A new exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is titled "Beyond Bling," but you certainly have to start with the bling in considering the art.
Which is pretty terrific.
You might look at these images from the show and wonder what they're doing at the Ringling, that bastion of the Baroque. A walk through the permanent collection galleries reminds us that Baroque art was all about drama in theme, treatment and size. That's pretty much true about the art in this show.
Beyond that bling, the show is subtitled "Voices of Hip-Hop in Art." So you have to start with hip-hop, too. Hip-hop emerged in the gritty South Bronx neighborhoods of New York in the 1970s. It incorporated music, movement, the spoken word and visual expression. That's an intellectual description for hip-hop, which was very down-to-earth and unself-conscious. Truth is, as hip-hop became the subject of media attention, it scared — or at least mystified — a lot of mainstream America with its inner-city associations. And the "visual expression" was graffiti and, thus, illegal.
Four decades later, hip-hop is mainstream in its pervasive cultural influence. So mainstream that some question its current authenticity when contemporary practitioners have become wealthy standing on the shoulders of the disenfranchised youth who originated it. The graffiti part has had its share of critics, too, since it has also been validated as a serious art form and become a subject of museum exhibitions.
These issues can provide a backdrop for philosophical conversations. This show ranges further than a literal look at hip-hop, using it as a springboard. Even if you don't like the music, you will find plenty to enjoy about this show, which is a riot of creative expression.
Ringling associate curator Matthew McLendon has organized a diverse group of 10 artists, men and women, who are the "Voices" in it.
Mickalene Thomas, for example, delivers on the bling big time in Naughty Girls (Need Love Too). It's a portrait of a young black woman dressed to the nines, lounging on a sofa. Her back is arched and she looks at the viewer with an expression that can be read as come-hither or don't-mess-with-me. Technically, it's exquisite, a cloisonne miniature rendered large with smooth enamel surfaces, thick paint to suggest texture and, above all, thousands of rhinestones. It's lush, seductive and unapologetic about sexual empowerment.
Here's the thing about this work and many others in the show: Along with the desire to innovate and surprise, there is a reverence for the past. Thomas invokes Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and Titian's Venus of Urbino in the pose and Matisse's multipatterned interiors most noticeably (I'm sure scholars can find other references).
Kehinde Wiley aggressively mines the Old Master canon in his portraits. He casts young black men in famous portraits from the past by Reynolds, El Greco, Gainsborough, and Ingres, for example, using oil paint and Old Master technique. The men are dressed in their contemporary clothes, and we might be tempted to read irony into the works. Simon George I is a modern version of Portrait of Simon George, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger in the mid 16th century. The contemporary sitter is swagged out in a silver jacket, looking at us. He's big and athletic. And he's holding a flower.
Are you kidding?
No, in the original, the (white) man is also in elaborate costume and he holds a flower. The major differences are that he's a delicate man, in profile, against a dark background, distanced from us. The new Simon George confronts us with a steady gaze outward as he sits in front of a sky blue ground dotted with gold fleur-de-lis. And we acknowledge that Holbein would never have painted this man, but Wiley puts him in the same company as that long-ago aristocrat.
Traditional Japanese art is a source of inspiration for Los Angeles native Gajin Fujita. He's a former graffiti artist who now incorporates it into his paintings, often inviting fellow graffiti artists to tag the backgrounds. He paints in the ukiyo-e genre, which originated in the 17th century and portrayed in wood-block prints and paintings the "floating world" (ukiyo-e translates as pictures of the floating world). It documented the landscape, culture and history. Fujita uses rich gold and silver leaf backgrounds that suggest both the opulence of the Edo period in Japan and the shiny surfaces of the train cars he once marked with graffiti. Against that, geishas and samurai are meticulously represented along with a fusion of then-and-now iconography, both a part of his heritage.
Cultural mashups are a common thread in this show. Unlike Fujita's reconciliation of two cultures, Iona Rozeal Brown explores controversial racial issues, playing the history and traditions of Japan and the United States off each other. Sofia Maldonado's hybrid style combines graffiti, manga and anime.
The streets are a source for material in different ways for other artists. Michael Anderson's dense collages are made from torn-up posters he reassembles into fractured narratives. Hank Willis Thomas' powerful Branded Head, a photograph of a black man's shaved head bearing the Nike logo as if done with a branding iron, merges the idea of slavery in the literal, historic sense with consumerism as a different form of enslavement.
So how the bling did we get from hip-hop to here?
By gaining a lot of aesthetic currency going for Baroque.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.