How Video Made an Art World Star

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Electronic Arts Intermix
Electronic Arts Intermix

There is nothing virtuosic about 32-year-old artist Kalup Linzy's videos.

The lighting is harsh, the editing perfunctory, the costumes, at times, haphazard. The style is best described as a pastiche of public access television, YouTube, daytime soap operas, hip-hop and Web pornography. To the average person, the videos would be better described as America's Funniest Home Videos crossed with Liam Sullivan (of Shoes fame), layered with a generous helping of Lil' Kim.

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With this unusual combination, Kalup Linzy transitioned from being one among a group of emerging black artists, to being the standout star in quick and dramatic fashion.

After a procession of accolades and increasingly prestigious showings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Rubell Family Collection, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris and PS1 Contemporary Art Center, last month the Studio Museum in Harlem honored the artist by opening Kalup Linzy: If it Don't Fit, a retrospective of the first seven years of his artistic career.

"We thought it was a really healthy time to mount a retrospective of Linzy's work because he has just finished his album [Sweetberry Sonnet]," explains curator Naomi Beckwith, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Thomas Lax.

Lax added that "as we were organizing the show, we realized that the amount and breadth of his work really demanded [the kind of] attention" afforded by a retrospective.

Kalup Linzy's recent art-world ascension comes as a surprise because he came through neither the New York art world nor Ivy League MFA programs. Linzy's personal trajectory began way down south in Stuckey, Fla., a small town west of Orlando. After high school, he headed to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida where he received a BFA in 2001 and an MFA in 2003. Shortly after graduating, Linzy gathered up his artistic oeuvre. Armed with raw talent and a small collection of contacts made during a summer spent at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine, he set out for New York.

In 2004, Linzy took part in PS1's International Studio Program, where Christine Y. Kim, then-associate curator at the Studio Museum, discovered his work and immediately included him in two group shows. New York Times critic Holland Cotter foretold Linzy's meteoric rise way back in 2005, when he opened a review of Linzy's first solo exhibition at Taxter & Spengemann with the syrupy exclamation: "A star is born!"

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In 2007, New York magazine anointed him a "Young Master," and the Guggenheim gave him a fellowship. Then, in 2008, the Museum of Modern Art collected not one, but four of his works.

The Studio Museum exhibition features a three-hour-long screening program, broken into collections grouped around major themes of Linzy's work. In total, the museum is screening 22 of his videos.

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Linzy's first two videos: Ramone Calls Julietta and Ramone Calls Julietta Again: Booty Call, both made in 2002, open the show. Shot in black and white, the works unromantically depict Ramone masturbating to the sound of Julietta's voice and then their subsequent tearful break-up conversation. Ramone Calls Julietta is quickly followed by by Keys to My Heart (2008), a short black and white film commissioned for Prospect.1 New Orleans. Shot entirely in the Big Easy and set in an ambiguous pre-war period, the piece tells a convoluted story about interracial and lesbian love between two black vixens, a naïve Southern belle and a Southern dandy.

The bulk of the program, however, is devoted to two of Linzy's serial works: the soap opera, Conversations Wit de Churen II-IV, and 7 of the 10 music videos that comprise his 2008 album, Sweetberry Sonnet.

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With titles such as All My Churen, Da Young & Da Mess and As da Art World Might Turn, Conversations Wit de Churen parodies the low-production quality and melodramatic plotlines of daytime television and uses the format to explore issues of violence, drag, queer sexuality and young artists trying to make it in the professional art world.

The music videos, shot mostly in a studio, represent a marked departure from Linzy's earlier DIY aesthetic. Songs such as Asshole, Chewing Gum and Edge of My Couch—all of which Linzy also performs live under his stage name, Taiwan—are absurdist R&B songs with pointed lyrics such as:

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Our hearts grew fonder, and then he wandered. He left me alone over yonder.

Chorus: Asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole, asshole.

Why did you do this to me?

Therein lies Linzy's genius: his ability to wholly inhabit a persona, while not looking the part at all. This form of mimicry—or minstrelsy—asks us to reflect on the literal machinations of celebrity, masculinity and sexuality. Kalup Linzy and his gaggle of bumbling, high-pitched, queer progeny rely on their leotards, digitally manipulated voices and subtle body language to be who they are.

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Kalup Linzy: If it Don't Fit is on display at the Studio Museum in Harlem through June 28, 2009. The artist will give an acoustic performance at the museum on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 7 p.m.

Adda Birnir is a writer, artist, and web producer based in New York.

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