Perhaps the biggest hurdle for contemporary artists working with concepts of darkness is a perception that making thematically dark art is just a commercially viable cop-out, a quick and easy way to hide a lack of artistic vision while still maintaining the feeling that the work is important and deep. Just make your art inscrutable and vaguely provocative, and it makes up for almost any amount of absent creativity!
Maybe this is an effect of the recent-ish wave of lackluster “gritty reboots” of film franchises, in which movie studios collectively decided that increased violence, fewer jokes, and an inability to see anything happening on-screen were wonderful creative decisions. Maybe it’s a reaction to the mid-aughts commercialization of darkness in emo subcultures, a process that began at the moment Hot Topic figured out that selling more studded clothing with re-appropriated gothic imagery was a great strategy for making bank off angsty teens. Art can never be completely removed from the time period in which it was created, and thus, in 2017, it’s impossible to escape these negative connotations of using “dark” aesthetics in one’s artwork, in any medium.
Stefan Burnett is all too familiar with this challenge. His instantly infamous work as MC Ride with avant-rap group Death Grips sent hundreds of music journalists scrambling to come up with fresh synonyms for “abrasive,” and the group quickly acquired an ever-growing cult following of artsy indie snobs and teenage skate punks alike. Even as Death Grips released album after consistent album of brutal, psychotic, and genuinely inventive rap music, question marks always seemed to hover over the group’s tenuous existence as a critical darling. Was there real substance behind their work, or were we all just convincing ourselves of the artistic value of Burnett’s boundlessly gory lyrical imagery? How long could Death Grips keep up their mystery, their intensity? Was it all just a meme?
I’d love to be able to inform you that Stefan Burnett’s first-ever gallery exhibition finally clears these questions up, revealing himself once and for all as either an indisputable genius or a complete fraud. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Instead, the work on display will most likely confirm whatever prior opinions you had regarding Burnett and Death Grips, for better or for worse.
Think that MC Ride is brilliant, and that Death Grips are the most important band of the decade?
You’ll love this gallery, it showcases just how incredibly skilled Burnett can be in an entirely different artistic medium. The truly impressive technical prowess of his work, the striking surrealist horror scenes, and the monochrome white-on-black style all point to an accomplished visual artist with a vision beyond the typical. The pieces tap into the same feelings of queasiness, rage, and violence that Death Grips have been so adept at instigating with their music, but from an entirely different angle. His precise and methodical paintings suggest a more meticulous and measured side of the artist, and the static subject choices of the paintings allow the nightmarish scenes from Burnett’s pummeling lyrics time to sink in.
Or, do you think that MC Ride is a joke, and Death Grips are overrated as all heck?
You’ll also find your opinion supported by this gallery, as Burnett’s choices of imagery tend to fall into all the familiar stereotypes of those who force sinister themes into art: skulls, snakes, grotesque babies, distorted angel figures. Because all the pieces are untitled and without description, it’s hard to glean much deeper meaning from the work beyond the literal interpretation of the images. Those who say they don’t understand anything MC Ride is yelling about in Death Grips songs will certainly not understand anything Stefan Burnett is portraying on these canvases.
No matter one’s opinion of Burnett or his art, it was immediately clear that this was no ordinary gallery opening. Hundreds of avid fans lined up down the block outside the Slow Culture gallery in LA’s Chinatown for hours before the event, as if expecting to walk into a Death Grips gig and not a medium-sized, white-walled gallery. About a dozen paintings hung on the walls of the rectangular room, and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon were sold from a makeshift bar in the back corner.
Though the space was far too full for anyone to spend too much time viewing the same painting, crowd favorites that night included an almost medieval-styled portrait of a creepy man with a knowing grin, a depiction of a hooded snake charmer, and an odd side-perspective portrait of two women sitting in a hallway that seemed pulled from an alternate angle of a Van Gogh painting. Though displayed in a way no different than the other works, the most impressive painting and (arguably) the centerpiece of the gallery was a disorienting view of an elderly group of people sitting at a kitchen table, wherein the lighting, staging, and color palette combine to make a before-meal prayer resemble a satanic ritual.
The paintings, which ranged in price from around $1500 to $3000, were selling very quickly, with just under half the pieces already sold by the end of the first hours of the opening.
There was no sign that the artist himself was in any way present.
The first-ever solo exhibition by Stefan Burnett will be on display until January 28th at Slow Culture in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Check out slowculture.com for more details.
Written by Matt Sater