Walking through the color-filled galleries of the Blaffer Art Museum’s second floor is an attendance to a symphonic concert of artworks. An explosion of synergetic drawings, texts, collages, and references to the jazz and hip-hop scenes of Texas assure an engagement with artistic and cultural activity. It becomes almost immediately certain that one is encountering the painterly evolution of two artists: Houston-based multimedia artist Robert Hodge and Austin-based artist and musician Tim Kerr.
In the historical nature of jazz, hip-hop and the production of music, a continuing evolution of materiality, theme, color, and riff-offs between the artists is ever-present. And so, the symphonic occurrence of artworks manifests itself in the experimental show No Kings But Us, which is curated and conducted by longtime music producer Russell Gonzalez and backed by the innovative visions of Blaffer Director and Chief Curator, Steven Matijcio.
Something like an official historiography of musicality, racial equality, and painterly traditions has taken place in the artworks of the Hodge and Kerr duo. Their own backgrounds tie in with jazz and hip-hop, and the complexities of their social origins fill the chaotically coherent whole of the forty-plus works created for the pop-up exhibition. Curator and maestro Russell Gonzalez had been collecting works by the two artists for a time when, seeing them side by side, decided it was time to have the two collaborate. His initiative brought Hodge and Kerr together, and while the project itself conceptually began pre-pandemic, the actual formulation of artworks began only weeks before the May 20th opening of the show. The artists both mentioned working on artworks even the day before the opening, with one piece being finished just hours before the doors opened to the public.
As the artists comment, the works give off an aura of jazz music, with each of the two riffing off each other as they complete a piece. Kerr would begin by painting a face or object on academic maps usually found in school classrooms, then the work would be sent to Hodge, who would add a collage of images or text. Each work went back and forth between the two artists, who would sometimes cover the other’s addition with something new. The concerns over ethnicity, race, and economics were as equally at the forefront of jazz as they are in Hodge and Kerr’s works: the artists bring the history of oppressed minorities and cultures into each work. The essence that lives within such works does not belong to a singular context, but rather to that which links humanity into a singular culmination, as Gonzalez would say, a “soundtrack of history.” I inevitably find myself drawn to the purity of emotion and passion for storytelling that is found within the works produced in this collaborative effort; the pieces manage to beat all odds against indifference and racist histories in a rather triumphant explosion of animation.
Just as music can change to the ear, so do the Hodge and Kerr works change as each artist encounters what the other had done before him. In the instance of the piece Time Was Now, Kerr had been inspired by old-school green chalkboards found in classrooms and began to paint a particular story upon a chalky green background; however, upon Hodge’s encounter with what Kerr had produced (being of a younger generation), he believed it to be a football field and began to add a collage of images of celebrities and athletes. Thus, the historical narrative of a work changed its pattern.
The Blues has a similar story of change: Kerr took to a sheet of watercolor paper, drawing the faces of popular jazz musicians in hues of reds and blues. Hodge then added a screenprint layer with the words “greatest hits,” and “stereo.” In a full-circle completion of the work, the phrase “You can’t have the rhythm without the blues” stands boldly in black against the blues and reds that battle each within the piece. Particularly, the word “stereo” makes a repetitive appearance within most of the collaborations, an announcement, according to Hodge, that the meaning within these works must be loudly heard, as if blasting through a stereo. Images of historically significant African American figures such as Malcom X, the Freedom Riders, Muhammad Ali, and Rosa Parks live with sports figures, celebrities, movie stars, jazz and hip-hop legends, and Benin bronzes, all working together to bring attention to themes of racial equality and human rights.
This explosive, multimedia show, which breathes life into the white walls of the Blaffer Art Museum’s galleries, constructs a narrative of displacement, ideologies, aesthetics, and musicality in a responsive manner to issues of particular histories. The pride taken in the combination of two backgrounds, both racially and artistically, by Hodge and Kerr is ever-present in the powerfully vivid and emotive artworks created in the true tradition of jazz’s heritage. Just as jazz became an inevitably disquieting practice in its time, No Kings But Us commits itself to extending such rhetoric legacy in the necessary directions, specially at a time when racial tensions are ever-burgeoning in this country.
Robert Hodge x Tim Kerr: No Kings but Us is on view at the Blaffer Museum of Art through June 4, 2023.