Thursday, April 11, 2013

Black Face Sells Out

            Fleisher Ollman’s last exhibit at 1616 Walnut Street featured the Coogi paintings of Jayson Musson. Those with prior viewings of Musson’s work know what to expect, but for visitors unfamiliar with his portfolio, I advise you to ignore the literature and titles posted, and move directly to the art on display. Doing so may help prevent the following questions from running through your head.  “How did this happen? Why do these look so familiar?,” and “Is this supposed to be ironic?”
I spoke with Mr. Ollman for a few minutes about Musson and why his work was selected. Musson started exhibiting at Fleisher Ollman in 2010, as part of a group show featuring emerging and unrepresented artists. Ollman has followed the career of Musson as his work has been shown in coffee shops and smaller spaces like Marginal Utility in Philadelphia. Musson has built a name for himself through the use of a themes commenting on race and class, reminiscent of Blaxploitation.  Whether he is creating childlike drawings of a superhero Obama fighting terrorists, or translating art-talk into hip-hop commentary under the alter ego Hennessy Youngman (, Musson use of reverse racism capitalizes on the pleasure some gain when poking fun at the perceived ignorance of blacks. In doing so, Musson has type-casted himself as a parody of the black artist.  More specifically, a black artist in black face.
To get a better idea of Musson’s work and the themes which run through it, visit his website and watch his performance art on Musson’s analysis of art theory as Hennessy Youngman juxtaposes academic terms and concepts with urban dialogue and slang. His use of opposing linguistic extremes show how far apart academia looks from the neighborhoods that often surround them, but is it necessary to travel to such lengths to create a following, or to prove a point? And is this a following laughing with you, or at you? 

Fig. 1 – South of the Border

The latest collection consists of fabric paintings made of Coogi sweaters, arranged by Musson, and often stitched by a team of artists. At times the paintings successfully resemble landscapes (Fig. 1), but unfortunately have a habit of remaining the sweaters used to compose them, failing to break away from their associations with the Cosby Show (Fig. 2).  

Fig. 2 – How Do You Get To Hear To The Rest Of The World?

Bill Cosby

Musson should be congratulated for playing the game and winning, even at the sacrifice by dumbing down the language of his work to make it entertaining for the establishment. However, this commentary extends beyond his most recent exhibit, and refers to his collective body of work. It should be understood that Hennessy Youngman is a product of Jayson Musson, just as the Coogi sweater paintings are a product of his approach to visual art.

Fig. 3 - Sherrie

 By no means is that a personal attack on an artist for successfully gaming the system, but it appears that Musson is creating racially charged products for the arts establishment with the sole intent of enlarging his audience and bank account, by, in the words of Ms. Risario, New York quaintrelle, “cooning it up for white folks.” Musson is aware of his acceptance into the establishment and consistently flirts with idea of pushing his audience to see how racist they can be. The success of Musson’s work may be addressing a larger issue with the establishment that celebrates it. Being cultured is a privilege, and does not give you the right to ridicule those who aren’t as lucky as you to have obtained a formal education. I’ve never been impressed Musson, nor am I drawn to cheap social clichés commenting on how funny it is to be black and ironic, but I suppose the   real is question being asked is "isn't it ironic that I’m black?" There's nothing ironic about hustling your identity in the guise of art. I've just grown to expect it just as I would expect Duchamp to leave an upperdecker in my toilet and sign the bowl R. Mutt.

Shawn Beeks

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