If Marlborough Gallery had a reputation to worry about, they would be busy doing a lot of damage control for last Wednesday's rap joust, directed by Rashaad Newsome. A real-life manifestation of POWHIDA's mock-douchebag performance a few months back, it was another masturbatory celebration of wealth that sidelined the performers and sincerely made everyone look like VIP douchebags.
Rashaad Newsome’s rap joust had been billed as “an open call for participants, free and open to the public,” though we were advised that “space was limited and would be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis.” This meant that we were to wait in a freezing cold, roped-off line outside, whilst watching earlier-coming VIPs guzzle champagne through the gallery windows. Throughout the duration of our half-hour wait, a lime green, top-down Lamborghini (?) unbelievably blasted bass beats, possibly with keys left in the ignition. Editor Will Brand half-joked, “Fuck this art writing gig. I’m taking the car.” Then we longingly stared at the car until the bouncer finally tapped us in.
Another hour was spent drinking champagne in the gallery. Among Newsome’s many admirers, Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg has gushed, “He has a way of translating ideas that appear on MTV or appear on the street and somehow twisting it or distilling it — he puts a frame around it.” “Putting a frame around it” is just another way of saying he makes MTV imagery look like art. Here, the frame is less art than gold leaf; the space was filled with Newsome’s coats-of-bling, fleur de lis-style, impeccably crafted collages of lithic jewelry, shiny hubcaps, watches, and luscious locks of Pantene hair, crafted to look like opulent European jewels and textiles. By arranging images of bling in decorative weaves, Newsome has transformed them into the luxuries that they imitate. That Warhol-Koons-esque irony is overshadowed by the guiltless reality of their marketability; the Times reported that over half the works sold before the show even opened.
By the time Newsome and his judges were heralded in by hooded trumpeters, the crowd was loud and drunk. Four out of five of the throned judges were white, the idea being that these are art world nobles: Alanna Heiss, the founder of PS1, Julia Kaganskiy, editor of the Creators Project, Karin Nelson, editor of W Magazine, fashionista party promoter Andre J, and Charlie Ahearn, director of “Wild Style.” As a documenter of hip-hop culture since the late 70's, Ahearn was arguably the only person qualified to judge a rap battle. Chris Chambers, the PR rep for artists such as Drake and Outkast, had been advertised but didn't make it to the event.
The participants' names were and still are notably absent from press materials. What we got instead were their portraits on a huge screen in the background, in what looked like intro shots from a VH1 reality love competition, surrounded by swirling wreaths of Newsome’s glimmering watches, bracelets and car parts. At no point was the stage visible to any of us, since the crowd around it was densely packed with art and rap folk alike, arranged tallest people in front, shortest in back; this was a problem, since most of the rappers were short, and it was impossible to hear them through the audience and severely ringing mic. The only person I could see consistently through the crowd was a blond girl in scarves and a twisted bun, presumably a contestant’s girlfriend, drunkenly gesturing onstage between the rappers, plastic champagne cup in hand.
Immediately after the performance the judges were to cast their votes. What was the criteria? It seemed no one had been briefed on that, which made snippets of commentary sound as vapid as the prevalent gold trim. “I’m giving it to the girl” announced Alanna Heiss. Andre J. chastised the performers for not paying enough attention to him, complaining, “The crowd isn’t judging you!” Meanwhile, Charlie Ahearn was the only judge who seemed to have a clue about what would be needed to properly evaluate the show: working microphones. He announced early on that they would not be able to competently judge under these conditions, before conceding that, like the others, he’d give the girl the win.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the performance was that the entire audience was so cozily out of place. Under the guise of rap culture and art ideology, there was only fashion. If Rashaad Newsome is king, then what does that make us- his serfs? Maybe this hits too close to home, or maybe we've just seen one too many of these overly-funded, thinly-veiled ploys at celebrity, named art.