Hip-hop in high relief is all Greek to Vera’s viewers

Hip-hop culture doesn’t just give Vera his subject—it provides him with his artistic technique. Unfortunately, this remix just doesn’t fly.

By Elizabeth Goetz

In Omar Vera’s five-work exhibit, Cold Eels and Distant Thoughts, Vera not only uses a hip-hop track as a touchstone of his most complex work; he’s also taken Greek art and contemporary pop-culture and “remixed” them. Hip-hop culture doesn’t just give Vera his subject—it provides him with his artistic technique. Unfortunately, this remix just doesn’t fly.

The exhibit’s most prominent piece, “Regulators Urn,” borrows heavily from Nate Dogg and Warren G’s 1994 hip-hop song “Regulators,” illustrating its narrative on the sides of a large, classical-style urn. Instead of helmeted warriors fighting over Aphrodite, we have sirens fawning over gun-toting thugs. On the base of the urn, Vera suggests that song can be reduced to four main themes: love, death, music, and money. Each side of the urn includes symbols—mermaids, sirens, and other mythical Greek figures—suggesting one of these themes. Most jarring are the sphinxes that lie along the bottom of the base’s south side, apparently representing love. This is par for the course in the realm of classical urns, one feels, but the classics have been twisted when one realizes that the sphinxes have no flesh—only their skeletons remain.

Vera seems to think that the viewer will understand this complicated iconography, which demands an understanding of both Greek and hip-hop culture. I, for one, had to parse through the extensive explanatory notes provided by HPAC to even begin to get a grip on Vera’s ideas. Even the HPAC’s pamphlet failed to provide the lyrics of the song, which were essential to understanding the piece.

Moreover, Vera’s decision to mix Greek art and hip-hop seems arbitrary. For example, the bodies of the fawning nude sirens retain classical proportions and their slightly unnatural profiles seem slightly Egyptian. All the figures on the urn are painted white against a black background. Why did Vera keep these classical tropes but alter the subject matter so drastically? Is he trying to say something about the similarities between Greek art and hip-hop culture? With no explanation for these basic questions, the two cultures seem somewhat carelessly remixed.

The rest of the exhibit similarly combines disparate cultural traditions for no apparent reason. Its title comes from a famous remark by Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship. Asked by a reporter why women thought black men were attractive, Johnson acidly replied, “Because we eat cold eels and think distant thoughts,” putting the inquirer in his place. Johnson makes another appearance in Vera’s exhibit as a large stone bust. The sculpture is monochromatic, save for Johnson’s gold-painted teeth, framed by a pronounced smile. Because of the limitations of unpainted sculpture, there is no detail in the balls of Johnson’s eyes. This makes him seem cheap, somehow empty, and soulless.

Here again, Vera shows his interest in cultural recombinations—in this case, famous figures in architecture and athletics. The exhibit notes make much of the Louis Sullivan–influenced base supporting the sculpture of Johnson, claiming that it summons “the contemporary symbiotic culture of Johnson and Sullivan’s generation.” But it’s not clear what binds Johnson and Sullivan other than the era in which they both simultaneously lived.

The three other works in Cold Eels include a pattern stenciled on the wall, an animated political map of Africa on video, and a series of three-dimensional maps of the Palestinian state. Vera is obviously interested in the cultural encounters fostered by art, politics, or chance, but he can’t adequately articulate the issues he wants to address. Perhaps this is partially due to the small size of the exhibit; maybe we’re just not able to gather enough data from his art to constitute a trend. Vera’s art is worth a visit—the urn is conversation-provoking enough to be used for O-Week lessons in diversity—but it might leave you a tad underwhelmed.