Though Rammellzee only made it onto most art-world radars recently with the stunning posthumous installation of the bedroom from his former New York loft, The Battle Station, in the “Art in the Streets“ show at MOCA Los Angeles, he has been a long-revered cult figure among younger graffiti artists and musicians. As a rapper with a uniquely nasal voice and style that made his epic, visionary lyrics all the more ominous and elusive, Rammellzee revolutionized Hip-Hop.
Widely imitated and frequently sampled, today his sound can be heard across an array of innovative underground music, especially in artists like the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill. His seminal 1983 record Beat Bop, now considered an Old School holy grail, was done in collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Basquiat’s cover art for the 12-inch single -- arguably the greatest work he ever did -- has no doubt contributed to it being one of the most sought after and expensive records a lot of people would kill for today.
That said, as a visual artist Rammellzee is without parallel. No comparisons come to mind and it remains not so much a question about where his work stands in the greater discourse of fine art as a matter of mapping the enigmatic mystical space he created beyond it.
Along with a nice smattering of paintings representing Rammellzee’s idiosyncratic take on Wild Style graffiti, the Suzanne Geiss Company has now given over the greater part of its exhibition space to a major installation of his “Letter Racers,” some 52 of them in all suspended from the ceiling, looming like the menacing fleet of linguistic war machines the artist always imagined them to be. The effect is eye-poppingly, mind-bendingly astounding, at once out of this world and curiously out of time as both supremely futuristic and, well, inevitably redolent of the 1980s.
For the premiere show of this gallery, housed in the former Grand Street location of Deitch Projects and run by one of the gallery’s former directors, to try to explain Rammellzee to people for the first time in a very, very long time is not an easy task. It is a successful beginning for Geiss, who has worked as an art consultant, and somehow fitting for a gallery that also has Chris Johanson and Assume Vivid Astro Focus in its program, but enigmas such as Ram are elusive at best when you try to present them in the brick and mortar gallery spaces of the art market.
Or to put it another way, myths are perhaps more easily bought by subcultures than sold by the mainstream, and Rammellzee eludes understanding with the same ornery facility as his art resisted consumer simplification. All good riddles however involve just as much guessing answers as they do finding solutions, and Rammellzee was always eminently entertaining and provocative even when you might have but half a clue of what he was talking about.
Prolific, obsessive and fanatically dedicated to his singular creative path, Rammellzee left behind an epic oeuvre, and what is presented at Geiss, and concurrently uptown at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the “Print/Out” exhibition, is only a small taste. Rammellzee after all is not a name, not his original name that has been guarded so closely since his teenage years growing up in the projects of Far Rockaway that it now feels almost lost to time, nor the assumed alias tag a graffiti artist adopts, but is as he explained “the equation” to a complex theoretical problematic he laid out like a poet metaphysician in his seminal manifestoes Iconoclastic Panzerism and Gothic Futurism.
For Rammellzee, language was a philosophical issue as much as it was an esthetic territory. Language was both presented by the state as a form of coercion and enslavement and embodied by graffiti as the radical means by which this history of repression could be overturned. When he looked at the letters and words themselves, his gaze was more like that of a military commander, contemplating ways in which his forces could be armed and armored, fathoming the full extent of their destructive power and capacity for violence. Just as graffiti had used the word to wage its war on the subways, Rammellzee was fully prepared to take the fight to its ultimate consequence.
Easily as fantastical and mesmerizing a character as the letter-based figures that populate his visual art (for a good blast of just how outré his persona was, check out his jaw-dropping film turns in Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), Rammellzee produced an oeuvre that could perhaps be most readily described as an extended performance art work across myriad media.
The notion of performance quite literally describes his more ephemeral gestures that do not survive today, notably the way he dressed in highly elaborate and sci-fi-ornate full-body costumes as a performer acting in his installations and outside of them. His manner was like that of a shaman calling his invisible futurist tribe to battle. More deeply, he made of his entire existence a kind of monumental art work, an esoteric conceptual territory formally mapped by Marcia Tucker in her landmark New Museum exhibition of 1986, “Choices: Making a Life of Everyday Art.”
It could not have been easy being Rammellzee, and along with the chronic drinking and poor choices regarding his personal health, we might assume the chore of it all contributed to his untimely demise two years ago at the age of 49. It must also be noted here however that as volatile, uncompromising, difficult and angry as he was, the sad reality is that his work would probably not be enjoying its current spate of gallery and museum exposure if he were still around for these institutions to have to deal with.
Rammellzee was a performance artist, maestro painter and master of assemblage, a philosopher, scientist and mathematician, an outsider artist we might describe as an urban folk visionary, and a visual linguist whose work simultaneously coalesced and transcended the a polyglot of language-based mediums including Lettrism, the cut-up technique of William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, Deconstructionist theory, urban argot and the Supreme Alphabet as laid out by the Nation of Islam’s Five Percenter sect.
More than all these things however the best descriptor for him might be to call him a voyager. Rammellzee explored territories it might take lifetimes to chart if not simply dare to visit, and the more of a hermit he became in real life surely the further out there he got. Impossible as it might be to liken Rammellzee’s work to any of his contemporaries in graffiti or the art world, in this ineffable way he was perhaps most akin to musicians like Parliament Funkadelic, Moondog and Sun Ra, a man who was so clearly not of this place but who conjured another universe far more magical than our own.
Rammellzee: The Equation, The Letter Racers, Mar. 8-Apr. 21, 2012, at Suzanne Geiss Company, 76 Grand Street, New York, N.Y. 10012
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper Magazine.