If the subject of Rashaad Newsome’s work is spectacle, that makes the artist a flaneur, an observer, an outsider and a profligate of the culture of bling. “Honorable Ordinaries,” his recently opened exhibition at Ramis Barquet in New York, collages symbols of status and wealth from pop culture to draw parallels to the Medieval concept of heraldry. The exhibition kicked off with a tourney style performance by Newsome and the infectious Maluca Mala, underneath the High Line, in the headlights of a green Tesla.
PHOTO BY BRIENNE WALSH
On opening night, the streets outside the Ramis Barquet were taken by a small army of six-figure cars, on loan for the evening: a Bentley Continental GT, a Maserati GranTurismo, a Maserati QuattroPorte and a pair of electric powered Tesla convertibles, each painted in bright primary colors. They waited in attention, like stallions, for the street tourney later in the evening. Inside the show, Newsome, clad in a gray three piece and a floral tie, would have been unrecognizable as the star of the evening if he weren’t so frequently greeted by guests, who-disappointingly-sported far less bling than the photographic collages and crystal encrusted coats of arms on the walls. But everything in the show had sold, and the artist was happy. “I was up really late last night, and pretty much every day this week and last,” Newsome told me, greeting me with a disarmingly warm hug. “Tonight I’m going to celebrate.”
In the past two years, Newsome’s work, an ambitious array of media that includes photography, sound, collage, sculpture, video and performance has appeared in three solo exhibitions, a plethora of group shows, and the 2010 Whitney Biennial. “Honorable Ordinaries,” which builds on themes first introduced in his first solo show at Ramis Barquet, “Standards” (2009), explores themes of excess and wealth in hip-hop culture using the language of heraldry-designing, displaying and recording of coats of arms. “When I first started the pieces, I was focused on the coat of arms on white pages. For “Honorable Ordinaries,” I extended them to the background, and then to the frame. The frame is a collage, the background is a collage, the coat of arms is a collage. The works become much more painterly.” Developed in the Middle Ages to distinguish knights during tournaments, the herald is in Newsome’s hands a template filled with photographs of diamond-encrusted watches, rare cars and video girls to create coats of arms for the modern day knight, the hip hop impresario. “I exist between everything that I’m working with,” Rashaad told me with a grin in his studio, a week before the opening. “I’m the herald of bling centric culture.”
Newsome first became interested in heraldry while on a fellowship in Paris. He saw that the coats of arms, which were ubiquitous fixtures on architecture throughout the city, were “collages of status symbols that created the ultimate status symbol. And then I started thinking, what would the charges be of making a modern day armorial achievement?” The pre-modern knight showcased himself using griffins, dragons and coronets; the impresario shows his status through his cars, his cribs, his diamonds and his video girls. “The hip hop culture mirrors the knight culture,” Newsome told me. “The pageantry, the theater of that whole culture is mirrored in contemporary black youth culture.” So who is our modern day Lancelot? “Jay-Z,” Newsome told me, without hesitation. “He’s the perfect person to make a coat of arms for.”
Newsome was born and raised in New Orleans, and grew up as an honorable ordinary himself, a talented creative prodigy. “Even the word ‘bling’ comes from New Orleans… But I really wanted to take it somewhere else. I’m thinking more about not just creating a modern day coat of arms, but also creating an image of status, desire and wealth. At the same time, I’m making fun of it.” While Newsome’s work certainly points out the over the top nature of the images he appropriates, by combining them together to form dizzy and crowded compositions, he seems to endow his work with more nobility than humor. He’s an outsider who wants to participate. “I somehow exist between everything that I’m working with,” he said. “I like having no kind of solace or standpoint. I can move around in my work, and do whatever I want.”
The four collages in “Honorable Ordinaries” are heavily layered works composed from photographs cut from magazines, auction catalogs, and luxury ads. They are visual representations of the identity politics of desire, of things that only the mythically wealthy and successful could ever hope to possess. Seen from a distance, they look like optical illusions, or heavily patterned illuminated manuscripts. They are busy and colorful, extending to the limits of their frames. Collaged together, the objects become part of Newsome’s decorative scheme, fleur de lis and curliques in his coat of arms. By mashing them up in such a way that they are nothing more than pattern, the objects lose their muscle, their ability to confer machismo onto their possessors, and become campy, decorative, and arguably feminine.
Underneath the surface of their language, which spells out the tropes of what black masculinity means in contemporary hip hop culture, there is a thread of tension, of a rejection of the rigid restrictions placed on a black man’s desire. In Venus de Video (2010) (illustrated above), the coat of arms, which floats on an ocean of pearls, is constructed out of, to name a few things, a pink Ferrari, and a train of ruby necklaces. In the center of the work, a big-bootied video girl, her back facing the viewer, raises her arms and throws back her head in a gesture of triumph. Given Newsome’s indentity as a gay artist bearing the identity of a black man, in a culture where the pinnacle of success is exemblified by the desire for the fleshy, overtly feminine woman, the work especially highlights his role as outsider. He understands and observes that he is expected to desire the Venus de Video. But he refuses to objectify her. Rather, she is the victor in the work, the goddess of creation. She alone emerges from the sea of bling. If at any point Newsome himself breaks through in his compositions, he does so as the Venus de Video’s male counterpart.
The 17th century neoclassical frames that cradle the collages are, in a way, as important as the works themselves. For the show, Newsome had them painted at a luxury car autobody shop, in colors like Ferrari powder blue, a luminescent shade. One frame, multi-colored and mixed with gold, looks like something that Snoop Dogg might have carried off the Candyland set of “California Girls,” in which he starred with Katy Perry. The frames, despite their gaudiness, add a layer of aura to the collages, giving the luxurious items pictured within, considered by some to be symbols of low culture, the status of a high culture objects. If aura can be described as the phenomenon of distance, then bling is the ultimate sign of the unattainable, and the hip hop king, the mythical knight for whom Newsome builds his coats of arms, is the possessor of manifold desires.
A number of sculptural wall reliefs, coats of arms clad in mink and gold trim, drip with medallions in the shapes of Bart Simpson and Jesus. Bend (2010) is topped off with a black Yankee hat. On the far wall is the centerpiece of the exhibition, a video piece projected into the space between a 17th Century neoclassical frame. Pursuivant (2010), which means a junior officer of arms, is part documentary, part music video, and charts Newsome’s mythical (and fictional) journey to become a knight at the Royal College of Arms in London. “I’m collaging documentary with fiction. I’m taking all of the usual tropes of a quintessential hip hop video and dumping them in one place,” Newsome explained. “You see me going through the process of becoming a herald. You also see where I’m taking it.”
Taking place directly after the opening, the logical conclusion to Newsome’s was a staged tournament, which took the form of a street concert. The site of the performance looked as if it had been lifted directly from Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” video. Underneath the part of the High Line that joins 24th Street with 25th, the concrete space, ordinarily splattered with graffiti and trash, was lit up by the headlights of the five $130,000+ cars that had stood attention at the entrance to the gallery. Amidst the headlights of the cars (and the security guards hired to watch over them), a crowd formed, mostly comprising young members of the art world, some with Malt ‘40s, as if they are extras on the set of a music video.
Maluca strode out of the green Tesla parked at the head of the formation, like the Venus de Video come to life. In the background, Newsome, in his role as auteur of the spectacle, controlled the music using a silver Macbook. Black leotard, plenty of bling, and a woven braid that trailed, Maluca posed for a while on the hood of the car, throwing puckered lips and long legs at the flashing cameras. Her floor-length (and then some!) gold braided weave trailed behind her as she strode across the performance space, like she was a feral video vixen with a large dose of class. “Does anyone want wine, beer, vodka?” She yelled as she started her routine. “I don’t see any of that. All I have is a long weave and some long nails.” After she finished a rendition of “Cholas in Manolos,” Newsome erupted like a bolt of energy from the driver’s seat of the car, goading the crowd to put their hands up. They did so, a little awkwardly, moving their bodies to the beat of the track.