Jayson Musson: The Truth in the Song

Fleisher/Ollman Gallery

April 1–May 28, 2016

By Abby King

In 2011, the YouTube character Hennessy Youngman responded to questions about the authenticity of his wardrobe with a short clip. Hennessy looms large in the camera, speaking directly to the viewer in his usual baseball cap and casual tone in artist Jayson Musson’s series Art Thoughtz, where this satirical persona imparts wisdom to the “Internet” with one-liners and comical insights into the art world. In this video, Youngman retorts, “My shit is authentic…look at this shit, internet. It looks like someone puked dope shit on the floor.” The camera pans to a pile of Coogi sweaters. Five years later, that brightly patterned pile of fabric can be seen at Jayson Musson’s second exhibition of sweater paintings at Fleisher /Ollman.  As his alter ego’s states, he is the Coogi King.

The Truth in Song is Musson’s second body of the work at Fleisher/Ollman where Coogi sweaters are the medium of choice. Musson’s sewn works are a purposeful arrangement of color and pattern, rather than a haphazard fabric mound discarded across an apartment floor. Each of the twelve works in the exhibition are an amalgamation of these garish fashions from yesteryear. Musson collects these garments (now somewhat back in demand), takes them apart, and rearranges them to become abstract works, as close to paintings as 90’s fashion ever will be.

This textile’s immediate recognizability brings to mind the role of the Coogi sweater in hip-hop culture. Despite being an Australian company that changed its name to have a more aboriginal essence, the sweaters are linked to African American legends such as Biggie, Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion), and Drake. These are celebrities who embraced this large, loud, patterned garb and made the sweaters desirable objects to a new set of consumers. But the gallery’s press release rejects the notion that his works are simply interested in this cultural fashion statement:

“For Musson, Coogi sweaters are more about African-American nostalgia and cultural memory rather than homage to Notorious B.I.G. or a commercial garment brand. Coogi, long regarded as a status symbol within the African-American Hip-Hop community, has always been a white-owned company, first by Australians and then by Americans, and functions as yet another instance of the white power structure profiting off of the perceived desires of people of color.”

The Truth in Song is not just a tribute to these musical moguls. The artist is literally taking these cultural symbols apart, though they do not lose their Coogi recognizability.  Each fabric painting is nearly instantly recognizable as the colors of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Works like the titular piece, The Truth in Song, are more subtle waves of design. From afar the splotches of salmon read like tentacles or other kinds of organic limbs. Other pieces such as 777 are more noticeably Coogi with rainbow stripes of color throughout. These pieces in particular conjure up visions of “The Cosby Show,” even if much research and disclaimers have been made clarifying that the main character never wore them.

Instead of focusing on the disparate connection between Dr. Huxtable and artist’s work, the relationship to Musson’s own fictional character is worth noting. Unlike his satirical persona Hennessy Youngman, whose institutional critique performance overtly poked fun at the ridiculous expectations thrust upon artists of color, this work internalizes those needs. Rather than directly addressing identity politics within the subject or content of the paintings, Musson uses the sweater material to play this role. It reads like a quick-witted one-liner in these aesthetically subtle woven works.

Since this is a repeat move of Musson’s — The Truth In Song is his second full exhibition of sweater pieces — it is interesting to see how the work has evolved. There is a stronger embrace of the textile texture of the sweaters. Although many of the pieces resemble canvas in how they are stretched across their frames, several break the rectangle format and drape over the edge.  In Rosetta, the threads ooze off the frame and down the right side. The unfinished sprawl of the fabric off of the rigid painting format is a refreshing embrace of the medium at hand.

These moves are mainly contained to the smaller works, with the exception of the piece, World 1-1. In this earth toned, eight-foot-tall object, fabrics are overlayed on top of one another. A waterfall of torn blue fabric stems from the top of the piece. In these moments, the fabric itself plays more of a role rather than a delivery system. The ribbons act like unfinished sentences, poking fun at the other self contained worlds present in the exhibition. They are playful, at times awkward, and more earnest in their exploration of Musson’s unique material.

The Truth In Song is filled with beautiful moments. Taking in the exhibition as a whole, the collection of sewn work creates a vibrant experience. Rather than just being in dialogue with cultural consumption, the Coogi canvases seem more in conversation with abstract expressionism and other painting traditions. There is a clear division between the work Musson makes for museums vs. those shown in commercial spaces. His work shown at Fleisher/Ollman is distinctly different from his irreverent internet characters such as Hennessy Youngman and his  Bob Ross reincarnation, Franklin Vivray. These gallery works also have little in common with his most recent museum exhibition at the ICA, an absurdist three-hour video opera made with Alex DeCorta. The common thread among all of these projects can be some form of humour, the same can be said for the Coogi kaleidoscopes when considering the artist’s previous institutional critique. Knowledge of Musson’s comedic exploration of race and the art world via his alter-ego Hennessy Youngman show previous instances of a layered exploration of identity.  If the artist is interested in the trash of culture and the cyclical appropriation of different races, classes, and subcultures, then finding these overpriced emblems of consumption and transforming them into much more beautiful works of art is fitting. Selling them back into the same world of acquisition seems like his best joke yet.

Abby King is a mixed-media artist and museum educator based in Philadelphia.