If you’ve seen anything by Jayson Musson, chances are that you’re one of the million-plus people who have watched ‘Art Thoughtz’, the YouTube series hosted by his alter ego Hennessy Youngman (a.k.a. The Pharoah Hennessy, a.k.a. Henrock, a.k.a. Henrock-Obama). Youngman, a character developed whilst Musson was studying for his MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, is a hiphop art pundit who dishes out observations and advice on topics including relational aesthetics (‘all you gotta do is take an activity people do out in the real world and just do it in a gallery’), the benefits of having an MFA (‘who gives a fuck about Michael Fried when you’re scourin’ job listings tryin’ to find a job that pays more than 12 dollars an hour?’) and Damien Hirst (‘a perfect storm of banality’). With Youngman, Musson spins a satire of contemporary art’s manners around issues of black male identity, education and class. It’s damn funny, it speaks truth to power and, like all good critiques of the art world, will no doubt have zero impact on any of art’s more idiotic behaviours.
A cursory glance at Musson’s recent exhibition at Salon 94 Bowery might have disappointed fans hoping for more Hennessy. ‘Halcyon Days’ featured ten works, all made from disassembled and re-stitched Coogi sweaters. The Australian clothing brand is famous in the US for their multicoloured textured knitwear which was a status symbol of the 1980s and ’90s; opulent chunky knits with expensive price tags. Rap star Notorious B.I.G. wore them, but so did Bill Cosby’s character Clifford Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Coogi sweaters remind Musson of abstract painting, and hold a twofold nostalgic charge: a personal nostalgia for late ’80s and early ’90s hiphop, and for grand-narrative Modernist abstraction – an attraction to abstract painting that just will not die, especially in New York where the ghosts of White Male Painters loudly rattle their tins of paint long after their deaths.
Pulled apart then re-stitched into Frankensteinian swathes of colour stretched across square and rectangular canvases, the works in ‘Halcyon Days’ keep the eye busy. Different weights of yarn lurch back and forth from the picture plane. Patterns disagree with each other, with strips of sweater pulled taut across the frame to create, in some instances, a woozy sense of movement or, from a distance, the impression of swirls on marbled paper. Loud primary colours yell at patches of black, beige and grey but, up close, detailed sotto voce conversations between finer threads and weaves can be detected – micro-galaxies of hue contributing to a broader colour system.
Pygmalion I, II, III, IV and V (all works2012) were Musson’s titles for five of the works, and an argument could be made for the show being one entire piece. That’s not because it was a little repetitive (four or five of these pieces and I got the idea), so much that this was an exhibition of Pygmalions, of attempts to try and breathe life into inanimate form. Perhaps for Musson, that form is abstraction – something that many have argued is today lifeless but in which he wants to believe. (Thousands out there would no doubt disagree, not least those with whom these works seem to have some affinities with: Sergej Jensen’s dirty, stained canvases, for instance, or Rosemarie Trockel’s fabric ‘paintings’.) Perhaps these are Pygmalions in the sense of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, in which a Cockney flower girl is trained to pass for a duchess: an attempt to see how far status can be constructed, how far the values of one system or time (1980s hiphop culture, for example) can be stretched across those of another (contemporary art in 2012). These works are trying to wear painting as a disguise, but paint can mix, synthesize itself into another hue or volume, unlike these pieces which are irreducible beyond the basic unit of dyed yarn.
Might ‘Halcyon Days’ make ‘Art Thoughtz’ seem like a sideline, or vice versa? Remember Ad Reinhardt. He made abstract paintings, but also wrote scathing satires about art and artists, producing illustrations and cartoons for PM magazine in the late 1940s about such topics as ‘How to Look at Modern Art in America’. Whether it’s via YouTube or stretchers hung on gallery walls, ‘How do we look at modern art in America today?’ is the question that Musson is trying to ask.