$uck The Game If It Ain’t Saying Nothing

Chuck D: Artmageddon
at Subliminal Projects, Los Angeles (through January 26)
Reviewed by Henry Cherry

While Subliminal Projects, owned by the artist Shepard Fairey, is a small space, it resembles a Philadelphia graffiti crew’s warehouse loft with brick flooring in one room and sheets of plywood serving as support in all other parts of the gallery. A nonsensical line delay outside (I waited 85 minutes) frustrated everyone, including the doorman at the front entrance. “I haven’t worked in L.A. for nine months, and this is why,” he told those awaiting their moment with Chuck D.

Inside, the music was too loud, pumping out of an improperly wired sound system that periodically shredded bass drops, reducing the boom-bip to atonal static. It’s not often an art opening relies so heavily on sound, but this wasn’t any art opening. This was Chuck D, the iconoclastic frontman of legendary rap group Public Enemy, and this was Subliminal Projects, long a haven of the lowbrow and graffiti movements. The night was destined for sound surrounding visuals.

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Chuck D. Jahi Nation. 2018.

Born Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, Chuck D was a graphic design student in college when he birthed the influential rap group Public Enemy with fellow Adelphi student William Drayton, known to the world as Flavor Flav. While in college, Ridenhour created a comic strip for the school newspaper. And these three things — Public Enemy, graphic design, and his cartoon for The Adelphian — take command over Ridenhour’s water colors. The visual stories align with those he rapped about in PE. The lines adhere to those from his cartoons, and the placement of imagery address lessons Ridenhour likely first understood in design class.

Inside Subliminal’s front room, an outsized stencil based on a photo portrait of the rapper dominated the left wall while a DJ table snugged against the opposite one. The message was clear. Artmageddon was about the historical magnitude of Chuck D rather than his paintings. While most attendees shuffled their feet and politely sipped a too sweet red wine, a familiar flurry of outstretched arms positioned their smart phones to capture Ridenhour and Fairey as they worked the room. Even so that front room offered the most impartial moments of the night. Once the beats delivered the noise, anyone could be someone in the front room. That was the night’s first bit of merit. Equality issued through boogie. It warmed the stinging chill from the wait outside.

Before I made it inside, as displayed across Instagram, Fairey manned the turntables himself. Later in the night, when Chuck D performed, everyone pointed toward the rapper and away from his paintings. Ridenhour is the rare case of someone who melds musicality to political ideology without diminishing either. Hearing his cadence bounce along to canned beats from his past was another meritorious moment, but for the ignored art on the wall.

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Norman Lewis, Jumping Jive. 1942

That art owes much to graffiti, though it too exhibits some electrifying sidesteps — a dash of Kara Walker in the watercolors, a hint of Norman Lewis’s flurry of figures in another. Looking closer, the impact of Harlem Renaissance persists longer than that of street writers, though the attention span and arbitrary inclination of Ridenhour’s work lends itself more to street art than the headier notions of Bearden and Lewis. The paintings issued from his side-of-stage perspective were almost as impactful as seeing him rap to a room decorated by his visual creations. Almost.

While still outside, I briefly surveyed those exiting the show with cardboard tubes. None had purchased Chuck D works, settling instead on Fairey’s stencil based on the Beckman photo. Beckman was there for the opening and the unveiling of that stencil, which illuminated what we were really there for. People showed up to connect with Chuck D’s legacy and his celebrity, not so much his art. That Fairey/Beckman poster print was the tokenistic emblem of Artmageddon, not a Ridenhour creation. . .

To read the rest of Cherry’s review of Chuck D’s Artmageddon, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/fuck-the-game-if-it-aint-saying-nothing/

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RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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