Rammellzee: Gothic Futurism
November 5, 2022 through January 14, 2023
By MIKE MAIZELS, January 2023
The postmodern artist or writer is in the position of a philosopher, [striving] to formulate the rule of what will have been done…
—Jean Francois Leotard, 1979
Closing next week at Jeffrey Deitch’s Los Angeles space, Rammellzee: Gothic Futurism is a whirlwind of a show. The retrospective surveys three decades of practice—ranging from artifacts from ultra-early experiments in subway car tagging through a subsequent creative florescence of fine art and performance objects. The show contains a number of delightful surprises, particularly the lyrical works on canvas reminiscent of early Kandinsky abstractions. But the stars are undoubtedly the Garbage Gods, full-sized, wearable suits of armor crafted out of the detritus of urban nightmares. The top of pantheon, if such an amorphous assemblage can be said to have a pinnacle, is the Gasholear, a fearsome, plastic-glitch Transformer Golem outfitted with a working flamethrower. In the Deitch installation, the Gasholear is flanked by an attending chorus of angels—mechanical concatenations of flying toy skateboards inscribed with a single letter of Ram’s almost-inscrutable alphabet. Language soaring towards and returning from the heavens offers a hopeful, even prophetic vision. The curators deftly tucked the artist’s name into the arrangement.
Significantly, the exhibition’s title is drawn from Rammellzee’s own ideas about power of the letter. An historical polymath, Ram drew inspiration from a tale of medieval monks who developed an alphabet so encrusted with ornamentation that it became all but unreadable. Institutional danger lurks in such technologies of encrypted communication, and the lettering was soon banned by the abbot. For Rammellzee, the story becomes a precedent and a paradigm for scrawling cryptic phrases on the margins of the public record—religious texts or subway cars. The letters may be visible to all, but their message is legible only to the insider group of outsiders crazy enough to create it.
The anecdote serves as a cornerstone of what would emerge as Ram’s capacious philosophy of “Gothic Futurism,” a mythological, ethical and aesthetic construct that drew in a dizzying array of sources and frequently confounded even the artist’s closest collaborators. This short review is far from the place to systematically parse this canon. Importantly, a Rammellzee catalogue raisonné is planned for next year, and the publication will be well positioned to probe more deeply into numerous areas now coming to critical attention: his work with early hip hop, his influence on Basquiat, his engagement with the Nation of Islam. Here, I would like to propose one further facet ripe for further exploration—a key theme lurking in plain sight in the show’s title.
Indeed, Ram’s notion of “The Gothic” performs huge operative work, drawing up a range of historical overtones that put the goth back in Gotham. While the latter term derives from an early 19th century satire in which Washington Irving compared his fellow New Yorkers to the fools of folklore who inhabited the English village of Gotham, the term eventually fused into the Neo-Gothic architecture under which the modern city was born. St Patricks might be the iconic church, but it was Gothic Revival skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building (a “cathedral to commerce” as it was known) that gave the city its signature skyline. The Gotham City of the mid-century imaginary was one of bleak contrasts—between civilization and chaos, gilt wealth and grim poverty, villainy and vigilantism. The Cult of Gotham is of course tied deeply into the Neo-Gothic faith in the power of Great Men and the aesthetic value of insanity. Batman was nothing if not an ubermensch. The term bears out echoes older and darker still—monks scrawling feverish, unreadable messages to each other in precarious candlelight, as well as ravaging hordes of Visigoths and Ostrogoths razing down the marbles of Rome. As historian Bruce Holsinger reminds us, the Gothic-Medieval has long served a touchstone for those modern theorists wishing refuse the organized rationalism of their own era. Adam Kane’s Caped Crusader and Georges Bataille’s Old Mole come swarming out of the same caverns.
But all of this takes a new dimension in the amidst the decay of more recent memory. In the lead up to Ram’s breakout on the art scene, the city teetered on a gothic edge. The Bronx burned nearly to the ground, blackouts sank the city into darkness, the Son of Sam rampaged with a publicized manhunt on his tale while petty violent crime spiraled out of control. Unemployment, inflation and paralysis gnawed at the social fabric. In both art and media, New York was envisaged as a near-future Hellscape. Gordon Matta Clark lacerated buildings and Kurt Russell scurried into the sewers to save the President from the prison into which all of Manhattan had been converted. The comic henchmen of the trash heap, Bebop and Rocksteady of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Franchise, look like nothing so much as Garbage Gods. All of this history is somehow refracted through Ramellzee’s diffuse practice, an oil-slick puddle in which one can see the whole seething urban fabric.
But the Gothic is only the half of it, both in Rammellzee’s esoteric philosophy and in the broader outlines of history it reprises. The Gothic is of course the great foil to the Futurist; chaos lurks only to be dispelled by the technological mastery. The Italian Futurists prayed for the cleansing conflagration of global war, and they were answered at least twice. The neo-neo-Gothic Fascists of midcentury promised a return to Caucasian purity away from the Black and Jewish grime of the city. Rammellzee called it “Ikonoklast Panzerism”—a blitzkrieg assault on linguistic rationality, named in (perverse?) honor of the armored shock troops of the Nazis. A seemingly unthinkable set of reversals rehashed in the more days by Ye’s newfound fascination with the Swastika. These allusions can be overdetermined of course, but they nevertheless feel charged with real danger. Here, the danger moves from shamanic ritual garb to brown shirts buttoned all the way to the top.
And yet, as is often the case, the meaning of such overdetermined allusions circles back to questions of enframement. Within Ram’s singular art, Panzerism is considered a kind of “drafting technique”—one that permits the artist-participant-viewer to transcend the near temporal context by imaginatively blasting through to a deep future. A future in which the dangers of 20th century fascism might be as remote as those of the roving Goths of classical antiquity. The sublime, as Kant put it, is danger at a distance. What’s more, significance is a moving target, one that comes into focus mostly in the rearview mirror. After modernity, artists (and writers) must work in the reflexive tense of the future anterior—creating the artifacts that will come to be needed by an uncertain future looking back to its unsettled past.
Eventually, new canons will form.
Curatorial coordination: Viola Angiolini, Director of Research and Curatorial Projects at Jeffrey Deitch
Curatorial advisors: Kool Koor, Max Wolf. WM
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics.view all articles from this author