Jay-Z feat. Marina Abramovic

In case you missed it, Jay-Z showed up at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan yesterday and lip-synched his song “Picasso Baby” from his brand new album Magna Carta Holy Grail for six hours as cameramen shot footage for the track’s upcoming music video. Apparently an invite went out Tuesday to a select few, including Wale, Girls‘ Adam Driver, Marina Abramovic, and Judd Apatow. Here’s a Vine with Jay-Z and Abramovic from the scene:

I’m not going to take this chance to review Magna Carta Holy Grail, partly because others have already done a great job doing so, and partly because I haven’t really listened to it very much so far. I do, however, have some thoughts on the overall weirdness of MCGH’s marketing strategy (via Samsung) and the message Jay-Z is promoting with it.

The whole scheme, it seems, is that the new album comes from some place of supreme artistic inspiration, brought on by Jay-Z’s juggling of success, failure, fatherhood, and keeping credit behind his rapping character. The end goal is to sell copies and Samsung products, but a critical component of that plan is the careful maintenance and presentation of the Jay-Z character, the Nets cap-wearing, gold watch-donning master hip hop executive.  Where it gets interesting is when he does things like yesterday’s video shoot, creating another layer of inspired artist-ness to the persona. As GalleristNY pointed out this week, “Jay-Z’s never been shy about his interest in contemporary art,”  but with this appearance he’s directly placing himself in the same frame of reference as contemporary visual and performance artists in addition to his musical colleagues. It’s actually kind of brilliant postmodernist thinking: he’s appropriating all of the cultural ideas and preconceived notions about artists and using that to manipulate his own image ever so slightly (and not super subtly).  He’s not anymore just Jay-Z the rapper, now he’s Jay-Z the artist, and that’s the image being used to sell albums and phones, regardless of its validity.

“Picasso Baby” in particular shows Jay-Z playing his “vibrant child” card when he boasts “I’m the new Jean-Michel” in the song’s second verse, despite the fact that Jay is a 43-year-old multimillionaire with a career that spans 17 years (more than half of Basquiat’s entire lifetime) and a seemingly stable (and ridiculously famous) family life. Jay-Z is simply not the fresh renegade artist on the scene. Quite the contrary, it seems like the former Shawn Carter is kind of out of things to say. On MCHG, he tells us (for the thousandth time) about his success in rising from selling drugs in the Brooklyn projects to becoming the mogul he is today. The only new development even from 2011’s collaboration with Kanye, Watch the Throne, is that he had a baby with Beyonce, but the media has so tirelessly covered Blue Ivy from day one that even that storyline is stale and played out by now. This may be Jay-Z’s first album as pops, but that doesn’t make his development into fatherhood compelling source material.

It also raises some interesting questions about the theory behind this sort of performance art. Was Jay-Z lip-synching one of his own songs in front of a curated audience to promote himself, his new product and the products of a massive corporation in the same vein as some of the performance pieces Abramovic is famous for? You could argue that the latter was also a sort of artistic self-promotion, so where does the line between art and advertisement fall? Is Jay-Z’s performance closer to “The Artist is Present” or a sponsored mural outside a Chipotle?

At one point during the Magna Carta Holy Grail promo ad that showed during Game 5 of the NBA Finals last month (on ESPN, nonetheless, which opens a totally different discussion on corporate culture and image), Jay-Z says that “the album is about, like, this duality of how do you navigate through this whole thing, through success, through failures, through all this and remain yourself,” which is indeed true, at least in part. There is an interesting duality being played off of with the album and its promotion, one that bounces the rapper between being presented as a cultural and artistic icon and staying true to the financial, corporate juggernaut the Jay-Z brand represents.  

Jay-Z is, to his credit, mirroring the art world with MCHG‘s buzz – the album and the big-budget promotional campaign swirling around it may be pushed with a cultural, art-as-a-higher-calling veneer, but at its core it’s still simply and basically all about business. The event likewise was presented as a piece of performance art, even to the point of getting Abramovic there, but it was after all a video shoot, making Wednesday’s “piece” really nothing more than a flashing promotion. Which on one hand, is fine – by all means, artists (musical and otherwise) should look to push the boundaries of promotion and hype-creation and Jay-Z has done exactly that this summer – but you can’t heap on the cultural cred and artistic gravity AND turn the proceedings into a corporate sideshow without the former ringing a little hollow.

Juxtaposition II

Ellsworth Kelly, Red Relief over White (2012) + Muhammad Ali

“The most terrifying tennis tournament in recent memory”


Wimbledon is..done and wrapped up for the year, but I wanted to share easily the best article I’ve ever read about any tennis anywhere. It’s from Grantland’s Brian Phillips, who was also behind the absolutely terrific soccer writing at the now-dormant The Run of Play (if you’ve ever wanted to spend a few hours entrenched in a Fitzgerald-tinged serial on a fictional professional soccer team in 1920s Brooklyn, go dig through that site).  Here’s just a snippet of Phillips’ story on the first week of the tournament, where Rafael Nadal lost on the first day, the previously unstoppable Serena Williams fell to the 18th-ranked Sabine Lisicki, and seven players who at one point in their careers were ranked No. 1 lost within a nine-hour span:

As a survival mechanism, fear is a complex adaptation to the reality of danger, the limits of knowledge, and the impossibility of controlling your environment. In the modern world, even living in a city can mean subjecting yourself to a constant low-level dread, all startling noises and ominous shapes that fool your dinosaur brain into thinking you’re in mortal danger. You can high-pass-filter that signal out of your consciousness, but it’s never far away; spend one night alone in a weird hotel and you won’t not believe in ghosts.

It’s really about tennis, I promise.

Art Institutin’

Took a quick jaunt to Northern Illinois and Chicago this weekend for the holiday, and of course you can’t be cruising down Michigan Avenue and not stop at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum is always killer, but I was blown away by one artist in particular whose work was being exhibted in the Modern Wing as part of the Art Institute Society for Contemporary Art Acquisition for 2013.

Anna Boghiguian is an Egyptian-born artist working between Cairo, Europe, and the United States. What was specifically impressive about her exhibition was the fact that it was a collection of 80 notebook-sized drawings/paintings/collages that hit on everything from 19th-century colonialism to old French textbooks to the division of Germany to the current War on Terror to the Arab Spring. Boghiguian combined drawings with crayon and pencil with splashes of watercolor and digital images to create a series of works that was really intesely personal while also having an air of the historic.

Anna Boghiguian Unfinished Symphony, 2011-12 Pencil, crayon, gouache, and collage on paper

Anna Boghiguian
Unfinished Symphony, 2011-12
Pencil, crayon, gouache, and collage on paper

I don’t have any detailed shots of the pieces because I didn’t have a camera on me in the museum (even on my phone, I know), but even so it really is an instillation that’s better experienced starting at one end of the wall and working your way down, looking and absorbing each page on its own and slowly getting a sense of how all of these historical and personal events flow from one to another. Because each page is ripped straight from a notebook, the whole installation views like a wide and dirty travelogue of the last 200 years. I also really enjoyed the fact that much of her handwritten script on the pages has a hint of influence from one of my favorite artists, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Anna Boghiguian Unfinished Symphony, 2011-12 Pencil, crayon, gouache, and collage on paper

And of course, what better way to end a museum trip than a stop at the gift shop? I always like to pick up a print or a poster each time I visit a museum (even if I’ve been there before) as a sort of notebook on where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. This time I grabbed a poster of Stuart Davis’ painting Ready-to-Wear from 1955. It’s a great piece of hard-edge painting from American mid-century modernism.

Stuart Davis, Ready-to-Wear, (1955)


Juxtaposition I

Ellsworth Kelly, White Relief Over Black (2012) + Mila Kunis

Abyss Gazing

Shark, Florida. via Spencer Murphy

Shark, Florida. via Spencer Murphy

Thrilled and excited to have a feature I wrote on UK photographer Spencer Murphy up today on Paper Journal. In it, I looked at Murphy’s series The Abyss Gazes Into You, a pretty fantastic set of images that details life on the edges of progress and documents what happens when the world keeps moving forward without you. A little excerpt:

Murphy seems to be grasping at the ominous cloud hanging in the present, obscuring the future. His work lies in the turbulent, tectonic moment where past and eternity grind into each other.

I’m really looking forward to contributing more to Paper Journal – it’s a pretty fantastic new online magazine covering contemporary photography and visual arts, and the writing on there is, to say the least, fantastic. The website has sections for features (like this), reviews of new photo and artist’s books and some killer long-form interviews with contemporary photographers.

Right now, I’m working on a similar feature on Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, a duo of artists working out of England. They won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize this year for their absolutely incredible book War Primer 2, and are being exhibited everywhere from London to Belfast to Paris to MoMA in New York right now. Broomberg and Chanarin are simply making books and pieces that are light years ahead of anyone else, and it’s incredible to watch and write about.

Broomberg and Chanarin, Holy Bible

More progress: proud to announce I’ll be joining the Blood of the Young team as a media/PR intern for Blood of the Young, an independent publishing house out of Toronto that works with established and emerging photographers and artists with a focus on producing hand-made artist’s books and zines. Go check them out and buy  a watch or something (I have one and love it).