City Paper is not for tourists
It is a testament to how flat D.C. is today—despite every swagger-jacking bar that the Hilton brothers roll out on U Street, every New York Times article announcing Washington’s arrival as a second city, the edgy art galleries moving to Northeast and wealthy art collectors moving to Southwest, or, through another lens, as a result of these market factors that both enrich and blanch the capital city—that a show about 1980s D.C. subculture can claim almost every aspect of that decade as part of the subcurrent. Everything about D.C. in the 1980s reads as subcultural in comparison with D.C. in the 2010s: go-gos, not condos; punk, not pork belly. Even when that impression is flat-out wrong, “Pump Me Up” strains to make it look right.
“Pump Me Up” is part anthropological dig, part oral history, and part hall of fame. The show is the work of curator Roger Gastman, the graffiti archivist who worked as a consulting producer for the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop and executive producer of the new documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan. (Washington City Paper is the show’s media sponsor.) The Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit is his second curatorial effort in two years: “Art in the Streets,” a survey of graffiti and fine art, opened in 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “Pump Me Up” hits closer to home for Gastman, a Bethesda native who contributed many of the best artifacts in the exhibit, including a staggering suite of go-go posters from the Globe Poster Printing Corporation that shine in the Corcoran’s rotunda.
But if the show’s highlights are Gastman’s contributions, so are its blind spots. While the show’s catalog mentions Harry Knorr, the graphic artist whose DayGlo inks and wood-type designs made Globe posters the preferred design house of go-go musicians, he’s ignored in the exhibit. Globe started getting its due from the art world well before the company shut its doors: John Waters created a Globe-style print that made the cover of Artforum back in 2004. Other outlets have showcased Globe’s famous showcards. “Pump Me Up” missed an opportunity to tell us about the man behind the type. Knorr’s influence on the 1980s D.C. aesthetic rivals that of Cool “Disco” Dan’s, but in Gastman’s personal cosmology, street-art writers trump other visual and graphic artists. That’s too bad. Some people say that D.C. painter (and Corcoran instructor) Tom Green, who died last year, played an unrecognized role in shaping the career of artist Keith Haring and in transforming street-art vernacular into a fine-art concern.
Green’s legend belongs in any story about 1980s D.C. subculture, but the focus of “Pump Me Up” lies elsewhere: the dueling banjos of go-go and hardcore, or the District in the 1980s more broadly construed, or some muddying of all these streams. The exhibit proceeds chronologically, from a brief gloss of the riots in 1968 and a mention of go-go in the 1970s to 1980, at which point the show provides a year-by-year accounting of the D.C. underground. The flow of album sleeves and show flyers is punctuated by archival material on pivotal moments in D.C. history, from the media frenzy following the 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller to the uproar surrounding the 1990 drug bust of then-Mayor Marion Barry. Crime and corruption aren’t “subculture” issues. It would be hard to pass over these events in any official retelling of Washington’s history.
In places, however, the show fails to provide necessary detail. It’s not clear whether the notorious Fuller murder took place in Northeast or Northwest, for example; that may seem like nitpicking, but knowing the home turf of the Eighth and H Crew—whose members were convicted of Fuller’s murder—stands to educate newcomers who may only know H Street NE as a nightlife playground for a young and largely white middle class. And, in 1984, it was not inconceivable that a brazen murder could happen at 8th and H streets NW, in the heart of a bleak, pre-Bed Bath & Beyond Chinatown.
“Pump Me Up” is on firmer ground with its look at the factors of life in D.C. that relate specifically to its subculture, such as crews and DIY, though the show dissects these regional qualities with scientific remove. “Crews are chiefly made up of black males from the same neighborhoods, but some have a female contingent as well,” some robotic wall text reads. “Pump Me Up” may be concerned with subculture, but it is not a piece of it.
The show’s chief failure is its absent voice—it lacks both swagger and gravitas. The crack epidemic gets played for cheap laughs, from a dumb Nancy Reagan–era “Just Say No” board game to a horrifying chalk outline (actually made with tape) of a dead body that greets Corcoran visitors near the entrance. The outline is too tasteless for words; it should be removed. A show that glosses the crack epidemic can’t ignore the AIDS epidemic, but “Pump Me Up” does. Gays and women appeared to play few significant roles in D.C.’s subculture, which would make it a unique one, if that were remotely true. Cynthia Connolly is one visual artist celebrated by “Pump Me Up,” but primarily for drawing the black-sheep cover for Minor Threat’s Out of Step and for co-editing the book Banned in D.C.—less so for her own photography.
Meanwhile, I suppose it’s cool to see original lyrics by Minor Threat framed and hanging like art. It’s fine for a curator to canonize Ian MacKaye and elevate his effects as relics, of course. But anyone who has given even a passing listen to the decades’ worth of songs that MacKaye has written knows that no one could wish less for lionization. This show also doesn’t take a rounded approach to its heroes even as it embraces them. An art-house band called Urban Verbs once played with The B-52s at the Corcoran, we understand from show flyers, but there’s nothing else about band member Robin Rose, one of the visual artists who pushed the art scene forward after the sunset of the Washington Color School heyday. Some of the people who captured local history get short shrift, too: “Pump Me Up” features concert photos of Bad Brains’ H.R. but misses an opportunity to tell us how local Pulitzer-winning photographer Lucian Perkins took those photos in the first place.
Parts of the Corcoran should have been rendered absolutely off-limits—in particular the Tyler Gallery’s hall of glass vitrines, where Rare Essence trumpeter Little Benny’s horn is on view alongside DJ Kool’s turntable, Chuck Brown’s leather jacket, and MacKaye’s skateboard. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame treatment doesn’t suit DIY.
The abundance of archival material works to reveal the ubiquity of D.C. graffiti, the straightforward stuff of “Cool Ass Lisa of the World” or “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan.” The text-heavy style was subsumed by the more graphical graffiti coming out of New York less than a decade after the D.C. style was born, and “Pump Me Up” shows how this evolution happened in D.C. with the baroque street-writing of SEVEN and HOA (Hoodz of Art, a crew consisting of SER, REK, and GRIZ). Eventually, some enterprising curator will trace the lineage from Cool “Disco” Dan to SEVEN to Borf and beyond—right up to the moment when corporations got into the game, and bored Corcoran kids put down Krylon paint for Adobe Illustrator.
It’s less clear what history “Pump Me Up” is supposed to track. It’s a sure corrective to anyone who’s read with sincere interest a trend story about how the District’s small stakes have been replaced by small plates. And it’s something of a dedication to fans of go-go and fans of hardcore, who may have once lived in parallel Districts of Columbia but now find themselves living increasingly in a shared past. At its lowest, “Pump Me Up” feels like an invitation to District gentrifiers to participate in the culture that they have displaced—its crack and crews and ’core, all safely behind museum doors. None of those conclusions is fair or complete. The same could be said of “Pump Me Up.”