It was 30 years ago in January that Debbie Harry introduced Fred Brathwaite (aka Fab 5 Freddy) to the world with an unforgettable name check—"Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody's fly"—on the rap-infused Blondie hit "Rapture." As Brathwaite recently wrote on his blog, "That name drop on 'Rapture' became my international calling card and the shit would soon hit the fan, and hard!" It still is. In conjunction with Art Production Fund, Brathwaite unveiled Crystal Punch, an exhibition of 10 multimedia works—including ringside photos of hot young boxers and glam shots of sexed-up showgirls, digitally altered and printed on canvases bedazzled with Swarovski crystals—as the first artist-in-residence at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas's P3 Studio.
While a Strip hotel might not be the place you'd expect to see the first set of paintings in almost two decades from one of the original Wild Style graffiti artists—who ran with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Futura 2000 and used to show his work at the Fun Gallery and Holly Solomon in New York and LA's Ace Gallery—Vegas was a no-brainer, says the artist. "In thinking about the work and the effects of moving in front of the work I thought, 'Wow, Vegas.' When you see the Strip and everything is lit up and on full-blast and blinking and shining, it just felt like there was a synergistic connection," says Brathwaite. "Putting the paintings in this black [background] space, this void, connects to work I made back in the '80s when I was actually painting. It's almost like how Vegas looks like at night."
After tiring of painting in the late '80s, the polymath artist indulged a passion for film and music-video direction (and, of course, served as a host of Yo! MTV Raps). "I veered off course a little bit," jokes Brathwaite. But when the 2007 discovery of a buried mural (with tags by Basquiat and Futura) he'd worked on at critic Edit deAk's apartment at 151 Wooster turned into a massive, ‘80s-esque art opening, Brathwaite was inspired to work on the new series. Luckily, he'd met AFP's Doreen Remen and Yvonne Force Villareal around that time and reconnected with them later, as they were gearing up for their collaboration with the Cosmopolitan.
"I started doing these boxers first, then just started adding these women to have a female counterbalance. They're not necessarily strippers, I see them as showgirls. The pole was added as a formal element after the images were rendered, kind of like a sexy icon, like a Vargas pin-up, or a Renoir nude. I found out later that one of the boxers was the British heavyweight champion David Haye, but it was more about what was happening on the surface," says Brathwaite, who plans to continue the Swarovski-studded works with future shows in New York and Los Angeles, where he's working as the curatorial advisor to Jeffrey Deitch for the upcoming "Art in the Streets" exhibition at LA's MoCA this April. "I first met Jeffrey at Edit deAk's loft, and he came to see the work I was doing and what was happening as we started to make a buzz, so it's cool to be working with his team putting this show together."
Besides seeing Steve Wynn and a woman who asked to be immortalized as a showgirl at the December 15 opening, Brathwaite says he also ran into an acolyte of Vegas' Nudie Cohn, the bedazzling "Rhinestone Cowboy" tailor to Roy Rogers, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and The Family Stone, and Elvis Presley. "This woman works on restoring outfits he made, and it was cool to me, because I guess part of the inspiration I got was seeing [rhinestones] applied on T-shirts lately," he says. "But Nudie was the start of it being used in different ways." Given Art Production Fund's penchant for reproducing art as ephemera (particularly beach towels), don't be surprised if Brathwaite-inspired, blinged-out shirts are on the horizon.
CRYSTAL PUNCH WILL HAVE A GRAND OPENING TOMORROW NIGHT AND RUN THROUGH MARCH 2011.