On the makeshift dance floor inside Chase Contemporary gallery, the ’80s are in full swing. Gloria Gaynor is blasting out of the DJ booth, producing hip gyrations reminiscent of a time when a Soho party meant something altogether different. Someone is draped in a boa, to what degree of irony it’s hard to tell.
The gathering is here to celebrate the latest installment of Angel Ortiz’s comeback, “Ode 2 NYC,” a collection of new works on show through June 18. And in case any young stragglers are unaware of whose party they’re crashing, it’s proclaimed in a giant black-and-white photo that hangs over the champagne bar: Ortiz (aka LA II) stood alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. “You’re in the presence of New York street art royalty,” goes the message.
Ortiz is hunched over a folding table by the door, tagging posters, t-shirts, hats, and quite frankly anything he can work a fat marker into. He shoulders a tattered backpack the almost entire time, as though at any moment he might scurry off and find something more interesting to do. This appears unlikely. He’s surrounded by longtime friends and fans, seemingly enjoying his reemergence into the spotlight. But then again, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character given Ortiz’s line of work.
Ortiz was barely a teenager when he broke onto the city’s street art scene in a much-worked over legend that goes something like this: the Lower East Side native and his graffiti crew, the Non Stoppers, had been spray-painting the area for years when Ortiz’s densely packed lines caught the attention of Keith Haring, then a School of Visual Arts student. Haring was relentless in his search of the LA II tag creator, eventually finding “Little Angel” and beginning a long-lasting collaborative partnership. It was mutually beneficial, with Haring granted local street access and acceptability, and Ortiz thrust into an international art market that was developing a sudden taste for street art.
The narrative of Ortiz’s success is so entwined with Haring that it would be understandable if, 40 years on, the Puerto Rican felt frustrated by the tie, as though it diminishes the merits of his own art. Not so. Ortiz remains glowing about his relationship with Haring. He’s also clear-eyed that it was Haring who approached him and asked for help (and, it seems, took inspiration from LA II’s bold line work).
“My relationship with Keith has always been about friendship first and the artistic aspect was and will always be secondary,” Ortiz told Artnet News. “Keith sought my guidance on how to accentuate his isolated figures and make them have a more complex environment to come to life visually. The collaborations artistically were magical and will never be duplicated.”
Ortiz’s latest collection follows a sold-out show at London’s D’Stassi Gallery in 2022 and sees him continue to transfer his distinctive tags, symbols, and icons from the city’s surface onto canvas. To view Ortiz’s current work is to enter a maze of arrows, lines to nowhere, half-formed letters, calligraphic flourishes, bold outlines, and negative spaces. Oftentimes, Ortiz orients his works around his formative motifs: the heart, the crown, the cat, the taxi cab (a nod, perhaps, to Ortiz’s first collaboration with Haring on a taxi hood), and the spray can, which, onsite in Soho, grows arm and legs that extend onto the gallery wall.
In “Ode 2 NYC,” as in London, Ortiz also reaches more often for the paintbrush than the spray can. “I feel differently depending on which medium I use and feel most artistically free when I have a spray can in my hand,” Ortiz said. “When I use a paintbrush on canvas, it is artistically the most unforgiving of all my weapons of choice.”
Ortiz’s expertise with a marker compensates for any lingering uncertainty he may have with more traditional artistic tools. In works like (2023) and (2023), the movement of thick and thin lines create the context in which painted symbols sits.
But there’s a contradiction at play here. Although Ortiz’s lines and motifs echo the era in which they were born, such is the intricacy, polish, and arrangement of his works that are conveniently presented on canvas that they lose urgency, that connection with the surface of the city. And this is fine: artists are forever evolving, retooling, reframing. It just feels more jarring in the context of graffiti.
It’s a shift Ortiz himself acknowledges. “The 1980s graffiti was free of social media and the thought of building a brand,” he said. “Today’s graffiti is not bad; it is just different. It is like comparing professional sports in the 80’s to now. Same sport fundamentally, just a completely different game.”
See more images of the show below.