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Solo exhibition of work by Rashaad Newsome opens at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Rashaad Newsome, ICON (video still), 2014. Single-channel video with sound, 09:21 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and De Buck Gallery, NY.

MADISON, WI.- The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art presents a solo exhibition of work by Rashaad Newsome, a New York-based artist whose multidisciplinary practice combines collage, video, music, computer programming, sculpture, and performance. Rashaad Newsome: ICON focuses on a selection of the artist’s performative videos that honor and celebrate the origins and continued dynamism of Vogue, a dance phenomenon that emerged from Harlem’s queer ballroom scene. The exhibition includes two of Newsome’s earlier video works, both of which stand out as silent and poetic meditations on the human form in motion, in addition to his more recent pieces that merge dance, sound, and image into exuberant expressions of cultural agency.

Rashaad Newsome: ICON opens to the public on Saturday, August 12, and will be on view in MMoCA’s Imprint Gallery through Sunday, December 3.

Paying homage to the creative and cultural productions of LGBTQ and gendernonconforming Black and Latino Americans, Newsome’s works on video bring queer communities of color from the Vogue scene into the institutional space. “He gives prominence to individuals who are underrepresented within the artistic cannon, and thus fills a critical void that exists within many museums,” states MMoCA curator of exhibitions Leah Kolb. His practice results in works of art that question the dynamics of institutional power and cultural appropriation, while simultaneously using the gesture of collage to merge varied artistic disciplines.

Newsome’s two silent videos, Untitled (2008) and Untitled (New Way) (2009), play on a monitor directly outside of the Imprint Gallery. In Untitled, Vogue dancer Shane Oliver freestyles for the camera against a minimalist backdrop, within a small, empty space. The tight framing focuses the viewer’s attention on the hypnotic rhythm of Oliver’s movements, while the white box setting presents the performance of Vogue, long considered a vernacular dance style, as a legitimate art form. Newsome created the video by filming Oliver’s improvisations, editing the footage into a new sequence of movements, and then recording the dancer performing the new, spliced-together choreography. Employing his camera as a tool to choreograph, Newsome engages in a digital approach to collage that adds layers of meaning to the cinematic process and the performative result. The five elements that comprise the language of Vogue—hand performance, catwalk, duckwalk, floor routine, and spin dips—are thus transformed into a series of abstract movements. The artist, who poetically describes these two videos as line drawings, states “the dancers act as my pen, creating lines, shapes, landscapes, and an array of narratives.”

If these earlier works are minimalist abstractions of bodies in motion, Newsome’s more recent videos read as maximalist collages saturated with myriad artistic and cultural references. In ICON (2014), the artist created a digital backdrop based on the unusual architecture of Lincoln Cathedral’s choir vaults, but rendered the structural lines as Cuban link chain, a kind of jewelry associated with urban hip-hop style. Voguers dance within, around, and on top of the three-dimensional environment, moving their bodies to a pulsating, rhythmic beat. A spectacular fury of sound, movement, and image, ICON draws viewers into a sensorial vortex, but simultaneously asks us to critically consider how representations in media and popular culture communicate distorted notions of power and status.

Newsome takes this inquiry even further with Stop Playing in My Face! (2016), a fourminute film featuring Leiomy Maldonado’s frenzied Vogue Femme performance atop a tower floating in space. Paired with an original score Newsome created in collaboration with L.A.-based DJ and producer Hitmakerchinx, the video also includes voiceover clips from feminist author bell hooks, trans-activist Janet Mock, and social media celebrity Samantha James, among others. Although not always in agreement, each voice offers a distinct perspective on feminism and how different bodies access agency in the world. Critiquing the ways in which race, class, gender, sexuality, and culture are manipulated and co-opted within popular culture to perpetuate systems of oppression, Newsome reinvigorates those same images and cultural practices—particularly voguing—as a means to understand the politics of difference and the complexities of appropriation.

The origins of voguing is tied to the Black and Latino ballroom circuit that developed during the 1960s in New York, within which drag queens created their own performative language comprised of elaborate hand gestures and poses. While the balls offered queer people of color a safe space to express themselves freely, Vogue provided the essential means to construct and communicate that sense of self through body language. As the ballroom scene became more inclusive and representative of a wide range of LGBTQ personas and identities throughout the 1970s and 80s, the highly artistic dance style evolved into a physically demanding and stylistically nuanced series of movements—a performance of identity and status that played out between different “houses” in dancehall competitions.

Although voguing embodies a rich cultural history, it entered the American mainstream in 1990 through Madonna’s iconic music video “Vogue.” In this notorious instance of cultural appropriation, Madonna took the very specific artistic byproduct of generations of disenfranchised LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming Black and Latino Americans and completely erased the context. Newsome’s video work can be understood, in part, as a response to this decontextualized, neutralized, re-gendered pop culture version of Vogue; a version that manipulated the bodies, experiences, and voices of those individuals for whom voguing represented a genuine assertion of agency and identity. The works included in the exhibition Rashaad Newsome: ICON showcase the artist’s longstanding collaboration with the contemporary ballroom Vogue community while simultaneously paying homage to Vogue as a culture with its own deep and complex history.

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