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Hip-Hop Saints?

The violence of firearms, and the inflated masculinity that often accompanies it, lurks in the background of scott's work.
The violence of firearms, and the inflated masculinity that often accompanies it, lurks in the background of scott's work. (Joseph Martin Hyde)

"Can't we all just get along?." By Joyce J. Scott
Through Nov. 7 at Goya Contemporary

Longer than it is wide, bell-shaped at one end, anchored by two ovoids at the other—yep, that's a peen. On display. In the art exhibition. It's not the kind of phallus typically seen in a gallery or museum. It doesn't strive for realistic naturalism of representational art, nor the defiant shock that sometimes accompanies full-frontal nude photography, nor as an outlandish symbol of masculine potency. It's made of thread and beads and looks more like a lonely sock puppet. And just what does Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott title this item of cutesy, limp male genitalia? 'Power Pump.'

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Why Scott hasn't been more widely and consistently heralded and hounded as one of contemporary art's more comic and political provocateurs sometimes boggles the mind. Since the 1970s she's dived into the treacherous waters of sex, race, and violence in America (and beyond) and emerged with pieces that run from belly-laugh witty to gut-punch moving and the I-don't-want-to-be-reminded-about-that upsetting. Of course, while Scott makes sculptures, prints, and performs, a great deal of her output takes the form of jewelry, beads and fibers, and ceramics—media too easily relegated to crafts, as if they're parochial,  not as serious as the more traditional fine arts.

It's impossible to walk through "Can't We All Just Get Along?," Scott's current exhibit at Goya Contemporary, and not have the heart-brain circuit board overheat as it cycles through an info dump of emotions: cheerful, furious, worried, defensive, afraid, sad, shameful. These feelings come in waves, and sometimes you're barely able to catch your breath before the next one hits. 'Along' is a sobering plunge into how attempts to confront the violence perpetrated by men with guns distorts any meaningful consideration of race, class, and gender.

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Sometimes the men with guns simply overpower the discussion. That notion is screamingly obvious in 'Sex Traffic,' a giant glass, metal, beads, thread, and leather sculpture that confronts visitors the second they enter the gallery. The glass object is a more-than-6-foot-tall long rifle hand-blown using processes developed by artisans from the Venetian island of Murano. (The exhibition "Maryland to Murano: Neckpieces and Sculptures by Joyce J. Scott," which runs at New York's Museum of Arts and Design through March 15, 2015, spotlights work Scott made at Murano's Berengo Studios.) It's this large, shiny weapon, and the only thing that suggests it might have something to do with the titular sex traffic is the small woman, made out of yellow beads, bound at the wrists and knees around the barrel. Here the women of color are treated as trinketlike commodities wrapped around the phallic imagery.

Elsewhere the violence of firearms, and the inflated masculinity that often accompanies it, merely lurks in the background of the work. A series of monotype print portraits occupies one gallery wall. They're divided into hip-hop saints—Tupac Shakur, Eazy-E (Eric Wright), Big Pun (Christopher Rios), the Notorious BIG (Christopher Wallace), Ol' Dirty Bastard (Russel Jones), "Beasty Boy" (aka Adam Yauch), and "Cris Cross" (aka the member of the duo Kris Kross named Chris Kelly)—and fallen angels (Foxy Brown, Lil' Kim, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes). Not all of the hip-hop saints were claimed by guns—drug overdoses claimed Kelly and Jones; illness took Wright and Yauch; Rios suffered a fatal heart attack—and of the fallen angels, only Lopez is no longer living.

Scott renders each figure in a simple quick-sketch head shot on purple, orange, or neutral backgrounds, and the prints have the degraded look of weathered posters. And her attitude toward the figures is ambiguous: Is this a memorial to artists claimed by the grind or taken from us too soon? Or a sincere question asking hip-hop, if these men and women are its saints and fallen angels, what are its values?

That's not the query of an out-of-touch curmudgeon; it's the sincere refrain that many artists, critics, and citizens have raised about commercially packaging an image of masculinity wrapped up in firearms, misogyny, and decadence. And it's not new. The exhibition's title is a sly misquoting of the televised plea made by the late Rodney King. He was the African-American construction worker who, in March of 1991, after being pulled over by police for speeding and following a high-speed chase (King was driving under the influence of alcohol), was beaten by five members of the Los Angeles police department. The beating was videotaped by a civilian and aired on a Los Angeles television news station. That videotape led to a highly publicized trial of the five officers, who were acquitted of police brutality charges. Which led to six days of civil unrest that resulted in more than 11,000 arrests, more than 2,000 injuries, and 53 fatalities of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. On the third day of those riots a visibly shaken King appeared at a press conference and asked, "I just want to say, can we all get along?"

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No, not only do we not get along, we can't even precisely remember the other instances that remind of just how long we haven't. Scott's show comes during a cycle of American gun violence and videotaped police violence that's depressingly staggering. Just as overwhelming is the fact that the news reports of those instances are accompanied by the noise of pundits, citizen journalists, and social-media chatter blaming it on the media, hip-hop, the police, the president, the schools, absent fathers, working mothers, the Democrats, the Republicans, the National Rifle Association, gun control, video games, the lack of mental health care, overprescribing psychiatric medications, movies, immigrants, liberals, libertarians, the entitled, the poor, and, well, the culture. And nobody's responsible when everything is to blame.

Scott skewers the malignancy of that self-righteous narcissism in the glass and seed-beads sculpture ‘Head Shot.’ It’s a man’s face made of beads perched atop a glass hand holding a gun; the barrel doubles as the neck. The glass/hand are hollow and filled with empty shell casings. That she gives this piece a title that corresponds to self-promotional photos is pretty hilarious. That the glass is Coke-bottle green is simply sublime. A dude resting on an handful of bullets wants to tell you all about himself. This is it. It’s America’s real choice. Always. Enjoy. 
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