Make no mistake, Alex Melamid’s a Russian rabble-rouser. Here he is on the evening of his own opening, and instead of schmoozing the art elite, he's out near the stage, drink in hand. This Albert Einstein look-alike is rocking, out-of-rhythm, to the sounds of Detroit hip-hopper Mike-E. No, the internationally renowned painter doesn't take himself too seriously.
It's opening night of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit's Holy Hip Hop! show. Portraits of a dozen rap and hip-hop stars hang on walls. Folks young, old, black and white are here, and the paintings have them talking. There's a real clash of worlds going on in the work — and it doesn't go unnoticed.
One world is 19th-century portraiture, a style of painting used to capture rich, powerful Euro figureheads — think of those white dudes who looked like they were dressed up like Prince or Madonna.
In 2005, Melamid adopted this style to depict a select group whose star power changed American culture.
"It's the greatest thing which America has produced in the last 30 years, there's no question about that," Melamid asserts, about hip hop. "Culturally, it's the most important and exciting thing. It's like jazz, which changed our perception of the world completely."
We see 50 Cent relaxing in a chair sporting his trademark Gorilla Unit sweatshirt, wearing a diamond cross, skull cap and jacket — life-sized for his followers to worship.
Yes, 50 posed for the painting, which, given his bullet-riddled history and street-hassle persona, might be hard to imagine. Snoop Dogg posed for one too; so did Kanye West, Common, Russell Simmons, Reverend Run and a host of others familiar to fans the world over.
Melamid, who has used art against itself to make political and social statements for more than 40 years, is still raising eyebrows. In this case, his intent to portray today's celebrities wasn't so subversive; hip hop's origins hit close to home for him.
But the collision of two seemingly disparate worlds, of old European sovereign and new American pop royalty, has laid the groundwork for a kind of critique on identity — not only about what hip hop has become, how we perceive these celebrities and how they perceive themselves. The work also speaks volumes about how the Western world has romanticized artists — hip-hop stars and painters alike — as heroes, saviors, if you like, when they're really walking contradictions, just like the rest of us.
Melamid was intrigued by hip-hop culture because of its history of rebellion and rule-bending.
"The frustration and desperation of the country I lived in reminds me of hip hop," says the 62-year-old, in a thick Russian brogue. "I went to the Queens Projects with [legendary hip-hop producer] Marley Marl. It looked like Russia, circa 1960. It's very sad. And the music is the only way out. It's like, you know, to be locked up. The feeling is there."
Visual art in the world of hip hop often takes the form of bold graffiti graphics. Melamid says he practices this realist — and graceful — painting style because it's all he knows how to do. But the style's suggestion of wealth and influence is appropriate here; it points out surprising similarities between old and new worlds of royalty.
In the '70s, Melamid moved his family to the projects of Jersey City, New Jersey, where he, basically, witnessed hip hop's birth from his apartment window.
His interest in art that effects social change, however, had begun much earlier. He and artistic partner Vitaly Komar had left the Soviet Union after making a career of satirizing the Soviet bloc, and the government was glad to see them go. The two had met in a morgue, of all places, during an anatomy drawing class at a Moscow art school. They began working together almost immediately, exhibiting first in 1967, when they initiated the SOTS Art movement — Soviet Pop and Conceptualist Art that rallied against propagandist state-sanctioned art and mass culture.
By 1974, the pair was getting under the government's skin with installations that mocked socialism. Their show featured a Moscow apartment covered with light fixtures and small sculptural figures in various historical styles and movements. Audience members were locked inside and forced to listen to official Soviet radio. On state order, the installation was demolished shortly after its opening. A year later the two took part in the Bulldozer Show, an outdoor exhibition that was mowed down by, yes, a state-ordered bulldozer.
"It was very exciting," Melamid says. "It was scary. There's no question about that. On the other hand, to be perceived that way by the government of one of the most powerful countries in the world ... come on. It gives you a boost, because you are so important."
He says their intent as artistic revolutionaries was always to be vocal, "but in a very sneaky way. It was scary back then. If you're quiet everything is alright." If not, you could be jailed.
The squabbles with the Soviet Union lasted until the pair was finally granted travel visas. They moved overseas in 1976. That's when Melamid and his wife landed in New Jersey. He would gain U.S. citizenship, raise his children, and find major success with Komar in this country and in Europe in the mid-'90s.
But something else was happening, the country was changing and voices rose from the streets.
"We came to this country with no money, and we lived five or six years in the city projects. That was the time of rap. Everyone was rapping. Rap and crack. From all windows, rapping to each other. It was really bizarre."
Melamid's eldest son, Dan, was a youngster then. He became immersed in hip hop. He tried rapping and break dancing, but ultimately became a videographer.
Today "Dan the Man" lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and works for 50 Cent's G-Unit company; he's tight with both 50 and DJ Whoo Kid. In 2003, Komar and Melamid split to pursue individual careers, and Dan brought Dad to the Sirius Satellite studios, where the G-Unit crew hosts their show "G-Unit Radio." Whoo Kid, a mixtape-DJ-done-well, was the first sold on the idea of being a Melamid subject in paint.
Melamid would eventually photograph, and then sketch, a dozen artists in order to create life-sized portraits.
Back at MOCAD, Melamid's men pose formally — for hip hop at least — but each is still captured in character. Example: Lil' Jon, who's one of hip hop's wealthiest producers, throws down the "A-town" symbol, a shout-out for his native Atlanta. One-time pimp Bishop Don "Magic" Juan, who's now Snoop Dogg's human accessory, stands in a lime-green vest suit, bejewled, cross-legged and relaxed. Graffiti artist-turned-clothing-designer Marc Ecko, who represents a certain hip-hop couture, sits backward on a chair, as if he's about to get real with you. With his head leaning on his arm, he's as contemplative as Rodin's "Thinker."
If hip hop is about making the code of the street work wherever you go, then this exhibit is an achievement. These cats are given the royal treatment without stepping out of their lane. But if the culture has now been officially "inducted" into the art world, how legitimate is it? It's supposed to hoist its proverbial nut-sack at authority.
Some stars scoffed at the idea of Melamid painting them. "Snoop Dogg was difficult," Melamid says. "I spent sleepless nights in L.A. because he doesn't sleep. He works all night long, and I caught him when everyone was already falling asleep. The guards were snoring. And I was still functioning. I don't know why I was still functioning, except for my passion. Six, seven in the morning. Nobody around him."
Snoop considers himself a man in charge of his own career who doesn't kowtow to anyone, and yet we're talking about a guy who was in a commercial with Lee Iacocca. Come on — how "street"is that? Here Snoop's portrayed gazing into a computer screen, his posture barely acknowledging Melamid's presence. It's as if he could be saying, "Go 'head, homie. Do what you gotta do." His pose could be interpreted as intentionally aloof, but maybe another interpretation exists. The portrait captures a side of Snoop rarely recognized:He's a multi-tasker. These two possibilities, equally valid, are a subtle reminder of the preconceived notions we bring to the table when judging celebrities, and reading art.
Hip hop is known for its entrepreneurship, and a few celebrities in this exhibit have quietly made history — without the braggadocio or histrionics. Easy Mo Bee, now called Da Bee, was very influential, but, unlike producers who crave celebrity, he stayed in the background. Bee produced the first full-out hip-hop jazz album, Miles Davis' 1991 experiment Doo Bop. His portrait here makes sense; Bee sits like some kind of hip-hop godfather. His garb is quasi-militaristic. His pose — a lazy leg crossed and a hand draped over his knee — is relaxed. The work suggests a guy of wisdom. It's easily the most traditionally formal portrait here, one fitting for a man who could never be called pretentious.
The lighting on Bee rises from behind, flattening the figure so he looks like a cutout of an old photo. But it also brings to mind the bright time in the producer's past. Lighting, in fact, is remarkable through the whole Melamid series; it glows near — but never directly — on the individuals, as if Melamid catches the celebrities in an intimate moment out of the spotlight. The glow always falls to the ground, a technique employed by baroque painter Caravaggio to convey the down-to-earth subjects. Here, at this show, the painter's device can seem subversive and sincere.
Reverend Run of Run DMC is depicted in a snapshot-style pose, sitting on a couch, shooting the shit on a cell phone while thumbing through channels with a TV remote. It's a spot-on portrait of this energetic big kid, who single-handedly made singing and dancing in hip hop both radio and MTV-friendly.
Rapper Common is seen leaning back in his chair, grinning, languorous and casual. Common's nice-guy persona works as a celebrity who's cast away in a world of snarling divas, hardcore b-boys and former pimps. Nearby, one such drama queen, Kanye West, keeps it old-school with his workman's boots and backpack, yet his gold chain with the Roc-a-fella Records insignia clues us in to his "elite" status. His pompous theatrics are over-the-top, as usual. He stares out at the viewer menacingly as if to challenge us about who he is: a performer, in every sense of the word, who wears "authenticity" like a costume.
This portrait offers the best lesson about identity — not just in reference to Kanye, but Melamid too.
In the past he's thumbed his nose at grandiose statements of altruism or authenticity in art because it's been used for centuries by aristocracy to placate desperate people who need something to believe in. Apparently, here's one ostentatious display that doesn't tick Melamid off. Such blatant hypocrisy suggests either weakness or cunning. Perhaps the painter doesn't want you to believe in him, either.
Or maybe Melamid just thinks it's payback time. Kanye displays the incredible acumen of individuals who, deluded or not, turned street struggles, which were often for survival, into a highly-influential art form with its own politics. These guys are our rulers of a new world. You want a piece of all this? Come here and get it.
Holy Hip-Hop! runs through April 20. A panel discussion on hip-hop culture and performance, moderated by Public Enemy's Professor Griff and featuring Jessica Care Moore, Invincible, Prince Whipper Whip, Khary Kimani Turner and Big Herk, is at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21, at at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622. See Metro Times' arts section next week for a review of MOCAD's concurrent exhibit, ReFusingFashion: Rei Kawakubo.Khary Kimani Turner is a freelance writer. Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org