Without question, hip-hop has been a formative influence on American culture since the late 1970s. Depending on who you are and where you're from, the term might conjure up different images. B-boy battles and graffiti-covered subway cars coursing through the Bronx in the 1980s. White kids dancing to Snoop Dogg at a high school prom in the 1990s. Jay-Z and Beyoncé today — the latter not exactly a hip-hop artist but an embodiment of the spirit of "bling" that infuses commercial hip-hop in the 21st century.
In other words, as much as there's one hip-hop, there are a lot of different hip-hops. So what happens when that fabulously multifaceted cultural phenomenon — once an organic product of urban African-American and Latino lives, now firmly ensconced within the culture industry — inspires an exhibition of contemporary art at a traditional art museum?
Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota invites several different responses to this question. One is to say that the exhibit, which spotlights 10 contemporary artists whose works arguably reference hip-hop culture (broadly construed) in some fashion, is a lot of fun. That's largely because it's juxtaposed at the Ringling with gallery upon gallery of Old Master paintings, and there's something vaguely naughty (in the most civilized of ways) about staging a conversation between, say, such venerated painters as Rubens and Hals and these living artists.
A witty handout in the exhibition gallery invites you to make such comparisons. For example, Mickalene Thomas's reclining babe-on-sofa, "Naughty Girls (Need Love Too)," 2009 — a rhinestone-studded painting of a foxy black woman posed seductively in skin-tight denim and knee-high leather boots — gets compared with Rubens's "Danaë and the Shower of Gold" (painted after 1618), a rendering of the mythological figure by the Dutch baroque painter as a curvaceous proto-centerfold. Beyond the paintings' compositional similarity, there's a narrative joke here: the devastatingly beautiful Danaë so captivated Greek god Zeus that he transformed himself into a shower of gold in order to possess her. Now, that's some serious bling.
Over the past several years, Kehinde Wiley's work has seemed ubiquitous on the international scene (to the point of overexposure), but there's still something undeniably powerful in his portraits of young African-American men, who resemble 17th-century VIPs when set against brocaded backdrops and posed in three-quarter profile. Sofia Maldonado's "Concrete Jungle Divas," 2010, a series of larger-than-life, graffiti cartoons of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, J-Lo and M.I.A., call up a long history of idealizing female form in art.
The strength of Beyond Bling is that it doesn't take itself too seriously — instead inviting playful historical comparisons like the ones above, offering visitors an iPod soundtrack to the show selected by DJs from "Wild" 94.1 FM (check out the "underground" playlist), and including a lounge area adjacent to the exhibit where visitors can watch Style Wars, a 1983 documentary about New York street culture. Because the danger, of course, (if it did take itself too seriously) is that the Ringling could come off looking like an old fuddy-duddy wading ineptly into the stream of pop culture.
There are a couple of moments when the show indeed looks like that. A vocabulary handout of hip-hop terminology including "shout out" and "word up" is either hilariously tongue-in-cheek or a cross-cultural misstep — I still can't decide. The presumption of such material (along with didactic panels explaining DJ culture and MCing) seems to be that most museum visitors won't have a clue about hip-hop. That could be right. My experience of other Ringling visitors over the years is that they tend to be white and, frankly, old (not unlike most art museum visitors, school tours notwithstanding).
That may be why, to a younger viewer plugged into contemporary art, Beyond Bling sometimes feels like slightly old news. Gajin Fujita fuses Japanese iconography (a samurai warrior, a kimono-wearing woman) with graffiti and gold leaf. Five years ago, a work like his "Chinita," 2005, a stylized portrait of a sword-wielding Asian-Latina babe, might have popped against a gallery wall, but these days there's so much (perhaps better publicized) cross-fertilization between street art and anime under the label "low-brow" that such fusions feel like a dime a dozen. Other than "it looks cool," I'm not sure what to think about Vince Fraser's "Bling Pop," 2006-2007, a portrait of rapper Pharrell superimposed over a BMW.
Not to be a hater. Bottom line is, Beyond Bling finds the Ringling trying hard for relevance and for a broader audience — a totally commendable attitude that I hope it pushes itself to try for again and again with the help of curator Matthew McLendon, who deserves credit for helping to steer the Ringling down a more adventurous path. (In fact, the museum has been aggressive in its pursuit of adventurous programming in recent years, launching the fantastic Ringling Arts Festival, ringlingartsfestival.org.)
That attitude can only be good for the community, by which I mean both Sarasota and Tampa Bay. And it already has been. Check out the public art component of Beyond Bling, a mural by Sofia Maldonado at Payne Skate Park in Sarasota intended to inspire demand in the community for the park to be accessible to skaters free of charge. And on June 9, don't miss a lecture by James Prigoff, a major collector of street art, at the Historic Asolo Theater. For more info, go to ringling.org.