MOCAD-Holy Hip-Hop! and ReFusing Fashion Opening Reception

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Anyone who thinks a Friday night at an art museum sounds like a staid and snooty affair missed out Friday night on the kind of dynamic cultural event that Detroit can deliver. To celebrate the opening of two new exhibits, Holy Hip-Hop! New Paintings by Alex Melamid and ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo, the Museum of Contemporary Arts-Detroit (MOCAD) threw an all-night dance party featuring home-grown Hip Hop artists Mike-E Ellison and James “Suburban Knight” Pennington.

Easy Mo Bee

The visitor is introduced first to the Alex Melamid paintings of Hip-Hop icons in an open, expansive room that gives portraits the visual space they demand. Legendary rap artists are captured in myriad poses, some casual, some brooding, some challenging, such as Melamid’s portrait of Kanye West, who looks right at you–comes toward you, in fact–as if he’s about to step out of the painting and into your personal space. Snoop Dogg is seated at a large, cherrywood executive desk, his hand on a computer mouse, possibly working out the finishing details to a new track. But we are not allowed to see the product of the rapper’s creativity–the monitor is hidden from view. In this painting, Melamid solves the problem of representing the musician and his music in painting by giving us a moment of creation and craft in Snoop’s hunched forward, piercing concentration.

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Melamid’s 50 Cent is the most startling and disturbing of the portraits. Seated on an office chair, 50 glares acutely off to his left with a look that is aggressively defensive. Everything about his body posture, from his firmly planted feet on the floor to the grip of his hands on the arms of the chair, suggest a paranoid alertness of his surroundings, perhaps the result of smoking too much weed (his eyes are visibly blood shot) or perhaps the result of a real and present danger in the room with him. Although most of the portraits are backgrounded by a black and brown hazy darkness that recalls Rembrandt, the darkly stirring clouds of paint surrounding the figure represents an aura of trouble–an outward expression of the interior ruminations engulfing the sitter’s mind at a moment in time. But at nearly the exact middle of the portrait rests a shimmering cross around 50’s neck, both a symbol of his wealth in its glittering extravagance and an amulet defending him from aggression without and within.

If the collection of portraits lacks anything, it is the presence of female figures. For an exhibit that self-consciously attempts to imbue power and authority to a generation of artists who have innovated a new form of music that has until recently been snubbed as low by high-culture snobs, the absence of important figures like Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott, or M.I.A misses an opportunity to create powerful new images of women using the conventions of traditional painting, just as Melamid has accomplished in the male portraits. If the exhibit lacks anything, it’s Queen Latifah posed as Queen Elizabeth.

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ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo is a collection of garmets by the “anti-fashion” Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, from her experimental Comme des Garçons (roughly meaning “like boys”) label. The story of this exhibit is the innovative installation by Zeb Smith and company, who were able to put the entire MOCAD space to work by creating an intricate walking path that allows visitors to wander where their eyes take them without getting lost or confused. Some garments hang from the ceiling, some lay on the floor, some are duct taped to the outer walls. And the walls and barriers are formed using materials as conventional as dry wall and unconventional as chicken wire. Descriptions of the works and quotes from Kawakubo are displayed on the walls of the building on posters, and although there is no central narrative that holds the pieces together, one can sense an organizing logic that guides your interest through the labyrinthine exhibit space.

MOCAD’s previous exhibit, Words Fail Me, was interesting (and thank god they didn’t take down the “Everything is going to be alright” lighting on the facade of the building), but it didn’t have the volume of works needed to bring you back for repeat visits. But Holy Hip-Hop! and Refusing Fashion are two exhibits that not only deserve another visit, but beckon to be experienced at least twice.

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If the new exhibits weren’t enough to make this night a success, Mike-E Elliott and band (complete with two bassists!) made it a party. The band was on, the beats were sweet, and all of the aesthetes moved their feet.

Czech out the song “Afroflow” on his MySpace page.

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