Wild Style 40 - An Interview with curator Carlo McCormick

Written by Alexandria Deters

Alexandria Deters & Carlo McCormick

The minute I saw that while Wild Style 40 had opened at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery I knew that this was a monumental exhibition that needed to be written about for UP. Once I pitched the show to my editor they  suggested that I interview the Carlo McCormick, the curator of this exhibition honoring the film Wild Style, 40 years later.

The film Wild Style (1983), is often hailed as the first ‘hip-hop’ film as it encompasses the beginning of street art as a culture. While it is not a documentary, the narrative is driven by situations faced by artists and features many prominent artists, such as Lee Quiñones and Fab 5 Freddy as the primary actors. The show exemplifies this continuing history of graffiti with a range of works on view, mostly created in the last few years, some as recent as 2023. While there were a few works from the 80s, it seemed like they were included to show the evolution of one particular artist in contrast with a more recent work by them.

It was interesting to come in and immediately see a giant sculpture by KAWS and some more contemporary artists. While it was a bit puzzling at first, I could see how it all flowed within the show. Yet it was a question that was on my mind about why some of these artists were chosen to be represented in an exhibition honoring the 40th anniversary of Wild Style (a question I soon had answered). The works that stood out to me were the ones particular to that period of time; photos of the Wild Style film being made and the cast, a few small works created to promote the film, and most excitedly flyers designed by Phase Two.

I introduced myself to Carlo, as he sat at the gallery table. We started chatting a bit, touring the show a bit, before he he suggested that we go sit outside on a park bench.  (It was unseasonably warm on that December day when I visited.) I immediately connected with Carlo and our conversation was easy, sliding back and forth about the past, present, and future of not just art but life. We went over decades of ideas and thoughts. Below is our discussion and I hope you enjoy reading as much as I did having it.

 This conversation has been edited for concision & clarity. 

AD: What’s your personal connection to the film? Do you remember seeing this film be made / remember seeing it yourself?

Carlo: I knew all these artists… as I said, it’s my generation. I remember when they were making the movie and when it came out. I knew Charlie separately, ’cause he’s part of this artist group called COLLAB, which was super important in New York. COLLAB stood for collaborative projects. And that ushered in something that people social practice now.

These were artists… of course they all wanted their art career, but they weren’t chasing after that white cube, that sterile white cube all the way. They wanted their art to be relevant to what was going on in society – which was the western world’s wheels falling off the fucking truck.

Art by Dondi

Carlo: There was homelessness and there was poverty and there was injustice and there was inequity. These were artists who were like really feeling it… And they were incorporating it into their art practice. And the sixties famous artists like, you know, had Art Workers Coalition or artists against the Vietnam War. They were activists, but their work wasn’t necessarily about that. So, right. These were these urban artists who were talking about the problems of the urban things. But amongst the things COLLAB did was they did this incredible show in 1980 called The Times Square Show…Where they took over an abandoned massage parlor in Times Square. And that’s the first real show that Jean-Michel Basquiat is in. It’s all these artists [that came] out of that moment. And Charlie was one of many… I worshiped all these people.

Art by Lee

AD: Why do you think the divide happens with certain of artists… for example Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring versus like Lee…they all participated in graffiti and street art, but the former group’s work evolved into something else – I don’t wanna say commercial, but along those lines.

Carlo: Both Keith[Haring and Jean-Michel were quite adamant about saying they weren’t graffiti artists. And a lot of people have misunderstood that and, and thought it was because they thought they were better than graffiti art. It’s the exact opposite. They were like, no, man. Like, ‘I don’t have that skill set. Mm. I can’t do like a whole train like that. I’m not crawling over fences and sneaking through train yards late at night. You know, trying to avoid the third rail on the subway and shit like that.’

So they totally understood what happened with graffiti starting in the seventies…If you were a visual artist and if you cared about art, it was the most exciting thing? It straight up was… so everyone got intoxicated by it.

All these artists started developing public art practices, and that’s the birth of street art. When you’re looking at what Keith Haring’s doing and things like that, that’s basically, the roots of like what happens later on with Shepherd Fairey and Banksy. That’s people taking a fine art practice and engaging with the streets.

These are people who are like, yo, this really interesting the way these kids are grabbing all these eyeballs and saying all this kind of heavy shit. You look at Lee’s trains, those weren’t just saying Lee. Those were like, he was making really incredible heavy statements, you know? And so, and that’s why like Jenny Holster would want to do a series of collaborations with Lady Pink as women going like, yeah, we got different practices, but like, yo, we both got something to say.

Art by Revolt

AD:  Can you tell me about the influence of the film Wild Style?  What was/were elements of the film that are kind of timeless? Some of it’s definitely very eighties, but there’s just these ideas of capturing the moment.

Carlo: I think Charlie was really aware that he was capturing a moment. But most people I know, we didn’t really think that hip hop was gonna take over the world. You know, it was a New York thing. The fact that it became this prototypical meme that all of a sudden kids are doing graffiti around the world and everyone starts rapping and it becomes a language of youth. I don’t know how much we saw that, but we all knew at the time that this was something special.

And that movie did capture that lightning in the bottle moment. Some parts get dated, but the energy is really, is really true. Unlike a movie which came out a year or two later called Beat Street, you ever see that one?

That’s kind of cheesy. And I don’t mean to put it down, you know, those are my friends made that movie as well. Harry Belafonte produced it, but it’s a cheesy Hollywood fucking version of, you know, so it’s a little clueless and a little sanitized. And so this movie is still like really cheery, which is not, not going for that urban grit. People in New York were trying to get away from that.

Art by Fab 5 Freddy

AD: What made you want to put on an anniversary show?

Carlo: Oh, that wasn’t actually my idea. That was Charlie and, and Jeffrey. And then they came here and were like Carlo can do that. ‘Cause I’m friends with all of them and I’m in the art world. I understand that. You know, it’s a lot, lot of trust has to go into something like this. Like you said, some of ’em are bigger artists now, right. They’re all really famous now.

AD: What made you choose to feature some of these more contemporary artists? 

Carlo: Well for example, OSGEMEOS, the twins, I don’t know any artists who were more inspired, by Wild Style. They just totally were, I was with Charlie when OSGEMEOS came to town, what the first time where they met. And Charlie was doing the worst pantomime you could imagine. But trying to, because at that time they didn’t speak a word of English. And we don’t know any Portuguese. So Charlie’s like standing here and then he’s making a box next to him and then jumping into that. And he’s trying to say that he too is an identical twin.

<laugh>

They were excited, cus they couldn’t believe they were meeting the guy who made Wild Style. ‘Cause that transformed their lives and that, and they transformed, the culture in Brazil. So that’s why they’re in there, causes in there because also because he’s taken it really far. But then their are others here who’ve had really successful art careers who spent every fucking penny they made supporting graffiti artists.

Art by Lady Pink

AD: Do you think graffiti will still have its place, a purpose, in society?

Carlo: The impulse for graffiti is really ancient. I mean it goes to Pompei. When Pompei was discovered, they found writings on the wall preserved. It exists. If you look the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians everyone, they talk about this kind of writing on the wall, that people have been doing that as long as, as there’s been a language for people to do it before that it’s pictographs and you can say cave paintings or whatever.

So people mark making is pretty intrinsic to human nature. So that part is always gonna be continuous, but the, the conditions, the context, the circumstance around it changes. So I think graffiti changes that way. And now it’s like an established language and people are responding that way with our letter forms and stuff like that. But this is a pretty innocent germinal moment we’re able to invoke with a show about that movie.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UP. She is the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel that follows a love story between 24-hour-diner waitress and a Postmates driver. As an art writer, she is particularly interested in working with international artists and exploring how visual art can both transcend cultural boundaries and highlight the complexities of individual identity. Emma is a graduate of The New School and a Wilbur and Niso Smith Author of Tomorrow. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Insta: @emmawithglasses

Website: emmawithglasses.com