Rashaad Newsome Presents: Art and Performance, the Remix
An artist who fearlessly collages hip-hop, vogue culture and opera.
The culmination of an artists work is the exhibition. The space where his/her research, practice and discipline is manifest. What is on display can be either flat or dimensional depending on the material and subject matter. Rashaad Newsome’s work is hyper-dimensional without being banal. It is sophisticated without being pretentious. His work is provocative, positioning him as one of the most influential artists of his time.
What makes Newsome’s work compelling is his understanding of the multiplicity of language. He states, “My work is about language.” Additionally, his research, the studied history and participation in culture, his stealth manipulation of objects, use of color and materials, and how he positions himself and his subjects, are what brings the necessary intellectual swagger to the bling and bodies in his work. Newsome’s art functions within the realm of popular culture yet at the same time securing its appropriate position in the histories of art and culture.
Last fall, Newsome debuted his groundbreaking work Herald at Marlborough Chelsea, in New York City. The gallery’s selection of Newsome as an artist was a strategic decision as it aimed to reposition and redefine itself.
“We knew that changing the direction of Marlborough Chelsea would require bringing in artists who were not only dynamic and prolific in their practice, but also furthered dialogue around contemporary art. Newsome’s practice embodies this,” stated Max Levai, Director of Marlborough.
The project, Herald, Newsome explains “came out of how Heraldry functions as a language.” It also explores the history and symbols of status. His research took him to London to the Royal College of Arms to experience first hand what he had been studying for so long.
The depth of Heraldry is complex but an identifiable symbol is the coat of arms. Newsome transforms this history and applies it to contemporary hip-hop, creating an explosive juxtaposition between the elements of something that was of a high and noble form to something contemporary that originated in the streets of New York. In Heraldry as in hip-hop there are battles for territory and in the end everyone is going for the crown or in some cases, the bling [recall Kanye being inducted into Roc-A-Fella Records with a chain].
Herald, as an exhibition (and with an accompanying rap battle/performance at New York’s Performa) was a multimedia experience comprised of collages in customized antique frames, some embedded with rims and ball caps. The collages revealed other contemporary status symbols of the hip-hop variety such as gold watches, diamonds and images of the female posterior en masse. One in particular titled Swaggalicious, included the fleur-de-lis, a nod to Newsome’s own cultural history and place of origin.
Newsome’s work FIVE, is about vogue culture. This work is re-appropriating this art/dance form by realigning it with its history, origins and community. It introduces viewers who are unfamiliar to the five elements of voguing: hands, duck walking, cat walk, floor performance and dip spins. Comfortable with the tension that notions of high and low create Newsome has vogue performers, violinists, an opera singer and a vogue performance commentator all in the same space over a beat. It is the ultimate performance remix. To further expand this work, Newsome uses a motion tracker in one performance that tracks each dancers movement based on the color they are wearing and creates drawings that are projected onto an elevated screen above and behind the dancers.
When speaking of Newsome as a performer and the role of performance in his work Levai added "[Newsome] is cataloging gestures in a way that we have not seen before. This is evidenced in Shade Compositions, 2009, even further in FIVE, 2010 as well as in The Conductor. This method of documentation is less a statement about the artist’s personal intentions, and instead focuses more on archiving gestures in a community."
Newsome is masterfully expanding the boundaries of language and gesture and asking his viewers to join him in this exploration. His work requires a deeper analysis of things thought to be understood all too well such as hip-hop, vogue (or voguing), gesture and body language. Newsome confronts and shifts the assumptions associated with each of these cultures and boldly calls for reconsideration, and maybe even slightly, reproach.
He explores the complexity of the human need to distinguish ‘other’ according to socio-economic status/class, sexual preference, and ethnicity as a mechanism for understanding (or more often misunderstanding). His work also questions what defines status? And at what level? What are the adornments (or lack there of) of one who is wealthy vs. one with new money vs. one who is said to live in poverty? What are the symbols of one's arrival?
Newsome’s Chelsea studio is symbolic of his own arrival as an artist of national and international scale. The moderate swank of the building that houses Tesla Motors and several galleries and design firms is the perfect unassuming façade for the monumental catalogue of work that Newsome has and is creating.
The recent appearance of his work on MTV with the return of Art Breaks could symbolize a breakthrough or maybe transcendence; he is preparing to push his work beyond the walls of galleries and museums. Newsome is creating epic work in visual art as Kanye and Jay-Z have done in hip-hop. When I asked about the parallels and if he’d been in contact with either artist he confidently stated “I’m hoping we’ll all work together at some point.”
Loop 21 spoke with Rashaad Newsome in his studio, his launch pad for next.
Loop 21: Let’s start with an important question, where are you from and who raised you?
Newsome: My mother and father who are still together, Florence and Blanch Newsome. My father is a musician and has been my entire life and he’s from St. Louis, Mo., and my mother is from a small town called Butte, Butte, La. So I grew up part of the time in New Orleans and Butte. My mother is an EKG Technician in a hospital. My father has been a musician his whole life, so I grew up with an artist. He also had a battle with drug addiction (heroin) and overcame that and he overcame that without rehab or methadone, so that instilled in me that anything is possible. And we are all very close, my family is still together. I have one brother, Blanch Jr. and he is studying ministry; he’s going in the direction of the church.
Loop 21: How did your father being a musician, being an artist, influence you?
Newsome: Oh, insanely! When we were kids and my father used to do shows, we would go sing with him and we would get paid, in McDonald's! [laughing] My father would do a show wherever he could and he would get paid to do shows in a nursing home, and he would show up in a tuxedo. Sometimes we would go with him, particularly on the Christmas shows and he taught us to harmonize at a young age. My father used to be in a group called the Bop-a-deers and he toured the chitlin circuit back in the day with Ike and Tina and many other famous people.
Loop 21: Your exhibition at Marlborough Chelsea played a big part of the gallery redefining itself. How has this partnership been thus far?
Newsome: It’s been great for me, Marlborough has a very strong history as a gallery, and they’ve definitely stood the test of time. It was important for me to be with a gallery that supports my practice. It has been like two businesses coming together to do good business.
Loop 21: How do you define yourself as an artist since you do work across so many disciplines?
Newsome: There is always this performative gesture in the work but I don’t know if performance fully sums it up; I guess multi-media artist, because it is really hard to limit my practice as an artist to one medium. So I guess I just make work and I think as the conversation within the work evolves, the material evolves and that’s what’s really exciting to me because it keeps it interesting because you can find yourself in a whole new territory where you have to figure out a whole new tool and how to push that to its limits.
Loop 21: Could you speak about the necessity of collaging and the layers that you use in all of your work?
Newsome: Collage is a visual way of sampling. Collage really came into the work when I started working on the Heraldry project but then as I worked on that, I started to see that there was that collage aesthetic throughout the work, like in Shade Compositions, that could be read as a collage being made in real time. The Conductor in a lot of ways is a video collage. I like the idea of using material that contains meaning and through composition testing the elasticity being placed on that material.
The Heraldry project plays with the language of Heraldry and how it functions as a system of symbols that represent social status, economic status, status as a warrior and position in society. The pieces also kind of function as portraits without the figure. I like the idea of using contemporary symbols that represents those ideas today and through composition moving past the ideas that are placed on those symbols.
Loop 21: How did you decide to become an artist?
Newsome: I studied art history at Tulane and after that I left and moved to New York. I met a woman named Fran who is a writer and an activist who I met through a mutual friend because I used to live in a collective punk-rock house in New Orleans and in the house there were several travelers who came through and one put me in touch with Fran. Fran was living in a Black Queer Collective house in Brooklyn called DUMBA and she came to New Orleans to meet me because someone had moved out of the house and I moved into the house. So I moved to New York and for the first couple of years I was doing freelance art handling for different galleries and museum, I did DJing for a while, then I studied film at Film Video Arts, which no longer exists but it was a non-profit film school. I studied digital post-production there and shortly after that I got a residency at Harvest Works which has been a huge supporter of my work since I got here (and still is). Then I started studying programming and music production there and it is all of these things that kind of make up my practice.
Loop 21: Speak a bit about your work, FIVE.
Newsome: FIVE came out of an interest in vogue and vogue culture which is a community that I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in New York. At first it started out as a video series, "Untitled" and "Untitled(New Way)" both of which were shown at the Whitney Biennial . I was thinking a lot about the way vogue was talked about and how it is a part of the Black and Latino gay Diaspora, that was dying and it got co-opted so early in its creation. It’s like it got co-opted, presented, then it was completely discounted. Most people’s entry point is through an outside figure who came to the community made a very truncated idea of what it is and brought it to the masses and then that’s what people dealt with as fact, but it’s a practice and culture that has evolved and is still evolving today.
So it was very important for me to present that work, it was like a political act of taking it back to the community, employing the community, and archiving it as a legitimate practice within performance art. I should say at this point that my initial intrest in voguing is how it functions as a language. I think language is the over arching theme in all of my work so with the vogue project I went into the community and found dancers who were proficient in different styles. [Voguing] is like this language that’s constantly in a state of flux.
So many people will discount vogue as something of the past, and something of the '90s, which is a very academic idea which is stamped as performing gender; it’s so much beyond performing gender, it’s about ideas of position in society. It’s sort of like a direct reaction to people who exist in a certain place on a socio-economic totem pole who are performing their way out of it.
Rashaad Newsome is preparing for his upcoming exhibition next month in Hong Kong (ARTHK12). As both author and conductor of this performance, he will collaborate with local musicians. For more information, visit www.rashaadnewsome.com