Critics’ Picks

Raashad Newsome, Shade Compositions, 2009, still from a color video, 21 minutes 3 seconds.

Raashad Newsome, Shade Compositions, 2009, still from a color video, 21 minutes 3 seconds.


Rashaad Newsome

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
600 Main Street
February 3–May 1, 2011

Oddly at home in downtown Hartford’s turreted castle-cum-museum, Rashaad Newsome’s videos, collages, and sculptural objects in the Atheneum’s latest MATRIX exhibition tessellate black street-culture signifiers with Rococo regalia and classical music. An analogy between heraldry and hip-hop (think allegiances, prestige, occasional peacocking) confects the iced-out, fur-weft escutcheons Fess and Bend, both 2010. Glossy cut-out images of bijoux, champagne, LVMH loot, and the like compose paper coats of arms, sometimes mounted on white with a generous border, recalling pinned butterflies, per Status Symbols #35, #37, and #40, all 2010. Other crests land on backgrounds flooded by pearls or chrome rims. Amid such mazes of commodified desire, the tiny mouth flashing diamond grills in Bo$$, 2010, and the curlicue-like hands in Duke of Nola, 2011, look funny, fussy, and lost.

Hands span the politics of Newsome’s work. The Conductor, 2005–2009, scores remixed tracks from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, 1935–36, to music-video shots of rappers’ hands as they jab, dap, nudge records, grip bottles, slam aloft to a beat, or flutter like a conjurer’s hands. Whether RZA’s taunts or Nelly’s come-hithers, all this chironomia has palpable force, and watching the thumping compendium can be addictive. The work is captivated by, and captures, such force, but seems equally interested in what farther-reaching powers these gestures might seek to wield.

In the filmed performance Shade Compositions, 2009, Newsome turns conductor: With flung snaps and attitudes akimbo, a black female ensemble onstage syncopates utterances like “Uh-huh,” “Excuse!?” “Mmmm . . . ,” “Girrrrl!,” and “Rrrreally?” for gummy breakbeats that both command and groove, at play between shibboleths and consumable clichés. “Some of these sounds I haven’t done in a while,” hesitates one auditioner in Shade Compositions (Screen Tests 2), 2009; “I sound like a horse!” laughs another. Tenderly ethnographic, these works contemplate the artful and awkward maneuvers among owning, borrowing, and belonging, in a cultural landscape hardly “post-racial.”