The paintings of iona rozeal brown arrive hooting and thumping and talking 'bout a revolution. The title of her latest show at G Fine Art, "a3 the revolution: televised, terrorized, sexualized," announces Big Ideas at Work. We've come to expect such things: Her recent and meteoric rise in the contemporary art world was fueled by a series of paintings depicting a cultural cross-pollination between Asian youth and African American hip-hop.
Those "a3 blackface" paintings began appearing around 2002 (brown's works function under an umbrella term of her own devising: "a3," which stands for "afro-asiatic allegory").
Modeling those works on Japanese Edo-era woodblock prints, brown turned geishas into go-go girls with afros and track suits and dark brown makeup. Her influence was the real-life Japanese subculture of ganguro, kids who mimic African Americans as an act of rebellion and badge of hipness. The resulting pictures bewilder and intrigue by subtly melding cultures.
Her latest suite of work takes those themes to greater extremes and, through a magnificent confluence of good luck and hype, to a greater number of viewers. At G, and in most all the shows brown has participated in this year -- group events in Atlanta and Boston, solos at Spelman College, Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum and in Chelsea last month -- the Asian themes, though still a strong influence on her imagery, have largely given way to parables of hip-hop and attendant consumerism. The new pieces find brown in a bit of muddle: They are much bigger, stylistically louder and packed with conflicting and confusing messages.
At G, brown's show toasts so many causes -- hip-hop is everywhere, as are flashy jewelry and other trappings of large bank accounts and high-style spending, but so too are references to communism and destitution, degradation and pimps -- that the revolution of the show's title isn't one you'd know whether to champion or trample.
A visual quote of a Mao-era Cultural Revolution poster opens the show. Instead of the former Chinese leader and his followers, the poster is peopled by what looks like an updated portrait of Fat Albert and the gang. Guys in track suits and with diamond-studded teeth are drawn in simple lines and feature even simpler expressions. The central figure, a man with an upraised arm, wears the flag of Sierra Leone across his chest -- the country that mines all the bling he and his ilk favor. "Bling is the white sun in our hearts" reads the graffiti-like text at bottom. Thing is, this guy and some of his pals are missing fingers -- digits likely lost in unsavory circumstances.
The assembled manpower, neither fierce nor fearsome, is a gang of inept, self-satisfied poseurs. If these guys are the revolutionaries, I don't recommend showing up. Which makes me think brown is saying that hip-hop hyper-consumerism renders its participants impotent. Or maybe that the relentless quest for possessions is as conformist as Mao-mandated abstinence?
I dunno. Whatever conclusions you draw from that first piece will probably be contradicted later on, since the bling couldn't shine brighter in the rest of brown's pictures. So many of the show's paintings are grand monuments to consumption starring jewels and chains and watches and high-priced boots, all on prominent display. Brown likes to collage in pictures of jewelry she's clipped from magazines, like a little girl cutting out dreamed-for baubles.
Again and again in these pictures, brown delights in all things bling, in the sexual power of the purchase, in a woman's right to shoes. Products are the centerpiece of so many works here -- the fur-trimmed boots, the pear-shaped diamonds, the bottles of Hpnotiq (a cloying liqueur marketed at upwardly mobile young women). If this is supposed to be a cautionary tale, which that first Maoesque picture hints at, then by all accounts the lady doth protest too much.
Brown clearly wants to celebrate hip-hop culture -- there's a gleeful energy to some of the ghetto geishas, what with their sexual power and their freedom from want. The artist even goes so far as to use hip-hop as the good force of westernization in a pair of clumsy pictures on view in the gallery's project room. From the series "liberation of a b-girl repping the east," the paintings show burqa-clad women making funky hand jives the way rappers might. Yet this is no show of mad skilz -- for the ladies or for brown, who surely should have recognized that her renderings of women draped in cloth aren't very exciting to look at. These ladies look like trick-or-treaters hitting the dance floor.
Yet brown also introduces elements far more critical of the high life. Meet the newest members of her picture-making vocabulary: the w.o.i.m.s. The acronym, unlikely to lilt off the tongue unless you're a resident of Canarsie, stands for "weapons of incoherent mass spending." As a satirical joust at recent political issues, the joke is as flimsy as the acronym is clumsy. Visually, they've even more awkward.
Brown's w.o.i.m.s. resemble worms, or maggots. They have no eyes, just greedy mouths desperate for orthodontia. Brown has painted a small troupe of them in a four-panel burlesque where they attempt to tip over and drink a bottle of Hpnotiq, which towers over them like a 10-story building. Weapons? Hardly. These little creatures are as effectual as slugs.
The artist also likes to place her w.o.i.m.s. in pictures alongside the blackface geishas. As the ladies smoke blunts and quaff liquor, the w.o.i.m.s. celebrate their corruption like little devilish cheerleaders perched on their shoulders. Though it's unclear whether the ladies can see the worms or they're just meant to symbolize corruption, the little maggots seem wholly out of place in these painting, like Mickey Mouse stepping into a Monet.
The w.o.i.m.s. make a neat shorthand for the way brown has gone astray -- overeager, out of place and not properly thought through, they might be a symptom of the artist's popularity. For now, brown needs to stop and think before she makes.
iona rozeal brown at G Fine Art, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-462-1601, to Dec. 4.