While Subliminal Projects, owned by the artist Shepard Fairey, is a small space, it resembles a Philadelphia graffiti crew’s warehouse loft with brick flooring in one room and sheets of plywood serving as support in all other parts of the gallery. A nonsensical line delay outside (I waited 85 minutes) frustrated everyone, including the doorman at the front entrance. “I haven’t worked in L.A. for nine months, and this is why,” he told those awaiting their moment with Chuck D.
Inside, the music was too loud, pumping out of an improperly wired sound system that periodically shredded bass drops, reducing the boom-bip to atonal static. It’s not often an art opening relies so heavily on sound, but this wasn’t any art opening. This was Chuck D, the iconoclastic frontman of legendary rap group Public Enemy, and this was Subliminal Projects, long a haven of the lowbrow and graffiti movements. The night was destined for sound surrounding visuals.
Born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, Chuck D was a graphic design student in college when he birthed the influential rap group Public Enemy with fellow Adelphi student William Drayton, known to the world as Flavor Flav. While in college, Ridenhour created a comic strip for the school newspaper. And these three things — Public Enemy, graphic design, and his cartoon for The Adelphian –– take command over Ridenhour’s water colors. The visual stories align with those he rapped about in PE. The lines adhere to those from his cartoons, and the placement of imagery address lessons Ridenhour likely first understood in design class.
Inside Subliminal’s front room, an outsized stencil based on a photo portrait of the rapper dominated the left wall while a DJ table snugged against the opposite one. The message was clear. Artmageddon was about the historical magnitude of Chuck D rather than his paintings. While most attendees shuffled their feet and politely sipped a too sweet red wine, a familiar flurry of outstretched arms positioned their smart phones to capture Ridenhour and Fairey as they worked the room. Even so that front room offered the most impartial moments of the night. Once the beats delivered the noise, anyone could be someone in the front room. That was the night’s first bit of merit. Equality issued through boogie. It warmed the stinging chill from the wait outside.
Before I made it inside, as displayed across Instagram, Fairey manned the turntables himself. Later in the night, when Chuck D performed, everyone pointed toward the rapper and away from his paintings. Ridenhour is the rare case of someone who melds musicality to political ideology without diminishing either. Hearing his cadence bounce along to canned beats from his past was another meritorious moment, but for the ignored art on the wall.
That art owes much to graffiti, though it too exhibits some electrifying sidesteps — a dash of Kara Walker in the watercolors, a hint of Norman Lewis’s flurry of figures in another. Looking closer, the impact of Harlem Renaissance persists longer than that of street writers, though the attention span and arbitrary inclination of Ridenhour’s work lends itself more to street art than the headier notions of Bearden and Lewis. The paintings issued from his side-of-stage perspective were almost as impactful as seeing him rap to a room decorated by his visual creations. Almost.
While still outside, I briefly surveyed those exiting the show with cardboard tubes. None had purchased Chuck D works, settling instead on Fairey’s stencil based on the Beckman photo. Beckman was there for the opening and the unveiling of that stencil, which illuminated what we were really there for. People showed up to connect with Chuck D’s legacy and his celebrity, not so much his art. That Fairey/Beckman poster print was the tokenistic emblem of Artmageddon, not a Ridenhour creation.
That said, if you’re going to try and close-in on a celebrity, you’d be hard pressed to pick a better person than Chuck D. Watching the crowd bask in D’s rap skills, I noticed Fairey join them, swaying along with the night, becoming a part of rather than the person responsible for. That was a highlight. Removed of salesmanship and hype, he was just another body responding to the beat. It wasn’t truy about the visual art, but it couldn’t have happened without Ridenhour’s desire to be of two minds creatively.
Darting from architectural church washes to basketball uniform designs isn’t as irreconcilable as it sounds. Both church and sport offer an outlet from sorrow and both develop inner strength. Much of the Subliminal Artmageddon watercolors featured groups of people rather than focusing on someone in particular, the action/reaction of crowd and performer, and in some instances, crowd/crowd controller. That juxtaposition wasn’t bombastic. The show was hung with a subtlety so the vibrant moments along with the more gothic washes could breathe on their own. Too few attendees noticed that attention to detail. Most were focused on grabbing a selfie with Chuck D. That was a low point, scanning the room for people taking in the art and seeing instead a throng hungry for celebrity interaction, shifting as a pack with each move D made. He signed baseballs, a smart phone screen, anything people had at the ready.
The music boomed as the night progressed. At one point, the irascible charm of Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P. bled into the danceable isolationism of Smells Like Teen Spirit. As dated and of their era as both of those songs are, they lent a charmed indifference that smoothed over Artmageddon’s flaws. Buried beneath the sounds was the reverberation of the night’s strongest visual, Border Kids, a stunning orange tinged visual of displaced children clinging on one side of a fence as a soldier points a rifle at more children on the other, presumably along the US/Mexico border. Compressing the naivete of Henry Darger, the darkness of Jenny Saville, and the conflict of Leon Golub, the piece remains distinctly Ridenhour. The special victory of his art lives in that image’s ability to step over Chuck D’s persona and reveal such a wraithlike and poetic depiction of life on both sides of that fence.
After the rump shaking was done, my mind returned to the legion of smart phones held aloft. They cast a shroud over D’s art and his performance. Still, when that Shocklee squeal took over Subliminal and he rapped ferociously over top of it, everything and everyone glowed not from the hovering hand-held screens, but from what Chuck D was saying to us.
Henry Cherry is Jazz Critic at Riot Material magazine. He is also a photographer, writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Hollywood. Mr. Cherry’s work has appeared in Huck, PBS, OC Weekly, Los Angeles Review of Books, Artillery, and LA Weekly. A documentary film on master jazz musician Henry Grimes is in the works. For contact information go to his website- www.henrycherry.com