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In Troy Lamarr Chew II’s Paintings, a Multilayered Tribute to Hip-Hop

The paintings that make up “The Roof is on Fire” continue in this vein. In the first months of lockdown, Chew was completing an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito. “[The pandemic] didn’t feel real then, not like it would later. We were bumping music all the time, chilling,” he says. Once he left that safe communal environment, however, the gravity of the situation sunk in, and Chew greatly missed the feeling of losing himself in movement with another or with an entire crowd. In place of that, there was TikTok, a paltry substitute. And it wasn’t lost on Chew that most of the moves popular on TikTok were created by young Black dancers and then appropriated by white ones.

Once he’d decided to explore specific dances on the canvas, he made a point of including, along with some current crazes like the Renegade, created by Jalaiah Harmon, and the Savage, created by Keara “Keke” Wilson, older moves that have yet to be co-opted by the cyberspace mainstream: dances like the Tootsie Roll, which dates to the 69 Boys’ 1993 track of the same name, and the Milly Rock, named in a 2011 song by Terrance “2 Milly” Ferguson. Also included in Chew’s mix are, to name just a few more, the Mop, the SpongeBob, the Whip, the Humpty, the Hammer Time, the Chicken Noodle Soup, the Robot, the Butterfly, the Tom & Jerry, the Snake and the Sprinkler.

Chew is unconcerned that the paintings take time and effort to figure out. “Once I got to grad school, I stopped spelling stuff out so much,” he says. “If you really want to know, you’ll go search for it.” He continues, “That’s what I noticed about fine art, or art that is memorable. It just is what it is and if you want to know more, you go and do that.” In other words, if you know, you know. And Chew will continue figuring things out for himself, too — he plans to explore vernacular from other parts of California and, eventually, other parts of the country. “I always refer to myself as a kind of rapper in my head, because I’m playing with words,” he says. “Rappers are like Picasso with their words. I feel like I’m the reverse: I’m Jay-Z with a paintbrush.”

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