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Artist John Stango’s ‘The Heavyweight Contender Exhibition’ celebrates the Great Muhammad Ali

John Stango has collaborated with the South-Bronx based gallery The Compound for his first solo exhibition in New York City.

Stango is a student of the pop-art movement of the 50s and 60s.

His work primarily combines the techniques of Andy Warhol and Basquiat with images of contemporary figureheads of today’s culture.

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

“I would draw [Peanuts characters] on the blackboard for my teacher,” Stango told KultureHub at the opening of his show Compound Presents: The Heavyweight Contender.

“Then I started to realize… I might have something here.’”

Stango grew up in Philadelphia and comes from a line of artists, including his own mother as well as the famous Norman Rockwell.

Stango draws from a classic Americana aesthetic. He is self-admittedly most inspired by Warhol’s mass-produced artwork that explores the intersections of commercial and celebrity culture.

“I like associating advertising and fashion in the paintings,” Stango said. “I don’t know how deep they are, but they’re clever.”

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

In his own biography, Stango’s work is described as “testosterone-fueled.” Stango admits that a lot of that has to do with his origins as an artist drawing muscle cars for fun. “I can’t help it,” Stango said, motioning to a Campbell’s soup can holding a bouquet of tulips.

“Even my flowers are masculine.”

This translates to the rest of his work as well. Stango’s collection could be described as something straight out of Don Draper’s wet dreams.

There seems to be no end to hypersexed pin-up models branded with corporate images–this is namely the case in his Stewardess series, which solely focuses on barely dressed women and vintage airline iconography. Stango has made a name for himself by merging American icons with recognizable name brands.

Examples include a mugshot of a young Sinatra with Jack Daniels, Eminem and Krylon, and a collage of the Fast and Furious franchise, Warhol, General Motors, and Basquiat. Stango assembles these photomontages for purely aesthetic purposes.

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

The main focus of The Heavyweight Contender exhibition was Muhammad Ali, probably one of the most recognizable American icons out there.

The installation was organized so that the visitors are greeted by a four panel set of paintings documenting Ali’s beginnings as Cassius Clay, ending with an acrylic reproduction of Neil Leifer’s famous photograph of the Ali vs. Sonny Liston fight. (Arguably the culmination of his career as a boxer.)

“I really associate my childhood [and adolescence] with Muhammad Ali, he was one of my heroes,” said Stango. “He was a very graphic, explosive figure that can be translated well on canvas.”

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

Stango continued: “People almost forgot what Ali stood for, he became the man, not just the myth… It was only once boxing become more politically correct… people began to realize how much of a human rights activist he really was.”

“Ali was a real-life superhero,” said Free Richardson, founder of the Compound Gallery.

Growing up between Queens and Philadelphia, Richardson was familiar with Stango’s work from a young age.

He was initially drawn to Stango’s line of superhero paintings and approached Stango to curate a show at The Compound after seeing Stango’s paintings of Muhammad Ali.

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

In an interview with the New York Times, Richardson made it clear that The Compound was a space made to represent the undeniable importance of figures who have long been excluded from the art world.

Richardson, along with the gallery’s partner Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), namely set forth to show how Hip Hop and street art could (and should) be an accepted part of the gallery world.

Stango’s aesthetic attraction to Warholian pop-art fits perfectly into The Compound’s initiative, as an essential part of this easily reproduced style is about challenging both what art is and who art is for.

Pop-art was considered an essential turn in Postmodernism due to its complete rejection of the previous Abstract Expressionist movement. Pop-artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein used silk screening techniques to produce recognizable and easily reproduce imagery.

Photo Credit: Lucas Verdier

This is definitely comparable to today’s street artists who use stencils and spray paint to quickly install artwork at a moment’s notice. Stango told KultureHub that he draws a lot of inspiration from artists like Banksy as well.

Stango’s approach to representing Ali as both the man and the myth draws upon historical and contemporary figures for inspiration. The Heavyweight Contender is an ode to a legend, as well as a sample of Stango’s larger body of work.

The Heavyweight Contender is showing at The Compound from May 8th to June 5.