Rappers like to claim the tropes of hos, drugs, fame, and violent gun death, but the original gangsta was straight R&B. Sinful indulgence of the flesh and the price paid for it reigns supreme at Trouble Man, a 28-piece collection of mixed-media art installations paying homage to the legend of Marvin Gaye this month at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland.
"His life was something out of a True Hollywood story," says Oakland artist Keba Konte, who helped organize the collection of fourteen black artists known as Soul Salon 10 for the exhibit. "Some people I tell about this exhibit only know Marvin from 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' and they come with a certain notion. Other people know the whole story. When I tell them what I'm doing, they're like, 'Oh.'"
The other Marvin, as gleaned from the cut-up narrative presented in the installations, was the coke-fiend, pussy-hound son of a megalomaniacal, hypocrite preacher. Reverend Dad also liked to wear women's clothes and was jealous of his son's success. Gaye and his demons rose together from obscure church choir roots to superstardom. His dad shot him in the heart and chest with a .38 on a Sunday morning after church, presumably over Gaye's drug addictions.
The copy of Gaye's death certificate in Trouble Man states that he died at 1 p.m. on April 1, 1984, one day before his birthday. The show's reception was held April 2 on what would've been Gaye's 66th. Konte says Gaye's story resonates with him and other African Americans, especially since his own father looked like Marvin and died the same year.
The most evocative work focuses on the more potent tropes of the Gaye tale. Konte's mixed-media Bible Stories references contemporary crusaders with an eighty-inch-square wood panel of New Testaments, Books of Mormon, and other religious texts studded with shiny bullet casings. The shells arc over the books in sweeping patterns derived from an inscrutable photo transfer. The dull, heterogeneous texts clash nicely with the glimmering gold casings. "I gave you life," one book's cover says. "I can take it away," says another.
Behind Konte's work, installation artist April Banks confronts more mixed messages with eXXXplicit: Gay(e)'s Paradox. Banks sews delicate bible pages into a hefty twenty-square-foot tapestry reading from Genesis through Revelation. The tapestry hangs before an eight-foot church pew stained black, stenciled with the phrase "Sexual Healing" and carved with biblical sayings. Banks situates her pew in two hundred pounds of fake cocaine and fills the sky with one hundred origami birds folded from porno magazines. Flashes of labia, shafts, sodomy, and reverse rodeos spin and sway in the air-conditioned breeze.
It's not all boobs and bullets, though. Oakland sculptor eesuu's Sexual Healer is a calm, smooth, curvilinear black female form in soapstone that mixes the ancient angles of sub-Saharan Shona sculpture with the flowing lines of Oakland street graffiti, garnished with G-strings and lacy numbers. Brian Walker aims down the middle with the requisite ten-by-four-foot portrait Mr. Gaye done in black and brown. Broad strokes fuse at a distance to capture the singer with his eyes closed and head slightly downturned in prayer. Three crosses shoot out from the top of the work, which sits where the altar might in this twenty-foot-tall, vaulted-ceilinged, churchlike space. Heavy-handed, but fun.
On a more sublime tip, Rosalind McGary's Trouble Woman is 53 by 52 inches of intricate painting in acrylic and sumi ink on paper. McCarthy uses thousands of near-invisible ink lines in the Trouble Woman's black hair and crosshatched skin, then works up her Black Panther dress with precise, pointillistic dots of acrylic. The beaded '70s outfit manages to hug the luscious curves of the two-dimensional figure.
Equally fun, Kaya Fortune muses on all the love and joy Gaye brought to the world with Listen Here, a supersized ghetto blaster lined with speakers pumping out Gaye classics that fills the whole room. Fortune sexes up the boombox with bright paint and countless seashells, Christmas lights, bells, musical instruments, party pictures, flowers, and champagne and glasses. Strains of Gaye doing a live version of the American national anthem remind listeners of his chops.
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