The last time I saw a bunch of RAE BK‘s work all in one place was in 2015, just after the street artist and Brooklyn-native had opened his guerrilla-style solo exhibition in Chinatown. But the show wasn’t held at a gallery, instead RAE’s site-specific installation was housed inside a dingy old basement, accessible only by way of an unmarked, totally unassuming rust-red metal door adjacent to a bustling produce market. Even then, I was so jaded that I couldn’t allow myself to believe that this was a real basement with real dirt and dust everywhere. But actually it wasn’t just a fancy pop-up rental space with a stage-grit makeover, nor was it an attempt by some developer to “activate” a particular corner before the building was torn down. As RAE told me, the basement was simply on loan from a recently-retired butcher with whom he had a “tentative relationship,” and the show, called Trunk Work, was one of those rare art happenings that was both real and strange.
So you can see why, initially anyway, when I heard RAE was hosting a New Year’s Eve party called All Systems Go, I didn’t think much of it. How could some party hold even a candle to the sort of realness RAE had captured at his Chinatown show? Sure, the “godfather of hip-hop” DJ Kool Herc was going to be there, spinning records, and the promise of an art party was promising enough. But I assumed that, despite the credentials of the artists involved, it could end up being a typical New York City art function. You know the type–those awkward appearances by artists who agree to make themselves available for pictures with strangers and close proximity to brands, in exchange for showing their work to a large group of people.
It’s easy to feel pessimistic about NYC these days, now that change is happening faster than ever, and a callous, honey badger-style growth has found an explicit supporter in the Administration Imminent. It might be only a short time before the last remaining artists making interesting, against-the-grain work and embracing anarchy over commodification, disappear for good, along with middle- and low-income earning New Yorkers, who together, make this a vibrant, diverse, and endlessly interesting place to live. Trunk Work, was just the sort of awesomely unhinged art takeover that’s now at risk for extinction in New York City.
One way to see this loss in real time is through the growing disconnect between nightlife and (real) culture. As Rachel Nelson of Secret Project Robot recently told B+B, when she first moved to New York City back in the day, there were still remnants of the time when figures like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Herring ruled the Manhattan art scene. “All parties used to be art parties,” she observed.
But I wasn’t expecting All Systems Go to be some such magical Mudd Club wormhole that offered partygoers a one-night-only time travel safari to the early ’80s. And yet, the whole thing kinda played out like how I imagine parties went down in the time of New York/No Wave and the “Golden Age of Graffiti.” Part of that had to do with that fact that RAE’s work wasn’t presented as some distant thing– it was right there, surrounding the entire perimeter of the party so that partygoers were immersed in the art. There was no comfortable remove, no pedestal where RAE’s pieces could sit for a silent auction or something.
That might explain why, as soon as the harsh brightness of the post-party bye-bye lights flicked on, it hit me just how much RAE’s stuff meshed with its setting. Even though the light brought out brighter colors, more detailed texture, and made the objects’ original purpose more discernible, the party light seemed more fitting. Somehow the flickering sparkle of the disco ball and the steady contrast of unruly shadows cast by people dancing and hovering nearby animated the work, and vise versa.
Suddenly it all clicked for me why All Systems Go did the art party right. For one, you’re never going to see RAE’s work (not even the more gallery-ready paintings and sculptures) confined to traditional art spaces. Instead, it’s situated in a world that is entirely of his own making, and planted in small niches carved out of New York’s natural cityscape. Though RAE’s style is hardly quiet– his line-drawing figures and collage-like Franken-forms gyrate with manic intensity– but he manages to nestle these loud pieces politely into their surroundings, where they only announced themselves to people who are actually paying attention, but can otherwise go undetected.
This party offered the opposite potential for RAE’s work– a place where art could pop out against an otherwise blank-slate background. At the same time, parties– as I should have understood from the start– if they’re done right, can reflect just as much of the city as anything happening on the street.
You only need to see RAE’s work once to start noticing his trademark stick-man, line-drawing figures pop up everywhere as you make your way through the downtown area, and well beyond the Lower East Side, into Brooklyn (where RAE’s from). He seems to roam all over Bed-Stuy and Bushwick, leaving his mark along the way–either that or his stickers have made it there by second-hand means.
RAE’s images take many forms: they’re splattered on countless stickers stuck to subway cars and bus stop poles. Sometimes, you’ll spot him in spray-painted sprawls on top of crumbling brick facades or as stretched-out limbs reaching across marked-up doors. Less often, they’re intricate masks made up of smashed-up bits and found objects welded together as mangled sculptures. These impressive feats of random engineering combine things like metal grates, telephone receivers, and chipped-off box fan blades, to make remarkably emotive human figures. RAE somehow goes unnoticed when he lodges them into forgotten spaces, where they interact as lively, chaotic frescoes that still manage to blend, chameleon-like into their urban environment.
Even though RAE works outside the traditional confines of “street art”– spray-painted murals, tags, and throwups– his work is street art (literally speaking) by virtue of being made and viewed on the street. Likewise, the materials he uses– found objects and actual garbage– are sourced directly from the street. Clearly, RAE has a knack for transforming discarded, forgotten pieces of the city and neglected, unwanted places into fantastical, anarchic installations.
The fact that RAE’s work can still exist in a place as regimented and expensive as New York City–where space is becoming increasingly less accessible to non-millionaires, where DIY venues and weird spaces are at risk for disappearing altogether–is enough to restore your faith in the tenacity of art and artists, which always seem to find a way. (And wait, didn’t we decide a long time ago that adversity makes for better art anyway?) Better yet, RAE’s work shows that making it happen doesn’t necessarily have to mean selling your soul or compromising (much, anyway)–you won’t find these things next to your local CVS, and he’s definitely not in it for the developer money.
Even the name of that exhibition, Trunk Work, seems like a not-so-subtle poke at “trunk shows”– sales events held by fashion designers and galleries, which speaks directly to the commodification of art work. The same goes for All Systems Go, which kinda reads like a bye-bye to rigid systems.
Regardless of the resources that allow RAE to stay out of the traditional art market and gallery circuit, the work itself focuses on real people. And I don’t mean in some Humans of New York way (which is perfectly fine and heartwarming and all that). His perspective might not be precious, but RAE seems genuine and nonchalant about his interest in real New York and the everyday experiences of average people. He’s playing at the whole “only in New York” thing, but in subtle ways, as a non-interfering observer and a person who simply sits back and enjoys the show as it is, preferring not to meddle. As he told me the last time we spoke at his Chinatown show, “Most of my work is about people interacting with people, everybody having different emotions at the same time.”
Aesthetically, it seems like the obvious comparison to RAE is Basquiat. However, there are distinct differences. Basquiat reappropriated masterpieces of the Western canon and meticulously recreated them in his own image, by painting himself–and blackness itself– into a canon that for thousands of years has ignored anything but white Western male achievement, he reinvigorated painting and crowned himself king of the masters, even as the medium was hurdling toward irrelevance. RAE is doing just the opposite: by stepping aside, turning his focus outward, collecting used and discarded objects, and soaking up the world, he’s mirroring the flow of New York City life in the moment.
Even the party itself, which took place inside some barebones loft on the Bowery (with “washing machines everywhere,” as someone noticed), felt like it was unleashed on RAE’s work as a way to contextualize it. If you were overthinking it like me, then the whole thing could be read as an immersive installation– one that was a little bit rogue and mostly up to the viewer to interpret. It was also just a cool party with art everywhere. Either way, All Systems Go was similar to RAE’s Chinatown basement show, in that it could only work inside a space that hasn’t been ruined by New New York (the building owner was actually at the party, and he seemed like a nice enough guy).
The same could be said for the crowd. RAE was milling around talking to anyone who wasn’t dancing. Against all odds, even the guests–who actually seemed to reflect the city’s diversity somewhat (a rarity at downtown parties these days)– were down to mingle with strangers.
I met a girl in the bathroom line who complimented my tattoos. I was drunk and pleasantly hazy and so was she, so I let her pet my arms in search of more ink. Returning the favor, she pulled up her sleeve to reveal a Taz tattoo. “Do you know the show Looney Tunes ?” she asked, explaining it was her only tattoo. Apparently, Taz was in honor of her father. Given the context, I immediately assumed he was dead. I think I said something like, “I’m so sorry.” A few minutes later, I was relieved to find that the old guy I was talking to introduced himself as her dad. I asked to see his matching Taz tattoo, but he couldn’t hear me over the music, and just then the line lurched forward.
Meanwhile, a pair of young girls dressed exactly like the bucket-hat wearing octogenarians who shuffle around Chinatown in baggy, frumpy clothes, were some of the best dancers around. A guy wearing a suit was peacefully snoozing on one of the couches, as a nearby couple necked each other furiously. Kool Herc seemed to have a pack of body guards, all of them older than your average muscle, who stood around observing the crowd with something like mild confusion and that special kind of curmudgeonly awe and disapproval grandpa shoots your way when you try to convey the value of Snapchat.
The DJ presided over the small crowd in a pulpit-like booth overlooking the room– spread across the front was a banner with a picture of Kool Herc’s head, and his name in giant letters, lest anyone forget who the king of the castle was. He seemed half-bored, half enjoying his position. But his tunes, which definitely had something to do with the time-travel vibes, were not even close to half-boring: classic hip-hop coexisted alongside an unadulterated version of Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europa Express” (a track that many people might recognize in its sample form as “Planet Rock” by Herc’s contemporary, Afrika Bambaataa).
For the most part, when street art and graffiti are taken off the street, and squeezed into a gallery setting (or any indoor zone, really), some essential part feels lost in translation. At best, it’s forced, and at worst, it can feel like the artist, in a desperate attempt to cash in, took the advice of an out-of-touch suit. RAE’s work somehow translates directly to the white wall, even if he refuses to engage in traditional art world rituals like gallery shows. Maybe that’s because he plays with space in a way that doesn’t kill his work’s connection to the city that made it. By opening up his spaces to everyone, and imbuing them with the possibility of the viewer to have a say in their own experience, everything sort of just flows naturally, and his work once again, indoors or not, blends into the background as a living installation.
Strangely, even though his source materials are pulled from New York City–an inherently hyper-commercialized, commodified environment– RAE’s work is distinctly mystical. His figures sometimes look like post-apocalyptic cave paintings, or children’s sketches, but if you look long enough, they start to take on the gravity of some ancient ritual mask and can even look a bit like religious iconography. Did the party become a strange act of protest, or a drunken spiritual journey to ease our transition into the darkest year ever, and were these twisted faces looking back at us just a reminder of how demonic things were set to be? Or were they just supposed to make us laugh, as a reminder that we’ll always have humor and absurdity to fall back on?
Whatever he’s doing, All Systems Go was proof that RAE is tapping the very people who make this city unique and the streets where they combine, clash, and interact with one another, bouncing around like molecules building up some weird energy. And by cracking open the blank-slate parties that have taken over New York where art and artists once dominated, RAE shows at least one place where we can win it all back, even just for a night.