A Plea for a Hip Hop History Exhibition

When I was working at the Queens Museum some years ago, I meekly proposed a 5 borough, 5 museum exhibition on the history of hip hop in New York, essentially the definitive hip hop history show beginning with its genesis in the Bronx in the early 70s. The Queens Museum would cover the culture’s history in Queens and the Studio Museum in Harlem and/or El Museo del Barrio, Bronx Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center would examine their borough’s history with hip hop. And in fact, the show should include a Long Island and a New Jersey museum for all the contributions to the hip hop narrative coming from those corners. Imagine the kind of show any of these museums could throw with the history and material that’s just sitting in these communities. Think about all the forgotten pioneers whose memories are waning, whose personal effects are endangered by time and the elements.

The Queens Museum could uncover the different scenes in Queensbridge, South Jamaica, Hollis, and Lefrak City. Even Flushing (my neighborhood), stomping ground of Large Professor and Action Bronson, would get some shine. The show would look into break dance and graffiti crews in Queens and their relation to counterparts in the Bronx. It would reveal the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic on rap music’s development. It would look back to those first park and house parties that germinated the whole culture. It would be a multi-generational reunion at the Queens Museum. At the VIP opening, I can imagine LL Cool J from Hollis kicking it with The Beatnuts from Jackson Heights and Lloyd Banks from South Jamaica. But this shouldn’t just be a memorabilia show; it should examine the specific social, political and economic forces that influenced how hip hop developed. Like any good exhibition, it should be as much about the conditions surrounding a cultural form as the cultural form itself.

The idea never went anywhere, mostly because I didn’t sell it with the enthusiasm and determination it needed, but I hope it happens with or without me. (Honestly, if someone from any one of these institutions wants to pick up the idea and roll with it, I’m not mad at that.) And now that I’m at the Museum of Chinese in America, the question is not if I’ll do a show about hip hop, but when and how. This show would start with the question: What is the Chinese relationship to music, dance, and written language?  And then more personally, why was I so drawn to graffiti writing styles and rap music from the east coast as a teenager even though I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of San Francisco? Curating is autobiography through the back door of cultural anthropology.

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Painting in 2030

The future of painting is its past. Maybe that’s what all those white guys, starting with Yves Klein and continuing with Douglas Crimp, meant when they told everyone else that painting was dead. Nevertheless, nothing looks newer right now than a roomful of Matisse paintings because his work has been so thoroughly consumed – in the market and in the academy – that painters today are subconsciously making work in his ‘school.’ The bravura economy of his gestures, the folksy quasi-abstract compositions, his unpredictable color palette, the sketchy flat-footed depictions of banal contemporary life have influenced contemporary European painters like Luc Tuymans, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and Raoul de Keyser and Americans, among them Alison Katz, Josephine Halvorson, Merlin James, Ariel Dill, Mira Dancy, and Richard Aldrich.

See Matisse’s impact on Chinese contemporary art now in a small show at the China Institute in New York about art groups that formed immediately after the Cutlural Revolution in China in the late 70s. One of these groups, called the No Names, turned away from Communist-sanctioned social realism by going out into nature to paint the rustic modesty of village life. This was their rebellion. In a place like China back then, where power and cultural production were collapsed under one Communist program, this simple act of painting en plein air and literally outside the service of the party must have felt like pissing on Mao’s grave. Forget the crisis of painting; this was painting in crisis. The Matisse style called forth for provocation.

Painting won’t die. It’s a form as durable is prisons.


A Photograph from Georgia

In this black and white photograph a peasant woman hunches over in a field, her country’s mountainous terrain spread out in front of her. It’s the country of Georgia in the early 1990s and the woman, seen from behind, is layered in the kind of loose clothing that has always been associated with dignified laborers. We see her from an unobtrusive distance, observing her at work. This vast ancient landscape is both her job and her hearth. It breaks her body and nourishes it. The scene is her daily view; it is unspectacular to her. A peasant’s world touched with the sublime romanticism of a dream, like that of the Andrei Tarkovsky film The Mirror. It quietly opposes the revolutionary romanticism constructed by Soviet propaganda.

I wonder what she’s reaching for because the ground doesn’t offer anything except unforgiving dry dirt punctuated by patches of wild vegetation. Maybe she’s putting something down, giving something back. I think of the way farmers must relate to their land in the same way that fishermen relate to bodies of water. They live on its rhythms, around its schedule. This photograph is small like an old photograph, printed on paper that is cut unevenly on its edges and curling slightly with age like a dying leaf. The picture swallows this anonymous woman who is a product of her land, her country and her time.

Note: This photograph by Natela Grigalashvili is included in Definitions, a group exhibition of Georgian photographers at Newman Popiashvili Gallery, New York.


A Small Analysis of an Artwork

Inside an art gallery in New York’s Lower Eastside, buried in a side room, was a small black and white image of a barren dessert landscape on a bright day with slight traces of human presence – the kind of scene that would capably backdrop a cowboy movie. It looked like Utah, though I’ve never been there before. Further detail about the picture escapes me, but what stood out was a flat white, rectangular building with a cross at the end of it barging into the picture on the left. This modest church at first looked like a printing error amidst the coarse expansiveness of America’s nature. The dimensionless whiteness hovered irrelevantly over the modulated gray of sky and earth, both of which seemed to be made out of sand. But the cross gave it away as architecture within a landscape. This little picture read like a subtle affront to religion, casting a house of god as a pictorial error, a rigid two-dimensional block devoid of substance and grace. A space for worship disconnected from the real world around it.

Note: This photograph by Seher Shah is included in her solo show, Object Anxiety, at Scaramouche, New York.


The Aesthetics of Sprinting: Comparing the Running Styles of Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson

During Usain Bolt’s post-race interview after dominating the 200 meter final of the 2011 Track and Field World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, he talked about the former American champion Michael Johnson, who was similarly pre-eminent as a 200 and 400 meter runner in the 90s. In his hurried Jamaican English, Bolt reminded viewers that Johnson retired while he was at the top of the sport; a legend, he said, and that was how Bolt wanted to be remembered as well. Each one defined men’s running in their eras. Johnson was the game back then as Bolt is today.

Even during the pre-race introductions, as I watched Bolt prance and mug elaborately as if getting ready for a night out, then step and crouch seriously to his mark, I thought about how his and Johnson’s running styles differed and how the shape of their forms delivered them to the limits of our understanding of what the body is capable of.

Their names say it all.

Usain Bolt, an audacious, electric amalgam of syllables conjured through a violent spark of imagination. The first name is liquid, the U played like the Ooh of surprise, sain like insane, Bolt of lighting bolt. He runs like his name, smooth as molasses stretching from a spoon with an easy speed that can only be described as genius. Genius like the level of intellect. From the gun, each step rockets him forward ever faster until he reaches full speed. From there he swallows distances in lengthy strides. His feet seem to barely make contact with the track’s surface, floating above and discrediting laws of nature.

In slow motion during the 200, NBC showed his eyes glancing to his right as he came out of the turn, checking for Walter Dix, the American runner who came in 2nd.  With Dix well behind, Bolt poured on the mechanics of his stride and his face broke out in expressions of innocent wonderment, joy and swagger. A 6’5 runner with a long gate, he down-shifted and accelerated into a smooth gallop that propelled him past the finish into the Jamaican flag. A swarm of cameras descended on him as he jigged and broke into his lightning bolt pose, left arm stretched diagonally, index pointing to the heavens. His right arm folded, index aligned with his left arm as if he’s drawing back a bow and arrow, aiming it at the moon.

Michael Johnson, a common, practical name, unfussy and unadorned. It’s always Michael Johnson, not Mike. You would never forget it, though you would also never remember it. Uncelebratory and utterly American. He had short legs that worked like pistons, up and down in rapid choppy succession, pounding his shoes into the track so hard the track bounced them back up with greater velocity. His speed was built on pure work. It was blue-collar speed. Johnson’s arms pumped with the same rhythm as his legs, fast and furious. His mouth was the exhaust pipe, eyes straight-ahead unemotional like headlights; his head turned into a pure instrument for breathing. His body was a machine for the production of blinding pace though nothing in its movements suggested forward rush. He won gold in both the 200 and 400 meters in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, setting the 200 meter record that stood until Bolt broke it in the 2009 Berlin World Championships in 19.19 seconds.

Bolt’s running looks like the sound of a whizzing bullet, chasing the wind and never stirring the air, laughing all the way. Johnson shoved air aside like a freight train going downhill, the business of running pressed on his face. Running is pure sport; how fast can you get from here to there with your feet? When Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson run, their churning strides convert their sport into art.