Rashaad Newsome’s 21st-century art party

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Rashaad Newsome (in blue) at his opening last night at Grey Area. ()
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About an hour after the festivities began last night at Grey Area—a cross between an art gallery and a boutique in a second-floor loft on Broadway at Prince Street—the windows started to steam up as crowds jostled at the bar for plastic cups of wine and a bathroom line quickly formed.

It was becoming something else again: A nightclub. D.J. Venus X, the latest darling of art-world soirees, was spinning rap and reggae, drowning out the din of gallery chatter at the party, co-sponsored by Marlborough Gallery Chelsea and W Magazine to present new work by artist Rashaad Newsome.

Newsome's work, which has ranged from video to collage to sculpture and focuses on the many iterations of black music, dance, and gay culture, goes a long way toward explaining the unusual mix of art-scene, downtown, society, and hip-hop that coalesced at the party.

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There was Kyle DeWoody (cofounder and creative director of Grey Area) and Stefano Tonchi (editor of W), pictured at left, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def, pictured at bottom), Michael Avedon (Richard's grandson), Anthony Haden Guest, and a range of people from Newsome's crowd—tatted, dreadlocked, or otherwise impossibly hip; Afro-divas; a tall, brawny RuPaulesque drag queen with bright green lipstick on; friends gussied up in designer sneakers, T-shirts, slouchy pants, track jackets, and any other conceivable emblem of hip-hop celebrity-driven black culture—all of them representing some target of Newsome's artistic fascinations, from underground gay vogueing culture to the mainstream machismo of radio rap.

The Grey Area gallery specializes in “artist produced functional items,” so apart from Newsome’s three works on display—collages and videos featuring black cultural iconography—the gallery offered items for sale like a Julian Schnabel-designed towel or an acrylic painted Marlboro cigarette box ($950).

Champagne started flowing while just in front of the D.J. booth someone tipped his head up and took a long drag from something that did not burn like a cigarette.

"This is the best blunt in Manhattan," one partygoer said the man had told her.

The weed smell wafted through the room and a packed crowd of Newsome’s friends let loose. A half-hour before the event was supposed to end, a circle formed near the D.J. booth. A$AP Ferg (a primary member of A$AP Rocky's of-the-moment Harlem rap crew) along with his partner A$AP NY-Nast (pictured at right) started tinkering around with the mikes and doing the rapper two-step inside the circle. Then the show began.

"Hands up!" yelled A$AP Ferg into the mike, his full grille of silver teeth glistening under the lights (he has a gold pair that he can pop in as well). Ferg and Nast launched into a rap performance, backed by D.J. Venus X (pictured below), while audience members raised their arms up in the air, swaying to the beat. The duo rhymed for close to an hour and the party rolled on well beyond closing time.

“This is what all Rashaad’s events are like,” said a salt-and-pepper-haired middle-aged man from North Carolina who claimed to have been one of Newsome's first customers. “I ask him sometimes: Are you a rapper or are you an artist? Because, you know, he did the music for all his videos.”

Four years ago, he said, he'd bought a collage that Newsome made of a hand holding a champagne bottle. The hand is Nicki Minaj’s hand, Newsome told him. Newsome's work has created a new avenue for making black culture commercially viable (while also offering an implicit commentary on that culture).

Newsome, dressed in a blue shirt (which by the end of the night was drenched with sweat) and bejeweled sneakers, walked through the crowd, smiled, and posed for pictures. At one point, the tightly packed crowd loomed dangerously close to his artworks on the wall, and he instructed the security people on hand to stand guard.

In the two collages on display, grilles with “Flava Flav” etched in them encircle a black woman’s hands, in a frame reminiscent of ancient heraldry. Heraldry, shields, armor, and other medieval iconography have long played a significant role in Newsome’s work. He creates a link between ostentatious medieval designs and the over-the-top totems of hip-hop culture: watches, diamonds, customized luxury cars, flashy sneakers, and gleaming teeth in gold, silver, platinum.

The video in this show, titled Swag the Mixtape, features a black woman wearing what looks like a gold-plated jumpsuit and large gold chains, miming amid a kaleidoscope of black arms and legs (cropped at the top of the hip to evoke a bit more sexuality) over a bass-line beat with a moody synth edge, some operatic bellowing, a guitar riff, a trumpet solo and rapping with lyrics like “Words are my weapon/ But I have a whole army for my protection.”

One of Newsome’s assistants had invited her sister, who was awestruck by Newsome's use of black imagery.

“It’s great how he can capture the culture in his art," she said. "The armor … there is an opulence to it that he associates with items in black culture.”

The connection between the art on the walls and the two rappers on the mike was undeniable. Pointing to A$AP Ferg and his shiny metal teeth she said, “I’m thinking, what are you—[Rashaad’s] muse?”