By Karl F. Volkmar, NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEW
What a relief to find my way to Barrister’s Gallery so readily after the epic quest of my first visit almost three years ago! No one had told me then that Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard was not on my New Orleans map. Haley’s social activism may have been commemorated by rededicating a street in her name but someone had neglected to insure that the name change was also recorded on the maps. Without the guidance of gallery owner standing on the curb in front of the gallery and using his cellular telephone to tell me where to turn or not to turn at each new intersection, I may never have found the gallery and written my review essay.In a similar way Willie Birch has helped introduce the world to the style and culture of the inner city streets. Birch transformed its often anonymous messages into a visual language of individual commentary and expression acceptable to the art gallery world. In this way the art that was the expression of the social subconscious of the inner city and African American experience became a means for informing pink people about that ignored and unseen world. The works of Birch included in the Hip-Hop exhibition are from a time about ten years ago when Lucy Lippard’s Mixed Blessings was still considered radical. Yet the popular culture that inspired Birch’s work and thus Birch’s own style was expressed in a language that had been theoretically validated by the expressionist and surrealist movements of the twentieth century and their descendants in abstract expressionism, Dubuffet”s art brut, etc.
Birch introduces the exhibition like the leader of a combo invites young and up-and-coming musicians to play a set. If his richly colored poster-style paintings attract our attention now, imagine how the deliberately naive, expressive technique must have turned the public’s eye ten years ago! Birch’s mixed media paintings introduced the art gallery audience to an expressive, aggressive style made even more assertive by the inclusion of names and images of those who had pushed their ways through the social barriers. In Birthday Radio, Birch celebrates famously innovative and influential musicians like Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, and Charlie Parker, James Brown, [Muhammed?] Ali, and Gary Byrd are among those who marched to A Different Drum. And, in Rap: Reflections on Our Time, the artist expresses his own thoughtful reflections on the complex questions raised by phenomena like Rap, Gangstas, Censorship, Negative Lyrics?, Violence, and the N-Word. It is suggested that “Enough is Enough” and that Debate and Dialogue may be important for understanding these “Reflections of Our Times.” That debate and dialogue continues on a more personal level in the work of the other three artists in the show.
Introducing the work of the others with Birch’s work as an historical reference and a rhetorical device can prepare our minds for the works that follow as we read the installation from left to right. But we must also remind ourselves of Birch’s other work in which he has developed a much different style that explores themes from the lives and the loves of the people who live in the inner cities, the normality of their humanness that thrives in spite of disgraceful treatment by others.
Jeffrey Cook, once a break dancer himself, has chosen the same corrugated cardboard on which he danced for the support for his paintings. The three works titled D.J. Board I, Breaker Board I, and Rapper Board I were inspired by the roles of the deejay, the dancer, and the singer/poet in the breakdance world. In these paintings Cook replaces the real-time performance experience of the dancer’s body with the record of the artist’s thoughts and actions, and responses that constitutes a work of art. These flat paintings represent the translation of three-dimensional and time-based dance performance into two dimensions. But where the dancer’s body responds to sounds from outside, the painter responds to sensations arising from within and in response to the painting itself. The phenomenon is described in the surrealist notion of automatic writing, the action painting of Jackson Pollock, and the improvisations of the jazz musician. The resulting work may be read in several ways: in purely formal terms as design, an arrangement of color, line, shape, texture, technique, et cetera, as a dance performed by the viewer’s eyes as one moves through the painting following the cues created by the artist’s brushes; and as the traces of gestures recorded in the texture of the paint.
Cook’s process iterates the random syncopation of hip-hop. The prepackaged unity of the music produced by the record company and reconstituting it through a series of accidents to create a new unity that lies within the artist’s mind. By resisting the predestination of the commercial produced product and breaking the hold of the ideas of others on our minds, we create a new center that lies within our selves and the possibility of a new expression.
Yet the danger of resistance is that it can also reproduce the very system that is being subverted and the risk of the absorption of radical intent into mainstream culture as the artist becomes one of “them.” Although Cook may be performing the artist’s social duty, his paintings have the look of something refined, a careful Grafting that contributes to the strength of his art. Cook has displayed this confidence in his earlier works from sometime back when he was invited to “sit in” in a show of John Scott”s work several years ago. Thus did the successful artist show an awareness of, and respect for, the talent of the younger, up-and-coming artist. And now Cook as an established artist continues that tradition, comfortable with the fact that the work of less well known artists Paul Deo and Denis Holt each outnumbers his own.aive religious painting, and playful memorials to past greats. Pimpin’ Bush is an enhanced giclee print critical of Bush’s Iraq phenomenon composed of scanned photographs, hand drawn caricatures, and manipulated images combined in the manner of collage. Bush himself is presented center stage, dressed as a street hood or gangster, while a betasseled, g-stringed, and white-booted Condoleezza Rice cavorts like a stripper version of Vanna White around easels shaped like oil derricks ejaculating spurts of oil. Gangsta Bush stands on a Two Hundred Dollars Moral Reserve Note magic carpet signed by Political Mentor Ronald Reagan and Campaign Advisor George H. W. Bush and numbered Ilove2SMIRK4U. Secretary Colin Powell flies Air Force One with a joystick in his hands.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield kicks back and dreams of love and Bush. A chorus line of Lincoln, Jackson, Washington, and Franklin shuffles off to Buffalo stage left. Deo’s satirical bent becomes bitter in A Slave’s Nightmare. Three slaves bound together with iron bands and chains, head-feet-head and feet-head-feet float over a ground of prison bars and a slave ship plan as Powell flies his plane against the Twin Towers and a scanned portrait head of Rice sits atop the body of the squatting figure from Picasso’s Desmoiselles des Avignon.
Deo shifts roles from social satirist and critic when he pays homage to the life and ideas of Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King in the mixed media painting Martin & Coretta. Dr. King dressed in white coat and dress pants, bow tie around his neck, stands stage right. By his left side stands Mrs. King dressed in a long white dress decorated with an elaborate latticework of pink roses. The Moon and the Sun watch from the two upper comers as ideas like Martyr, Lover, Giver, Forever, Thank You, Love, Purpose, Together, Sacrifice, Till the End of All Time placed here and there across the surface let us know without any doubt how the artist feels about the contributions of the Kings. On a more light-hearted but still positive note. Jelly Roll [Morton], Billie [Holiday, and/Louis [Armstrong] sit side by side in heaven on an undulating piano keyboard bench, their white hats glowing like haloes, like young kids dressed for a special day at church, and swinging their feet with that joyous abandon that children are so able to express.
In Progress, childlike Peace #1 wears a sports jersey and black fedora on his head and holds a silver orb [the moon?] in his right hand. His counterpart Unity #1 wears his colors around his hairless head and holds a gold orb against a light blue sky inflected with pale pink cottony clouds. Peace and Unity, like babies free of artifice, kick their legs in air with perhaps an even greater elan than Jelly Roll, Billie, and Louis, and exchange a high five over the word [and title of the work] Progress written across the top of the earth”s horizon.
Deo’s compassion for rap-musician Tupac Shakur is expressed in the enhanced giclee print Tupac: Dear Mama. Tupac wears Truth around his head and Dear Mama on a heart hanging around his neck, “Thug Mansion” in the upper right alludes to an afterlife in thug heaven. Thug’s Life is spelled in large gold letters around his waist like a world champion belt. Tupac gives us the finger with his bejeweled right hand.
Although the violence expressed in rap lyrics in general was characteristic of Tupac too. and has rightfully drawn the public’s wrath, to a young man brought up in the harsh world of the inner city this violence is the expression of an inner pain and anger, even rage. There is a sensitive quality to Deo’s portrait of Tupac that suggests something deeper in Tupac’s soul, something lying beneath the pain and anger, the humanness of the boy forced to become a man too soon. This sensitivity emerges in one of Tupac’s last songs, Dear Mama, whose moving tale may help explain the roots of the anger and rage of rap music. Dear Mama is a deeply moving song that offers the real confusion and suffering of a young inner city youth forced to act like a man before his time. [Perhaps I am imagining something that is not there, but I am wondering if the insistent hip hop beat and the ferocious violence of the lyrics is only there to keep the singers from crying at the tragedy that is life?] And it is sadder still that Tupac was the victim of a drive-by shooting on September 7, 1996, and died six days later on September 13 soon after he allowed us to see his soul.
Dennis Holt’s works are of a different order of expression. Unexplained images floating in enigmatic clouds of color and accented with fluid lines of paint likes streaks of lightening across the sky during a summertime storm create a haunting sense of mystery in Heart of a King, Blood of a Slave. The head of a man wearing a ballcap with the initials CR is suspended in an amorphous space at the left. The shape of the state of Texas outlined with red lines in a pool of yellow lies at the center of the painting. Fragments of license plates appear at lower left and upper right. Webs of blue rings as if made by setting down small glasses create another layer in the miasma of shapes and colors and patterns that make up Heart of a King, Blood of a Slave.
Where Deo draws our interest with the images and narrative content of his works, Holt’s paintings yield no clearly defined meaning as we are caught up in an elusive suggestiveness. In Made in China the head of Mao suspended in a nebulous space reminiscent of the mists of a Chinese landscape meets the viewers gaze. Concentric irregular shapes of blue, red, green, white, and black are punctuated by mask-like faces appearing mysteriously here and there across the surface. Is there an influence of graffiti here? Or are we witnessing the traces of abstract expressionism? Some of the later works of Robert Motherwell come to mind like his Je t’aime paintings. Holt’s paintings are full of surprises and discoveries. The more one looks, the more one sees. One might first be induced by the title Ask about Your Freedom to search for clues to the artist’s literal intentions but I soon found myself letting go of my desire to decipher and more and more becoming involved in the colors and patterns and bits of images whose meaning I no longer question. I find myself no longer wondering what things mean as elusiveness becomes mysterious involvement in the work itself. I suspect there may be more narrative content than I am able to read in the works but it is the visual engagement that makes Holt’s works meaningful to me.
The self-conscious narratives of Deo and the painterly mystery of Holt represent two different ways of thinking about art. While they may have been graffiti artists at one time, or have been influenced by such work, and hip hop culture may have been the milieu of their lives, their individual styles have emerged from the miasma of their multiple experiences to become a personal art that is beyond the derivative. It should be no wonder that Birch and Cook allowed Deo and Holt to sit in.