Rashaad Newsome’s Herald, his first solo show at Marlborough Gallery, usess the medieval idea of heraldry, baroque excessiveness, and hip hop and pop culture to create collages to serve as modern coats of arms.
Heraldry, originating in the Middle Ages, uses symbols of rank or prestige within the military. The Baroque influence on the show is most seen in the ornate frames around the work, some with bees that seem to reference the famous Baroque Barberini family, whose heraldic emblem included three bees, which were included in the frescoes for the Palazzo Barberini by baroque artist Giuseppe Chiari.
Newsome's collages are made up of images of jewelry with huge stones, gold watches, flat brim baseball caps, women’s legs and butts, chain necklaces, teeth grills, money, fancy cars, marijuana, fleur-de-lis, and diamond skulls (perhaps a nod to the flashiest artist of all, Damien Hirst). There was also clearly much attention paid to the framing of the work, and the flamboyancy of these frames range. There are more tame ones, such as with Baptism, to more ornate, such as Let Them Eat Cakes, which has miniature golden car rims on each side of the frame. Not all are gold, such as 37th Chamber, which is black with one flower for each side, for which Newsome hired an auto body shop to match the paint colors of Ferraris or Lamborghinis for the flowers.
The downstairs gallery space is filled with collage work, with more upstairs. Upstairs a video piece, Herald, is also shown. It was shot in New York’s St. Patrick’s Basilica, and documents Newsome becoming a herald through a fictional and dramatized ceremony. Newsome also held a performance at Marlborough entitled Tournament, where he had a free-style rap battle between ten emerging emcees.
Newsome is walking a very fine line between outright spectacle and gimmick, and intelligent commentary on hip-hop and pop culture. I could not help but think of Terry Smith’s essay What is Modern Art, where he says art has become little more than a commodity in the global marketplace, and a work of art or exhibition’s value can be equated to the publicity it receives. Smith calls out artists and galleries for using spectacle and flashiness to garner interest in what ends up being meaningless work. Newsome is definitely flashy and interested in the luxurious and expensive lifestyle of hip-hop icons, such as Nicki Minaj, whom the piece Black Barbie is about, or Wiz Khalifa, who was the inspiration for Black and Yellow. Black Barbie has a bubble-gum pink frame with the Barbie logo around the sides. The collage has a bacground of diamonds and gems, and in the center there are two women's legs and her arms with hands clasped. Her body and head have been erased. On the sides of the piece are the profiles of one woman who has her tongue out, giving the appearance that she is licking the diamonds. Black and Yellow has an entirely black background and no frame. The collage is in the center of the black background, composed of gold jewelry and gold watches with black leather straps. In the middle is a diamond encrusted skull. However, considering the heraldic element, it would seem that Newsome is not just exploiting the ostentatiousness of these rappers and the hip-hop world in general, but likening them to medieval time warriors. Adding the theme from hip-hop culture of struggle and breaking out of the lower class, it seems that Newsome is in fact celebrating these people and their successes, venerating them as victorious soldiers.
In pieces that do not reference specific people, however, it seems that Newsome is just showcasing excess. Let Them Eat Cakes centers on a woman’s legs, butt, and one arm, surrounded by chains and jewels shaping what looks like the outlines of a heraldic emblem. Surrounding this is a repeated collage of a different woman’s legs and butt in black thong underwear and underneath that, a pattern of gold with rubies and emeralds. The frame is gold with car rims on each side. The title refers to Marie Antoinette, the original queen of excess, while the butts and legs recall images of girls from hip hop music videos. This piece is confusing. If this luxe hip hop life style is meant to be honored and celebrated by Newsome, then using Marie Antoinette seems odd, a historical paragon of carelessness, irresponsibility, and the horrors excess can lead to. Is Newsome warning his viewers to not be too excessive or is he laughing in Marie Antoinette, and history’s, face? The latter seems more likely, but with that in mind his work seems to not be about honor in the hip hop industry but just irresponsible flashiness.
It is hard to know what to make of Rashaad Newsome’s Herald. His intentions appear to be to give honor to hip hop through using the ideas of heraldry, yet a lot of the work seems to be empty of meaning and just a collage of excess. Fulfilling Terry Smith's ideas about modern art, many of the pieces had been sold already when I saw the exhibit. The show is fun and light, but I don’t think Newsome has figured out the best way to put his point across. In the end, the collages seem repetitive. I don’t think it is enough to imply that hip-hop is the most prestigious clan of modern times by using images of money, cars, girls, gold, and diamonds. If he wants to redefine hip-hop, he cannot just reuse obvious symbols of this culture. I look forward to watching what Newsome does next, I only hope that he develops his ideas, his style, and how to synthesize these two together.