The medium - oil on canvas, the style – classical realism, the subjects – hip hop royalty. Incongruous? Not for Russian born artist Alexander Melamid, who has a history of deconstructing icons. Melamid and his former creative partner, Vitaly Komar, were renowned as conceptual art rebels in Soviet Russia. Together they founded the Soviet Realist Pop art movement, Sots Art, which satirized Soviet Socialist Realism. After their partnership dissolved in 2003, Melamid was thought to have disappeared from the international art scene. But he was quietly busy at work. His son, Daniel “Dan the Man” Melamid, a music video director, had introduced him to a few of his clients and close friends – who number among hip hop’s glitterati. The show, Holy Hip Hop
- portraits of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Common, Reverend Run, Duke, Lil Jon, Don “Magic” Juan, Whoo Kid, Marc Ecko, Easy Mo Bee and Russell Simmons - is the outcome of these meetings.
The paintings have a profound visual impact. Larger than life, the subjects emerge seamlessly from undefined backgrounds. Melamid’s palette is subdued, mostly umbers, sepias and ochre hues in muted tones. The portraits are articulated in careful detail and the figures materialize out of the shadows, defined with subtle dexterity through Melamid’s eloquent command of light and shade.
Beautifully realized, these works provide a provocative commentary on the confluence of art, music, influence and wealth in today’s society - placing pop culture and our reverence for celebrity in a fresh visual perspective. The juxtaposition of Melamid’s classical approach – his portraits have been compared to the 17th
century works of Diego Velasquez – with the contemporary subject matter - adds an underlying irony. These are formal portraits, but the twelve classically rendered hip hop icons are portrayed dressed in their everyday street clothes, including the customary diamond studded accessories. Lil Jon is wearing an Angels baseball hat on top of his dreadlocks, sunglasses hiding his eyes, a T-shirt with the word “Funk” across the chest, jeans and the regulation Adidas sneakers – as if you’d just run into him on his way to the recording studio. His mouth is open, like he’s uttering a cheeky remark. A gold tooth flashes. The first two fingers of his left hand form a peace sign.
Unlike the more somber palette in most of the series, there’s greater contrast in the portraits of Easy Mo Bee and Don “Magic” Juan. Easy Mo Bee seems to be suspended in space. He pops from the canvas, in direct confrontation with the viewer. The background is white, with no delineation of where floor meets wall - the only clue is the subject’s right foot, planted in a way that defines the foreground. He sits on a stool, engaging us with his eyes. The portrait of Don “Magic” Juan stands out because here, the colors are vivid. The subject is depicted in a green vest and pants and the dazzling accoutrements - a jeweled cell phone on a chain around his neck, rings spelling, “Magic” and “Juan,” a watch with diamond bezel.
The encounter between classically rendered painting and the world of hip hop seems surprising, but Melamid’s inspiration can be traced back to when he first arrived in the US as an immigrant in 1978. He and his wife and two sons lived in the housing projects of Jersey City and while there, his sons became fans of hip hop music and culture. Melamid was intrigued by this world, and when his son, Dan, eventually introduced him to some of its players, the paintings were a logical expression of this interest. For two years, from 2003 to 2005, the artist spent time getting to know each of the men. He photographed them and drew them as the basis for the paintings.
As Melamid himself has said, “Art is the key that unlocked a door that would not have opened for me. I thought it would be interesting to paint the men of hip hop using the traditional European style.”
Melamid is a master of this style and the medium he employs. The paint, rendered in almost invisible brushstrokes, conveys nuance with a witty flair that characterizes the painter’s work. These are important works because of Melamid’s brilliant craftsmanship but also his vision. As portraits should, these paintings capture emotion and convey clues to the character behind the subjects. As art should, these works document in a serious way the significant contribution of the hip hop phenomenon to contemporary culture.
Whoo Kid, 50 Cent and Don “Magic” Juan are all portrayed with diamond crucifixes. It’s a coincidence that the hip hop artists adorn themselves with the paraphernalia of the church – but perhaps these symbols foreshadowed Melamid’s next project. He since went on to paint a series of Roman Catholic prelates in Italy. His follow-up series is 12 Russian oligarchs.
Holy Hip Hop is the artist’s first solo show. The show is at Forum Gallery New York – through March 14.