Rashaad Newsome’s ecstatic collages draw as much from art-historical references as they do from cultural models far outside the academic canon. They are rambunctious and unapologetically decorative, though no less challenging for that. Allusions are cleverly hidden throughout his work, often jumping from one image and reappearing in another in a more or less literal form. As such, in Newsome’s visual sampling and remixing, one is just as likely to see classical sculpture and contemporary jewelry as bits of shampoo advertisements and hip hop stars. This month the artist debuted “Status Symbol,” a group of works from the past four years, at Galerie Agnès Monplaisir in Paris.
Power and Periphery (Jerusalem), a collage from 2012, is an excellent example of Newsome’s ability to seamlessly blend imagery. The image’s central focus is spare, with a single, purple, blown-glass bead in the shape of a honey dipper, attended to by a dragonfly brooch. But the border of the picture is crowded with other images, including jewelry, exposed body parts from skin magazines, gold-plated teeth behind sneering lips, and at the top, a complex Baroque filigree of bracelets and pearls. In the center of that topmost design is a cameo reproduction of the famous Hellenistic sculpture Laocoön and His Sons (1st century A.D.), depicting a Greek priest being dragged into the underworld by a massive serpent. Another collage, The Royal Jump Off (2012) mimics that sculpture more subtly, the snake replaced by a chain necklace decorated with rhinestones, pieced-together women’s legs, rears, and arms seemingly writhing against gold handbags and adornments that swirl and twist around them.
Newsome’s interest in dance moves beyond imagery as well. In the past he has choreographed dance performances and shown video works that correspond to time-based realizations of his collages. In addition to dance, especially Vogueing, Newsome has asserted a keen interest in heraldic imagery and coats of arms. “A coat of arms is really a collage of objects that represent social status and economic status and status as a warrior, so they’re kind of like portraits without using the figure,” he has said. Such a reference is especially clear in Escutcheon (2013), named for heraldic shields. Surrounded by bangles with pearls, gold, and platinum, the arms and legs of an athletic black man stand rigid and strong in the center of a swirling yellow spiral. The sexual desirousness of the figure is crowned by an ornate, star-shaped rhinestone broach, resplendent in regal purple.
Like artists such as the painter Kehinde Wiley, Newsome shares a voice not often heard in the art world: that of a queer black man. There is passionate beauty in his expression—equal parts ornate decoration and conceptual, formalist rigor, such that what he is saying is just as beautiful as the way he says it.
“Status Symbol” is on view at Galerie Agnès Monplaisir, Paris, Nov. 21, 2014–Jan. 17, 2015.