November 2005

Olivia Cronk


To Repel Ghosts : The Remix by Kevin Young

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes its way for a dog, a larger boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called ‘pentimento’ because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”

-Lillian Hellman, by way of epigraph in To Repel Ghosts: The Remix

Kevin Young’s new book, To Repel Ghosts: The Remix is a confident re-telling of the life and work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It is also a “re-telling” of Young’s 2001 To Repel Ghosts: The Double Album, “but please note that this remix should not be considered an afterthought, or a replacement of the double album, but rather an alternate take that’s still the same song.” That’s from Young’s introduction, signed “The Management.” These and other complications give the 320-page collection a wickedly shimmering sort of tint—sating both an intellectual and a musical appetite. The whole project (its remix history, the life of its subject, the art of its subject, the perspective of its curator, larger social contexts, art history, aesthetics, and music) aligns itself, smartly, with the concept mentioned above—pentimento. What is so oddly rendered, though, is the “tree-through-woman’s-dress” effect. Young’s re-telling is so in keeping with the subject, that the images of the project’s various themes (see above) bleed and flicker on and into one another with bizarre ease. And given the music-business packaging of the collection, Young is blending things as on a soundboard—tweaking the levels and such.

Basquiat was an internationally known avant-garde artist from Brooklyn. He did graffiti; made and sold t-shirts; painted with oil, with collage, with text; appeared in Blondie’s “Rapture” video; copyrighted visual sayings like: “SAMO” (Same old shit); issued proclamations of strange potency through his work; and received telegrams from friends after cutting his phone off. As an artist, his work is variously interpreted for its “outsider-art”-ish quality, his formal brilliance with color and composition, his exceptional contribution to the idiom of African-influenced art, and his position as a major black American artist. As a thinker, as a conceptual artist, and as a person, Basquiat appears to be, through Young’s songs, an endlessly complicated man. (In particular, JMB had a heroin addiction that ultimately caused his death.) Basquiat seemed to have grasped very early on (around the age of seventeen), that his work was based on: social commentary, aesthetics as indicated by process, and art-business savvy.

Kevin Young’s collection is based on social commentary, aesthetics as indicated by process, and a wildly clever sense of “image and text” as a form. In terms of commentary, Kevin Young has struck a tone that is at once angry and measured. From his opening piece “Negative:”

Wake to find everything black
what was white, all the vice
versa—white maids on TV, black

sitcoms that star white dwarfs
cute as pearl buttons. Black Presidents,
Black Houses. White horse
candidates . . .

All our eclipses bright,
dark stars shooting across pale
sky, glowing like ash in fire, shower

every skin. Only money keeps
green, still grows & burns like grass
under dark daylight.

Deftly examining issues related to race, cultural control (pop and sub-), drug addiction, and the roles of an artist, Young always lets his lines enough slack to maintain complexity. The mechanical constructions mimic his commentary. Young uses enjambment and rhyme in such a way as to suggest reinvention of connotation. The poetics employed here are quick-witted and loose-tongued. “Campbell’s Black Bean Soup:”

Candid, Warhol
scoffed, coined it
a nigger’s loft—

not The Factory,
Basquiat’s studio stood
anything but lofty—

skid rows of canvases,
paint peeling like bananas,
scabs. Bartering work

for horse, Basquiat churned
out butter, signing each
SAMO ©. Sameold. Sambo’s

soup. How to sell out
something bankrupt
already? How to copy

rights? Basquiat stripped
labels, opened & ate
alphabets, chicken

& noodle. Not even brown
broth left beneath, not one
black bean, he smacked

the very bottom, scraping
the uncanny, making
a tin thing sing.

The second and third foundations I see in The Remix are intimately bound. Young’s epigraph about pentimento does not appear until more than half way through the collection. Until that point, I had the slow and creeping sensation that Young was trickily using pieces of found material, direct quote, and ephemeral language to weave a code. It’s a collage with all the seams showing; it recognizes, openly, that language is always metaphor; in doing so, it sheds a lot of its own meaning in order to more precisely manipulate language. At about that point, I read the bit about pentimento. And then I flipped to the notes in the back. Kevin Young has wisely and generously provided ample notes and explanations. There are book titles for further pursuit, instructions for the tempo of playing the poems, and a clearer indication of where some of that collage material comes from. To be specific: “To give a visual idea of Basquiat’s hand, SMALL CAPITALS generally indicate painted/drawn text found in his work . . . As might be expected, a show about Basquiat includes “found” text & imagery.”

This information gave me that overwhelming nervousness associated with filling in the last few stubborn bits of a crossword. But much more than that, it gave me x-ray vision. I felt that I could observe the amazingly clean exterior of the final product, while seeing through its top layer of paint to an unwieldy skeleton of process that perfectly funhouse-mirrored its subject matter. That skeleton includes (though, most obviously, is not limited to): George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), Blondie (Deborah Harry chicly bought a JMB painting), James VanDerZee (photographer whose work included Harlem of the 1920’s-1982), Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, and Bugs Bunny references; Andy Warhol’s diary; the language of hoodoo traditions; the story of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat; and the poet’s visit to JMB’s studio.

Basquiat himself used his material in “found” or collage form when working (“remixing” it). He also portrayed his icons (including some of the above) as faceless, crowned men. Most importantly, though, Basquiat was an “image & text” artist—he merged picture with language to marry meanings and to complicate connotation. Kevin Young’s project is simply an extension of JMB’s “image and text” project. Even his note about the use of JMB’s language belies the “image” component. Kevin Young is quite physically entering into Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work—engaging his muses in a deathless overlap. Picture-like.

Basquiat’s hair
a bundle of dread-
locks, coiled, clenched

in two fists
above his head.
A matador’s hat.

No pick, no make-
up, just a shark
skin suit on a throne

that’s held half
of Harlem—a Siamese
on his lap,

looking sidelong.

CUT OFF . . .

And to end the collection, the remix: AMF, “adios, motherfucker.”

To Repel Ghosts: The Remix by Kevin Young
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 037571023X
320 pages