What you see, on the white wall, are elegant sweeping marks, a script you can't quite make out or have forgotten to learn. What the artist hears is music. His name is Marquis Lewis, better known as Retna, one of the most successful street artists in the world. And when he paints — murals, for instance, now displayed in the Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations — it is to a soundtrack: a single song, played over and over.
"Usually I do a specific song for each piece," he says, "and then I make it the anthem for that piece. I have to play the same song on repeat to stay in the same zone in order to paint faster."
"I have to say that Retna has an amazing ear for music," says Marsea Goldberg, Retna's gallerist. "Every time I'm here" — in his studio in Los Angeles, from which the two are speaking by phone — "I hear something fabulous that I've never heard before."
Even, lately, opera.
The 38-year-old artist's work is an amalgam of graffiti, blackletter, hieroglyphics, Roman lettering and Hebrew script. It dances on the boundary between written communication and abstract art, commercialism and high art, a strong decorative statement of coded messages that you, as a passing viewer, will never understand. It's at once edgy and slick. An iconography that began as graffiti on the streets of Los Angeles when the artist was a teenager has evolved over his career into an elegant font that has adorned the walls of a Chanel boutique, sneakers, album covers (including for Justin Bieber), even the tail of a corporate jet. And now, Retna is at the Kennedy Center, not only with the murals (on display through Sept. 24), but with the sets for the Washington National Opera's new "Aida," which opens Sept. 9.
"I think it's great that artists are reaching the masses," says Goldberg— finessing the fact that by reaching out to an artist like Retna, the Washington National Opera and San Francisco Opera, which originated the "Aida" production last fall, think they're the ones reaching out to a wider audience. Everyone wants to break out of his niche.
It's hardly a new idea for trendy artists to design opera productions: Think Marc Chagall, think David Hockney, think William Kentridge, who, after years as an art-world star, has become a sought-after opera director with works such as the Metropolitan Opera's recent "Lulu." Tom Ford has designed costumes for the Santa Fe Opera; the Swiss architects Herzog and De Meuron created sets for an "Attila" at the Met, with costumes by Miuccia Prada that everyone hated but me. Opera, after all, exists at the intersection of the visual and the aural, of creativity and high society — a place that an artist like Retna, who happily and fluidly moves between worlds, is happy to occupy.
Furthermore, Retna (the name was adopted from the song "Heaterz" by the Wu Tang Clan) has as much of an authentic connection to Egypt as Giuseppe Verdi did, if not a greater one: Egyptian hieroglyphics are one of the marked influences on his unique alphabet. Indeed, to accompany the San Francisco rollout of his "Aida" production, Retna was invited to paint the walls of an exhibition at the Legion of Honor in that city displaying two mummies and their histories.
"I was able to paint a text; I created a piece inside that room," he says, "and then Renee [Dreyfus, the curator] was breaking down my lettering. I've been doing this for years, but she was coming in [and explaining], 'This is this, and this symbolizes that.' That was dope."
Dope, indeed, to have a specialist in ancient symbols effectively confirm the legitimacy of your own.
But for all of the artist's links to music and Egypt, approaching opera was, he says, intimidating. After Francesca Zambello, the WNO's artistic director and director of this production, invited Retna to do "Aida," he acquired a stack of books and DVDs. He even considered bringing a cellist to his studio to play while he painted or having schoolchildren re-create scenes from the opera so, he says, "I could see what I'd gotten myself into." His first sketches were based directly on "Aida" materials.
"Marquis, you're trying too hard," Zambello said when she saw them, according to the artist. "Just send me stuff you've already done."
The artist accordingly went back to his own work. The imagery, as in much of his work, revolves around the letters E and S, representing "the male/female, the sun and the moon, mostly" — one phallic, one domed. "It's the main thing that's in all my work. It made sense," he says.
The process of working in opera was, however, inspiring.
"Working with that amount of talent, all top professionals in their fields, and just looking at Francesca doing her thing, that was amazing, for sure," the artist says. "When I'm painting in the studio, there's maybe five or six people, max. She's working with a couple of hundred people. To have that mentality, to be able to be in all those different places, is something."
Retna has worked on music videos, but "there's a lot of takes you can do. . . . You can't do that in opera. It's a one-shot deal. That's kind of how I work on the street. It's a one-shot, get it right, and if you can't, make it up."
It's open to question just how much opera reaches outside its existing audience by bringing in artists from other worlds. The most successful examples generally involve opera audiences embracing the artist — like Kentridge — rather than art audiences suddenly discovering a love of opera. The San Francisco Opera doesn't have statistics on whether there was a demographic shift among audiences for Retna's "Aida," although some say the audience looked younger. Still, it's worth trying — for both sides. "It's not about the money," says Goldberg, Retna's dealer. "It's about enriching culture."
"Aida," however, was created more than a year ago. Retna's thoughts are much more on the Kennedy Center mural, which he finished in August — shortly after he was briefly arrested for what he now calls "a misunderstanding." (He has had several run-ins with the law, including an allegation of domestic abuse against a former girlfriend, the socialite Brittny Gastineau.) While working on the mural, he saw Washington through the eyes of someone recently incarcerated: The institutional hallways of Congress or the Kennedy Center reflected, to him, the less-glamorous surroundings of the jail where he had been held.
The mural itself is a political act: a quote of President Kennedy's. "Art is the great democrat," it reads, "calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color." The words are executed in red and blue on a series of white blocks that divide the Hall of Nations like a small Berlin Wall.
"The red and blue for me symbolizes, together, when you get a bruise you turn purple, whether it's democratic or republican," Retna explains. "Once it's together it's purple, the color of royalty. And we added gold for Mr. Kennedy's service to the Navy."
Jackie Kennedy's name is there. So is the artist's name. So, even, is the title of the opera, "Aida." Most people won't be able to decipher any of that. This is art as many think it should be: something attractive, to be admired by the masses, but encrypted in a code that can truly be read only by those in the know.
And the song Retna chose as his anthem for the mural? Not anything from "Aida" but "Get Free," by Major Lazer, which contains the repeated line "I just can't believe what they've done to me." Retna's art is too mercurial to stay attached to opera for long.
The artist doesn't rule out doing another opera — if he were invited. "Aida" received mixed reviews in San Francisco; it will go on to the Seattle and Minnesota operas. If he were to do another one, what would it be? Retna appeals to his dealer, the daughter of a classical musician. "For you?" Goldberg says, laughing. " 'Carmen.' "
Aida runs at the Washington National Opera from Sept. 9-23. The free "Opera in the Outfield" broadcast at Nationals Park is Sept. 23. Retna's work will be exhibited in the Hall of Nations until Sept. 24.