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by Elisabeth Kley
|Covering the walls and all but overwhelming the space of Rupert Goldsworthy Gallery, Jane Kaplowitz's recent exhibition consisted of a large-scale confrontation with the public images of rap stars flaunting their attitudes, dangerous glares and wealth. In previous shows, Kaplowitz has mapped out her own perverse vision of stylish romanticism with nostalgic, emotion-filled paintings of rebels and misfits taken from appropriated film publicity stills.
From the lugubrious spectacle of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in mourning black at a ball from Gone with the Wind, Kaplowitz moved on to more renegade representations of unfulfilled homosexual longing from Death in Venice, and most recently, to the manic violence of Robert de Niro wielding a pistol in each hand from Taxi Driver. This show of rap images was her first drawn from contemporary sources.
Kaplowitz's mural-sized acrylics are enlarged appropriations of the images from the slick little promotional flyers handed out in stores to promote new CDs. Projected onto large sheets of paper, the flyers are carefully copied in dark grisaille washes over glowing colored backgrounds. Jeweled accessories and diamond-studded titles are rendered with metallic markers and glitter.
At close range, images and captions dissolve into abstracted puddles and brushstrokes of liquid paint. Back up a bit, and they coalesce into figures and buildings, depicted in an offhand manner akin to the fashion illustrations produced in the 1930s and '40s by artists like Cecil Beaton and Christian Berard.
From Beaton to hip hop may seem like a jump, but rap is all about style, and all the accoutrements of a fashionably luxurious life are prominently featured in the exhibition. Most of the paintings are taken from flyers for artists that record with Cash Money, a New Orleans label that recently made a $30-million distribution deal. The most popular rappers of 1999, the Cash Money crew combines gangsta rap with the '80s musical style known as New Orleans Bounce.
In blood red grisaille on a turquoise background, Untitled (Boyz 504) features dramatic foreshortening effects. Written in diamond letters in the air, the words "Boyz 504" loom over G Money (alias Mystikal) who stands near a limousine in front of a palatial hotel, talking on a cell phone and gazing up into the sky. On his right, smoking a large cigar and holding a huge black panther with metallic eyes on a leash made of thick gold chain, is Nino Brown (alias Master P), an enormously successful artist who was on the Forbes magazine list of the 10 richest entertainers of 1998.
Untitled (B.G. Chopper City in the Ghetto) is painted with deep indigo blue acrylic washes dusted with glitter on a deep orange background. Wearing shades and a Tommy Gear hat, with a diamond ring on his pinkie and a gold watch around his wrist, B.G. listens to his cell phone, surrounded by a montage of champagne bottles, fancy car, his own portrait in a curlicue frame, and his own initials glittering in diamonds. "Y'all can luv that," it says. "Cash Money is an Army".
The Cash Money artists call themselves "Soldiers of the Magnolia Projects" after the New Orleans housing project where they grew up. Defiantly celebrating their weapons, wealth and wits, risk-taking rappers are the modern equivalent of the 19th-century Sioux and other Native American makers of ledger drawings -- warrior artists always ready to back up their bravado with action. To be real -- in touch with street experience -- is all-important. On the street, it's survival of the fittest, and you need money to survive. This reality is clearly delineated in the captions on the images, including "We at War" and "Guerrilla Warfare."
Painted in deep green grisaille on smoky pink, the four subjects of Untitled (Hot Boys)(Juvenile, B.G., Lil Wayne and Young Turk) are so incandescent that the letters spelling "Hot Boys" are burning at the bottom of the picture. Heads wrapped in bandanas, they stare out above exploding buildings and cars, managing to look menacing and youthfully vulnerable at the same time. Delicate passages in the painting are tempered by drips of fluid paint and rough patches of dark scumbled brushstrokes. The top and bottom edges of the paper are roughly cut away from the roll, as if Kaplowitz, rejecting the usual gallery refinements, wants to push the work in the viewer's face with the challenging animosity of a rapper proclaiming a rhyme.
Kaplowitz's ephemeral painting style is unexpectedly ideal for representing the essentially transitory world of hip hop, where danger lurks around every corner. Stand up for yourself, make your own rules -- with death staring you in the face, there is no time to waste on obeying anybody else's laws.
Clearly, it is their anger and brazen defiance, their joy in offending the world, that attracts Kaplowitz to these young men. Totally fashion obsessed, Kaplowitz's rappers flaunt their brand-name clothing, cars and jewelry as they play the role of outlaws, turning society's racist attitudes back against the status quo. Fearlessness, displayed with style, is a ferociously potent combination.
Jane Kaplowitz, Dec. 1, 1999-Jan. 15, 2000, at Rupert Goldsworthy Gallery, 453 West 17th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.