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Columbia Spectator Staff

Back home in Hawaii, rap culture is more of a remote abstraction than a cultural phenomenon. It conveys social distinction to wear the garb or listen to the music (we do have MTV there, after all). break But with relatively low rates of violent crime, and relatively high standards of living in most counties, lyrics about life in the inner city are more apt to conjure exaggerated images of films like Notorious or TV shows like The Wire than to speak to the true first-hand experiences of local listeners. Russian-born painter Alex Melamid was equally alien to the culture that gave rise to American hip-hop, but a lifetime spent scrutinizing the personality cults responsible for sustaining Soviet leaders' incredible, unchecked feats of ego gave him sound grounding to tackle his latest subjects—the czars of the rap industry. Melamid first gained notoriety working with artist Vitaly Komar to pioneer a subversive blend of Pop Art and Socialist Realism—a genre endorsed by Stalin to depict select "social concerns" and promote a Communist agenda—which was christened "Sots Art." Together, the duo freely satirized state propaganda, and was met in turn with open hostility from the Russian government and Soviet critics. While Melamid no longer collaborates with his erstwhile partner, he has continued to paint, moving from the stylization characteristic of his Sots Art days toward a much more classical, old master aesthetic. It is with such Rembrandt-esque realism that the works of "Holy Hip-Hop!," the newest exhibition at Forum Gallery, have been rendered. Clad in bling and full street regalia, the life-size figures of 12 eminent rap moguls pose in front of a flat, stark backgrounds. This has led some reviewers to draw comparisons to the high-contrast African-American portraits of Barkley L. Hendricks (though it should not be overlooked that the realism of Melamid's work contributes a compelling immediacy not present with Hendricks). Among Melamid's subjects—among them, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Common, Kanye West, and Lil Jon—not one looks unconvinced of deserving his place among the wealthiest and most influential individuals of our time. Despite the relaxed air with which each presents himself, it is plain that these are serious, ambitious players. As novelist Francine Prose described the exhibition, "Melamid's subjects seem aware, on an almost cellular level, of their master-of-the-universe power and impeccable social standing." Unlike the work of Kehinde Wiley, in which the deification of rap culture is explicit and unequivocal, there is a certain ambiguity about Melamid's project. It is unclear whether the artist means for us to appreciate these works as straightforward glory portraits of rap royalty or whether we are meant to detect an element of kitsch in them, seizing upon the clash of high and pop culture and ask if Melamid is mocking something about the way rappers self-mythologize. Melamid, who described his motivation by remarking "I thought it would be interesting," leaves such interpretation, either for good or ill, entirely up to us. "Holy Hip-Hop!" runs until March 14. Forum Gallery is located at 745 Fifth Ave. (off of 58th Street) and is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Lorraine White is a Columbia College junior majoring in French and economics. Gallerease runs alternate Wednesdays. arts@columbiaspectator.com

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