At first, they tagged. Simple, direct, and often ungraceful, the earliest graffiti were a cry for acknowledgement, cultural politics wrapped in a shroud of anti-capitalist artistic freedom. Soon, though, the identity cards went hyperstylized. Writers got their art on, before anyone came up from downtown to tell them that’s what they were doing.
Graffiti’s gallery legitimization happened so quickly there was hardly time to wonder what that meant both for graf itself and for the art world. Almost three decades later, “One Planet Under a Groove” aims to answer at least the latter question. No longer are the street-level artists cherished by the establishment; those who risked life and limb in the ’70s just to have the opportunity—and assert their right—to tag, seem like anachronisms. But while urban graf struggles, its children, armed with M.F.A.’s and grant money, are finding the path to acceptance well-paved and legal.
Yet with so many entrants in the arena, from so many different places and with so many different approaches, to search for a unified hip-hop aesthetic in visual art is as futile as to do so within the music itself. Some artists give racial politics primacy, others are obsessed with particular members of the hip-hop community, and still others have taken their processes right from the hip-hop playbook. Remixed media, you could say.
“One Planet” ‘s task is therefore daunting, so curators Lydia Yee and Franklin Sirmans laid out a handful of rules, namely the avoidance of graffiti art, though inevitably it does sneak into the show. Douglas Ross literally rips someone’s tag off a brick wall and reinstalls the fiberglass “copy” in his own Graft. Perhaps if graffiti and post-graf weren’t such visual-art staples, something Ross seeks to comment on, his piece would feel less like just plain, unideologically motivated theft. Martin Wong painted his tagger friend Sharp beside a blank canvas, upon which Sharp made his mark. Again, the person on the nameplate has his hip-hop cred on loan, made especially clear when juxtaposed against the Keith Haring subway graffito on the other side of the room.
Haring also taps into another recurring theme of the exhibition, though: interactivity. The question of where art stops and viewing begins may not have a hip-hop-specific answer, but the culture’s insurrectionary goals do offer inspiration for some of the artists here. Sanford Biggers and David Ellis contribute a rubberized break-dancing floor—”scuff marks” are listed as a medium—and an accompanying video of a breaking competition, echoing Juan Capistran’s The Breaks, a photo series of the artist break dancing on a Carl Andre floor sculpture (covertly, we’re told in the catalog). At this exhibition’s opening, people took to the floor for a breaking battle, and the turntables in Nadine Robinson’s oversized Big Baby Blue provided the music, though both pieces feel curiously hollow when the gallery is empty. Interactivity demands interaction.
Of course, two decades ago, hip-hop wasn’t playing call-and-response with the art world like Capistran is. At its best, hip-hop was intertextual, paying homage to its immediate ancestors and, of course, to itself. That was the lifeblood Jean-Michel Basquiat tapped into so viscerally in his work, represented best here by the oversize collage Toxic: corporate logos, half-finished sketches, crude swaths of paint, all contributing to an overvivid representation of the surrounding world. The only artist here who approaches Basquiat’s lucid haze is Brit Chris Ofili, who contributes two signature works. Afrodizzia (2nd Version) is immediate and absurd, and Third Eye Vision conveys gloom. In both, Ofili’s black-culture carnival is as confounding as it is beautiful.
In all fairness, though, Ofili may be the only one who’s aiming in Basquiat’s direction. For other artists here, appropriating the detritus of their surroundings isn’t just an exercise in pastiche. Dario Robleto melts his records—the ones he hates and the ones he loves—for his intriguing sculptures. In one piece, Robleto memorializes Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa, and Parliament in tiny urns, like precious spices or the ashes of a loved one. Mel Chin’s two contributions to the show are direct and frightening. Night Rap transforms an ordinary police baton into a working microphone—one end is where the stories come from, the other is where they get recorded. HOMEySEW “9” asks even more exciting questions. A gun-wound treatment kit, angiocatheter and all, hidden inside a Glock 9mm handgun, this moving piece wonders what exactly it takes to sell healing to a community obsessed with violence. Is the way of the gun the only way in?
Chin’s work, though powerful, ultimately feels pessimistic. Los Angeleno Kori Newkirk tempers his own pessimism with humor. Inspired by the high school students he once taught, Hip Hop From Home (Fake That Floss) is a loving, careful bit of cultural anthropology, a collection of mock jewelry that approximates hip-hop’s obsession with all things glittery: a pipe-cleaner necklace, a fuzzy four-finger ring that reads “Cash,” and the masterpiece, platinum tooth fronts crafted from gum-wrapper foil. Newkirk is disappointed in hip-hop—he wants to say that the real versions of this jewelry are just as flimsy as his faux pieces—but his subversion of the genre’s excesses is distinctly hip-hop in its own way, jerry-rigging an improvised solution to a difficult problem.
Like Chin and Newkirk, the Korean-born Nikki Lee is curious about the things we have to carry in order to gain access to certain places. For the past few years, she’s been adopting the trappings of various communities, then having herself photographed as a participant in them. For The Hip Hop Project, Lee is born anew, browned and braided and cavorting with thugs. But two dimensions don’t adequately capture something as layered and problematic as racial passing and, in this case, cultural passing. Membership is more than a series of poses.
Lee’s ultimate accessory is the rapper Prodigy, of Mobb Deep, seen embracing her in one shot. Prodigy is one of many rappers who appear in the show. Ofili’s works have dozens of them in small black-and-white photos. Erik Parker’s pieces trace a bubbly hip-hop genealogy overflowing with names. Susan Smith-Pinelo makes them accomplices in her video installation Cake. Coreen Simpson’s elegant late-’80s photos of Flavor Flav and Eric B portray their subjects, and their jewels, in loving detail.
And Tupac, Tupac, everywhere Tupac. The dead rapper is a ready-made avatar of transgression. Fortunately, those who opt to use him here—Edgar Arcenaux in the semantically witty Spock, Tuvac, Tupac; Ofili in Afrodizzia—don’t take his image in vain. Pac’s turn in David Hammons’s Out of Sequence is even more compelling. In cribbed photos pasted onto the pages of a Christo catalog, Pac is in various states of wrap himself—straitjacket, wheelchair, tattoos. In these pictures, the only things Pac’s got going for him are his eyes, wide and expressive. But with In the Hood, a hollow, torn-off sweatshirt hood tacked to the wall, Hammons doesn’t even allow for that, taking his comment on the elimination of the black male—in art, in music, in society—to a tragic, lynched end.
It’s the same thing Max King Cap is going for in the literal, but effective Counted, Tracked, Observed, three Carhartt jackets embroidered with those words. It’s a visual double entendre of sorts: That’s how the outside world sees young black men, dressed alike and easy to categorize, but that particular jacket is also a hip-hop staple. Next to Cap’s piece is Sol Sax’s photo of lifesize papier-mâché figures outfitted in their hip-hop best, posing outside a Bushwick J station in Warriors at the Gate. They’re expressionless and foreboding, but they’re also helpless and collapsible. What you see from a distance isn’t what you get up close. Much the same can be said of this show. From afar, it appears to offer one method, one idea. But home in, and there’s fantastic complexity hiding beneath the stereotypes, many grooves for this one planet.