We went to Deitch Projects gallery in Los Angeles on Saturday for the last day of the blockbuster “Gothic Futurism” exhibition by the late great hip-hop artist Rammellzee. It was incredible.
The massive show was in Deitch’s space on North Orange Drive (the gallery uses three separate, stand-alone exhibition spaces a few blocks from each in Hollywood), with plenty of square footage and walls for Rammellzee‘s work, a mix of paintings, collages, graffiti, installations, sculptural objects and costumed mannequins pictured in this post.
The life-size mannequins are the stars of the show. These are dressed head to toe in colorful, maximalist layered outfits mashing up so many diverse influences, textiles, colors and style traditions that it’s virtually impossible to distill each look down to a single fashion-genre label. Rammellzee called these “Garbage Gods.”
There are elements in these sculptures of Native American, African and Asian indigenous clothing, streetwear and skatewear, Mexican wrestling, drag culture, technology, science fiction, cyborgs, hip-hop, fantasy, Medieval European mythology, and Japanese anime, to name a handful of influences.
The net effect of these “Garbage Gods” standing amid all of Rammellzee’s dozens of other paintings and installations is like something out of a dystopian world. Collectively the costumed mannequins appear as an inscrutable gang of marauding, apocalyptic fashionistas or non-canonical characters straight out of the iconic Star Wars’ Mos Eisley cantina scene on planet Tatooine.
Rammellzee may best be known for his influential musical legacy as a New York City rapper from the early-1980s hip-hop era who brought avant-garde ideas to the nascent musical form.
With his musical collaborator K-Rob, he scored an early hip-hop hit in 1983 with the song “Beat Bop,”which was produced by another downtown NYC artist-musician who would later become a major artworld superstar: Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Rammellzee is paid homage in a lyrical namecheck by the Beastie Boys’ on the tune “B-Boys Makin’ with the Freak Freak” from their 1994 hit album “Ill Communication.” The title of the song is a lyric from “Beat Bop,” which they also sampled.
But much of Rammellzee’s career was spent as a prolific visual artist who created a massive body of work. Starting with graffiti “writing” in the 1970s, he created a distinct visual language, with technology, texts and written forms often incorporated into this paintings. Sometimes labelled as Afro-Futurism, Rammellzee saw his work more as a result of arcane western European monastic traditions than Afro-Futurist. Though he passed away in 2010 at age 49, his artwork feels alive, energetic and strangely of this moment.
We hope this show will travel, either to one of Deitch’s galleries in New York, if it hasn’t already been there, or live in whole or part of another Rammellzee exhibition somewhere in the future. In any case, go see this show or his artwork if you’re able.