Exhibit of the week
Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder
Red Bull Arts New York, through Aug. 26
The New Yorker who called himself Rammellzee was a mythic figure, said Nicole Rudick in TheParisReview.com. “Easily one of the most unique and most overlooked artists of the past 50 years,” the onetime graffiti artist, sometime rapper, and lifelong urban mystic developed a complex personal cosmology that shaped everything he did. The Beastie Boys and Jim Jarmusch were fans. In 1983, he recorded a now legendary rap single with Jean-Michel Basquiat at the control board. Around the same time, he became one of the first subway taggers to make the leap to selling in galleries. But until I walked into the largest Rammellzee retrospective yet, now showing at Red Bull’s gallery in Chelsea, “I hadn’t realized the extent of his genius.” More than a product of his time, he was a true visionary.
So visionary that even many of those who admired him didn’t know what to make of him, said Siddhartha Mitter in VillageVoice.com. Born in 1960 and raised by his African-American mother in a public housing project in Far Rockaway, Queens, he started tagging at 14, adopted his Rammellzee alias at 19, and held secret his birth name for the rest of his life. Early on, he participated in graffiti’s shift from simply the scribbling of an alias on every wall or train to a wild, colorful explosion of distorted, often illegible letters. “For him, this was not just art but ideology”: He believed liberating letters from the shackles of the dominant culture’s language could be a means of achieving social revolution. In the early ’90s, following his first gallery sales, he began a sculpture series, “Letter Racers,” in which each letter of the alphabet was represented by an assemblage of found objects—street junk—atop skateboards or roller skates. Hung from the ceiling at the Red Bull gallery, they resemble “a vengeful armada,” ready to fight for their own freedom.
His “most remarkable” works fill the gallery’s first floor, said Hua Hsu in The New Yorker. While living in Tribeca in the ’90s in a large loft space he called the Battle Station, Ramm started turning street detritus into full-body suits of armor, which he’d wear almost whenever he stepped out. He called them Garbage Gods, and standing together now, they “look like junkyard Transformers doing samurai cosplay.” Their creator died at 49, his life apparently shortened by drinking and his years of exposure to epoxy fumes. Seeing his work today, with its meticulous attention to detail, you understand why he identified with the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts and how the far-flung theories he embraced made sense as a survival strategy in a city being remade by wealth. Though he didn’t get rich himself, “this is where Ramm wanted to live—at the edge of comprehensibility, but in a way that invited others to wonder.”
Keetja Allard/courtesy of Red Bull Arts New York ■