More than an exhibition, “Pump Me Up” is a 30-year-old time capsule, opened to reveal the great cultural gifts that built the foundation of contemporary Washington as well as the Pandora’s box of troubles that, for a few years, contributed equally to the city’s legacy. The good and the bad — but mostly the good — are what make the Corcoran’s tribute to the era of go-go, graffiti and hardcore punk a nostalgic look back, from Bad Brains to “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry’s famous hotel-room exclamation.
The show’s examination of the District’s subcultures of the 1980s is more art than artifact, in the strictest sense of the definition. The items selected by curator Roger Gastman — many from his personal collection, others sourced from participants of the era — were chosen for their DIY design aesthetic and visual appeal as well as their historical significance. “Pump Me Up” is a straight timeline, paralleling the progression of predominantly black go-go with predominantly white hardcore, as graffiti, current events of the era and the occasional punk-funk concert link the two. Photographs by Derek Ridgers, Glen Friedman and other pros accompany album covers, posters and salvaged street art.
Many of the visual artists in the show never thought of themselves as such. Early go-go graffiti writers painted their alliterative names on the wall to gain notoriety in the music scene, and, in contrast to later graffiti styles, their work was plain and perfectly legible. The names sound sweetly quaint now: “Whassup Woody.” “Crazy Charlie.” “Wild Warren.” Only Cool “Disco” Dan, one of Washington’s most prolific graffiti writers, considered himself an artist — but he’s a small part of the timeline. (His story is further explored in the show’s companion documentary, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” which screens this weekend at AFI Silver).
A Washington-centric show such as “Pump Me Up” is rare. Just as the exhibition sheds light on “real” Washington at the expense of official Washington, the art world in the District is divided between the local gallery scene with its homegrown artists and the moneyed museum scene, which imports shows from New York and abroad. Beyond the Washington Color School and its affiliated stars who have earned solo shows, Washington artists aren’t often the featured exhibit in local museums.
But even though “Pump Me Up” is a major recognition, the show isn’t necessarily throwing the local art scene a bone. It’s more connected to the music scene, really, and the featured artists — graffiti writers and street artists — operate outside the mainstream art community by definition, which makes it all the more imperative to handle their ascent to the gallery walls with care.
Most of the show wraps around the museum’s ground-floor atrium and cafe, as well as the hallway to the Corcoran’s restrooms, which gives the display an unfinished feel. Bringing street art into a museum necessarily diminishes it, and the Corcoran’s curator of contemporary art, Sarah Newman, said she felt that hanging it deeper in the Corcoran would remove it too far from how it was intended to be seen.