Is rap the new performance art? Mega-rapper Jay-Z recently punctuated New York's summer doldrums with his six-hour Pace Gallery Picasso Baby performance featuring art-world notables in conjunction with his new single and accompanying video of the same name. In a related vein, New Orleans native and ascendant New York art-star Rashaad Newsome has been merging high culture and street culture in a trajectory that included the 2010 Whitney Biennial, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and now NOMA, where his King of Arms sculptural collages appear downstairs. His Herald video performance appears upstairs amid historic French paintings including Vigee LeBrun's court portrait of Marie Antoinette. Newsome's prolific use of fleur-de-lis flourishes suggests he is either a Francophile or New Orleans Saints fan or both. What distinguishes him from other art-star bling freaks like Japan's slyly hucksterish Takashi Murakami is his focus on old Europe's medieval heraldry and baroque ornament, which he mashes up with rap's all-American, all-consuming commodity fetish for flashy jewelry and even flashier women and cars.
Rap's obsession with tacky status symbols sets it apart from local African-American roots culture like second lines, spiritual churches and Zulu, as well as other social aid and pleasure clubs, but Newsome says his flair for performance was profoundly influenced by his formative years in New Orleans, where parades are frequent and baroque and medieval flourishes are pervasive. His collage sculpture Jungle Gardenia is as baroquely ornamental as a Faberge egg, with a complex composition of gold filigree, bejeweled flowers and ornamental motifs that, when viewed up close, are revealed as flashy car wheels and grinning lips parted to display gold teeth. Duke of Nola (pictured) is similar but features rapper Juvenile enshrined in a cornucopia of bling and tattooed limbs. In these works, Newsome has us compare the status symbols of rap with the entrenched elegance of the European courts that once colonized the world in an age when the baddest gangstas of all wore crowns and wielded scepters. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT