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.
But the atrium is distracting, and a bit too casual. The work is already in the museum, so it may as well have gotten a more formal exhibition space — especially one with less of an echo, where it would be easier to hear the videos, which range from punk and go-go performances to anti-drug PSAs.
In contrast, an exhibit of posters by Globe, the Baltimore printing company that created much of the visual identity for go-go, feels complete. It rims the rotunda in neon and black, with the company’s whimsical, music-note designs sprinkled on the walls above. Near the museum’s entrance, street artist Tim Conlon constructed a faux doorstep, with weathered go-go posters on the door and a body outline roped off by police tape on the stairs, which seems like more of a photo-op backdrop for visitors than an art installation.
While graffiti and poster design provide a visual link between the subcultures, partaking in or eschewing drugs provides the thematic connection, starkly illustrating the racial and socioeconomic divide between the two music scenes. As the timeline progresses, we see go-go’s role in the emergence of neighborhood crews and violence escalated by drug kingpin Rayful Edmond, which led to the District’s designation as the murder capital of the United States.
On the other hand, the wealthier, whiter and more suburban hardcore scene’s Straight Edge movement aligned with the Reagan administration’s “Just Say No” campaign, which also is represented here. For some Washingtonians, one of the most prized items on display won’t be Chuck Brown’s jacket or DJ Kool’s turntables, but the original, hand-scrawled lyrics to Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge,” with a crossed-out phrase: “I’m a person just like you / but I’ve got better things to do / than sit around a smoke
da spliff dope / because I know that I can cope.”
“Pump Me Up” is a love letter to the District — an imperfect one, but not lacking for emotion. While any one of the people represented in this show could have told the story of the era with just as much heart, only Gastman, with his trove of ephemera and connections in the art world and on the street, could bring it to the Corcoran — a place where it truly belongs and, simultaneously, should never be.
THE STORY BEHIND THE WORK
“My teen years were awesome,” says Roger Gastman, and that’s apparent in “Pump Me Up,” the exhibition he curated at the Corcoran. The chronological look at Washington in the 1980s also is a scrapbook of the cultural influences that shaped his youth. Though the 35-year-old filmmaker and art consultant came of age in the early ’90s, the music, art and culture of his childhood left a lasting impression.
Gastman grew up in Bethesda and wrote graffiti along the tracks of the Red Line under his alias, “Clear.” (“There’s no real meaning to it; I just picked it,” he says.) Graffiti, to him, was initially an insular scene.
“Graffiti was about going to shows, and a lot of the kids were straight edge [living a drug-free lifestyle] and vegan or vegetarian,” he says. “It was just something you did. I didn’t think graffiti had anything to do with hip-hop. . . . I quickly learned that it was much bigger, and it was its own thing that didn’t have to do with a specific music.”
Gastman also started collecting memorabilia from hardcore shows as well as photographs of local graffiti. In the pre-Flickr era, he’d trade his photos for images of street art in other cities.
“I never set out like, ‘I want to be a collector,’ ” he says. “I was just interested and . . . understanding of what was significant enough to keep and what to throw away.”
Through his graffiti magazine, “While You Were Sleeping,” Gastman got to know Cool “Disco” Dan, a.k.a. Dan Hogg, whose omnipresent signature once captivated Washington.
Gastman realized that Dan’s story was really the story of Washington’s coming of age, and he began working on a documentary, “The Legend of Cool ‘Disco’ Dan,” which premiered the day the Corcoran show opened. (See it at AFI Silver this weekend.)
Gastman said he did his best to take care of Dan (who does not have a permanent address and suffers from mental illness), compensating him for his work and ensuring him a cut of the Corcoran merchandise, including the “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan” shirts in the gift shop.
Gastman’s favorite item in the show is the handwritten lyrics to Minor Threat’s “Straight Edge,” which influenced his own drug-free, straight edge lifestyle. And lest people question his punk cred, they only need look at his wrist. Six weeks ago, he added a tattoo to his right arm, now entirely covered in iconic punk rock imagery: the illustrated black sheep from the cover of Minor Threat’s “Out of Step” album, also on display in the show.
— Maura Judkis