If all you know about the short life of painter Jean-Michel Basquiat is based on Julian Schnabel's excellent 1996 feature film, you'll have more info going in than you're going to have when you leave the touring show “Jean-Michel Basquiat: An Intimate Portrait,” running through September at the Fullerton Museum Center. A New Yorker of Haitian descent, Basquiat was a pointedly political artist, deeply critical of a power structure that valued white heroes while ignoring those of color. His bright canvases were a mishmash of blocks of pigment, scrawled handwriting, cryptic symbols, uplift-the-race words and personal references—a stream of consciousness captured in oil. Andy Warhol was so enamored of his work that he took the young artist under his wing, treating him as though he were his son (according to the very good 2010 documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, shown on a loop in the gallery). Unfortunately, when the two men exhibited together, the show was critically lambasted, the embarrassment and disappointment eventually isolating Basquiat from his mentor. When Warhol died suddenly in 1987, Basquiat's grief escalated his drug use into full-time drug abuse, his career interrupted by the heroin overdose that killed him in 1988.
The photographs on display, by Basquiat's friend Nicholas Taylor, capture the young man a decade before that sad death, when he was still in his artistic infancy. Black and white, from one roll of film, and all taken on what looks to be the same night, we see the artist looking at (or fully ignoring) the camera, at turns contemplative, dismissive, preening and attentive. Accompanied by gossipy, but otherwise useless anecdotes (unless you care that Madonna slept with Basquiat for a time or used the photographer to mind-fuck an old boyfriend), the exhibition is fairly unexceptional. Save one or two images in which the lighting makes the young artist resemble a film-noir character, the pictures look like a Photography 101 student asking a friend to pose for him.
Though the entire affair is laid out well, it's clear curator Michael J. Beam knows he doesn't have much to work with, resorting to the aforementioned documentary—which you can watch on Netflix—a couple of completely underwhelming reproductions of Basquiat paintings and a sound recording of his work with experimental noise-rock band Gray (which wasn't working the day I attended). The only thing that deserves mention is the vibrant mural displayed on the gallery's back wall by local artist Jouvon Michael Kingsby. A near-perfect riff on Basquiat's imagery, the graffiti-inspired piece is so good it ends up overwhelming the rest of the exhibit. Worth the paltry price of admission all by itself, a wise curator would do well to give Kingsby his own show, instead of using him as an addendum.
As I headed toward the exit, the front-desk clerk asked me if I'd seen the small exhibition in the intimate Foyer Gallery, the bathroom-sized space just past the gift shop. Not mentioned in the press release or posted about anywhere where I could see it, I would have walked away without viewing it. I'm delighted she said something, however, as the gallery reveals several gems from graffiti muralist Clint Kalima, LA painter GERMS and photographer Franz Criego.
Curated with taste and an imaginative eye by Kelly Chidester, the work neatly dovetails with the work of Basquiat, since the late painter influenced all three one way or another. Kalima's spray-painted walls of graffiti—one a masked figure right out of Borderlands and two rows of large teal and orange cursive letters across the other—delivers the perfect backdrop for the work of the other two artists, several whited-out panels providing a frame to some of GERMS' (mostly) unframed oil on wood paintings and Criego's framed photographs. GERMS' work is the most ambitious and difficult to describe, as well as the most obviously inspired by Basquiat, his paintings a very personal, multi-influenced art smoothie: Retro grotesqueries (slimy avocado-green paint, paisley paramecium and bright Mod-'60s circles), Chicano pop (lucha libre masks, the ubiquitous Catholicism) and alternative culture (aliens, creature features, Charles Bukowski, the cartoon Regular Show) are all thrown into the mix. Add a dripping brown nicotine sheen to each picture, and the resulting hybrid is mysterious, weird and discomfiting, akin to something you might find under a very interesting rock. Criego's modestly priced photos of graffiti-bombed walls and railroad cars, each placed in a small gold frame, neatly contextualizes as fine art what might otherwise be disregarded as vandalism or symptoms of urban blight. The photos, all taken in out-of-the-way places, bring the hidden out into the open—much like Chidester's mini exhibition—and seems perfectly at home in the museum center's tiny, not-to-be neglected gallery space.