a whole different engagement with the material.”

The Abstract Remix artists represent distinct backgrounds and approaches. Jones, who is originally from Texas but now makes Oklahoma her home, works with both paint and stained glass and hopes to merge the two media in the future. Yang lives and works in Tulsa as a mixed-media artist with Flash Flood Print Studios, where she combines her love of screenprinting, painting and collage. Originally from Portland, Ore., Smith combines graphic design, painting and graffiti writing in his works, which have been shown internationally. He is currently a muralist, street artist and tattoo artist in Tulsa. Deck, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, works in acrylic paint, aerosols and occasional beadwork. Her collaborative mural with Chad “Nish” Earles, Earth and Sky, stands at Sheridan Avenue and Gaylord Boulevard in downtown OKC. Both Deck and Jones participated in the 2021 Sunny Daze Mural Fest.

Their body of work ranges from Smith’s angular creations filled with light and shimmer and Deck’s flora- and fauna-inspired explosions of color to Yang’s collage-inspired patchworks and Jones’ amorphous, billowing visions. All the artists are united in their commitment to large-format work that calls for viewer interpretation.

In the six years since the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate began working with local muralists to beautify the bare walls of the city, Oklahoma City leap-frogged over more established cities and organizations to become a welcoming, hospitable place for large-scale wall paintings. In 2017, Oklahoma Contemporary hosted Not For Sale: Graffiti Culture in Oklahoma, a group art show that featured 10 artists integral to the Oklahoma graffiti scene. Artists painted their pieces directly on the walls of the gallery, transforming Oklahoma Contemporary (then located at the Fairgrounds) into an amazing display of styles.

Jeremiah Matthew Davis, artistic director at Oklahoma Contemporary, said Abstract Remix is a continuation of the ideas explored with Not For Sale.

“Like Not For Sale, our 2017 exhibition highlighting Oklahoma graffiti writing and culture, Abstract Remix presents the opportunity to learn about art history and visual culture through bold, new works of contemporary art,” Davis said. “With this new exhibition, we’re inviting four artists — each of whom has developed a unique approach to abstraction — to paint murals right on our gallery walls. At the conclusion of the exhibition, the original works will disappear behind coats of paint, never to be glimpsed again.”

In addition to Oklahoma’s embrace of public art, Barrera also saw that Oklahoma had flipped the script on the power dynamics surrounding murals — the artists have more say in the final results than they have in some other communities.

“It was really like, ‘Here’s some walls; go nuts,” Barrera said. “I thought that that was really cool, because I think a lot of artists had input on the foundation of the Oklahoma Mural Syndicate and the creation of this program, so it was definitely for artists and definitely designed to showcase artists. I found that to be a very different flavor.”