Last Friday night, May 20, San Antonio contemporary art buffs faced an incredible moment of choice.
Two important nationally acclaimed artists from New York were in town to share their stories. Richard Tuttle, a long established wizard with materials known for his minimalist style, was to speak at the Southwest School of Art during the same hours that Rashaad Newsome, a young, rapidly rising African-American Queer multimedia artist who explores hip-hop culture using decidedly maximal aesthetics, was to present at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA).
For me, the road not taken was that leading to Tuttle, which I had anticipated attending. When I learned at the last minute that Newsome was going to be the featured artist in the SA Museum of Art’s Art History 201 series, I knew where I had to be.
I first met Newsome in 2003, when he had recently earned an art history degree from Tulane University and was an aspiring artist earning his wages working on the installation and gallery guard crew at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, where I headed the Visual Arts Department. After he left for New York, he learned digital post production and programming technologies at Film/Video Arts, Inc. and the Digital Media Art Center, and supported himself by working as an installer for major galleries. I ran into him in Chelsea doing just that, probably around 2007 or so.
By 2012, I was seeing Newsome’s art work at the art fairs in Miami. He had made it into the long established Marlborough Gallery, which over the years has represented the likes of Henry Moore, Red Grooms, R. B. Kitaj, and Beverly Pepper. Needless to say, I was impressed, and proud that my curatorial work in New Orleans had contributed to Newsome’s education. He helped install an exhibition of monumental paintings by the late abstract painter Al Held, and got to meet the legendary master.
In his presentation at SAMA, Newsome reviewed the origins and evolution of his distinguished yet relatively young career as a pioneering artist exploring new frontiers. At the age of 37, he has already held major museum exhibitions and performances in New York, Paris, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Moscow. As a youth, Newsome was inspired by the 1990 movie Paris is Burning, which chronicles the drag ball competitions of New York’s Black and Latino gay and trans communities, and gave birth to the fad known as “voguing.” Popularized to the masses in a song by Madonna, to “vogue” is to freeze in the middle of a dance and strike a glamorous pose.
Upon moving to New York, Newsome made his home within the Black and Latino Queer community. In 2005, he received a fellowship for an artist residency in Paris, where he became fascinated by the elaborate ornamentation of heraldry, a ubiquitous feature on the city’s many architectural facades.
Upon returning to New York, Newsome began creating his own innovative coats of arms in collages that draw parallels between historical power structures and those of contemporary vogue culture. In Status Symbols #11 (2009), an early collage on paper, two African-American women, friends of the artist who appear frequently in music videos, flank a vogue-culture crest composed from images of bling jewelry, gold chains, and perfume bottles, all cut from hip-hop and style magazines.
In works such as Venus de Video (2010) and Grand Marquis of Brooklyn (2011), Newsome celebrates hip-hop royalty by intensifying the aesthetic opulence of his collages. In addition to immersing his heraldic icons in fields of decorative splendor that imitate the sparkle of shimmering gems, he frames the compositions with ornate antique frames that are spray painted at an auto body shop using custom colors designed for sporty cars, thus adding another layer of status symbolism to the mix.
Elaborate framing is also a hallmark of Newsome’s presentation style for his videos. His black-and-white MTV style video Pursuivant (2010) for example, is housed in an altered antique frame that resembles the decorative molding of architectural heraldry. The video begins with Newsome in London, on his way to visit the Windsor Herald, the middle ranking officer in the British College of Arms. Next, the officer meets with the artist and gives him a crash course in the history of heraldry. The scenery then shifts to New York City, where Newsome, wearing a hoodie and a gold chain around his neck, travels to a cathedral, where he is knighted by a Black man dressed like a rapper.
In the order of heraldry, a pursuivant is the junior rank held by an officer, so once Newsome attained that position virtually via the fictional narrative of his video, he was ready to move up the ladder to become a herald. In his video Herald (2011), the action begins in the cathedral with the knighting ceremony itself, and the artist now wearing a self-designed black leather jacket featuring the fleur de lis emblem of his native New Orleans.
Accompanied by Gregorian chants throughout, the riveting video transitions from moody black-and-white footage into a colorful and kaleidoscopic three-dimensional equivalent of Newsome’s collages, where gems spin before our eyes, angel’s with devil’s tails appear, and the imagery explodes into flames in the grand finale.
A significant milestone for Newsome was his 2013 homecoming to New Orleans, where he presented his exhibition “King of Arms” at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Installed in the museum’s stately atrium and also alongside old master paintings in the European galleries, the exhibition included several works with specific references to the artist’s homeland.
Wild Magnolia (2013), for example, is a vibrant collage where the artist’s familiar bling imagery has been replaced by fleur-de-lis latticework, reminiscent of the city’s many iron grill gates. Superimposed over a clear blue skyscape and framed with an ornate floral wreath spray-painted in the traditional colors of Mardi Gras (purple, green, and gold), the iconic emblem pays tribute to the Magnolia Housing Projects. Once the home to impoverished African Americans, the projects were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and then demolished two years later.
In conjunction with the New Orleans exhibition, Newsome organized the King of Arms Parade, a variation of a Second Line that added custom cars, vogue dancers, and bikers clad in leather to the traditional assembly of marching bands and Mardi Gras Indians. In addition, he held a mock ceremony in the museum’s Great Hall, in which he was knighted a King of Arms, the highest ranking position in the College of Arms.
The influence of Mardi Gras continues to be at play in many of Newsome’s recent collages, where alien-like personages appear wearing surreal looking masks and the decorative flair of ornate backgrounds and elaborate frames has been replaced by a smooth and elegant Blackness, a reference to African American identity certainly, but also an effective formal device that puts all attention on the over-the-top extravagance of the figures.
When translated into the 3D animation, as in Stop Playing in My Face (2016), the imagery revolves to music like a disco ball that has been embellished with bling style appendages. In that the facial facades seem like parasites overpowering the subjects in a manner that recalls the recent collage work of San Antonio artist Kelly O’Connor. I am left wondering if there is something in the larger zeitgeist under foot, something about pretense and artifice that both artists have tapped into.
I feel rewarded for having attended SAMA’s Art History 201 on Friday, May 20. While my personal experience involved a wonderful reunion with Newsome, I left for home that evening having learned something about heraldry, hip hop culture, and their relationship to contemporary art.
And perhaps more importantly, I was inspired with new revelations about the bigger picture of the art of our time.
Top image: Herald, 2011, HD video in gilded hand-carved mahogany frame. Photo courtesy of Rashaad Newsome.