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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.

Murakami and Eilish collab proves creatives should always work together

In preparation for her second studio album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, American singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has partnered with Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami to release a secondary music video for her song “you should see me in a crown.”

Since her debut 2015 song “Ocean Eyes,” Eilish has hit the ground running. At only 17 years of age, she has risen as one of the most influential artists on the scene.

The teaser shows a cartoon version of Eilish in Murakami’s signature Superflat form. The video quickly switches from shots of Murakami’s iconic flowers to Eilish’s horrific transformation into a spider–a nod to the original music video for the song which features live spiders crawling both onto and out of Eilish.

This disturbing use of body horror is developed from the pervasive violence that comes from Murakami’s greatest influence: Japanese manga and anime.

Murakami, one of the most significant artists to have emerged from post-war Japan, is known for founding the post-Modernist “Superflat” movement. Superflat draws upon the artistic influences of manga and anime, developing a still version of “animetic” effects achieved through camera’s motion without adjusting images to keep them in scale with the movement.

Murakami’s signature does not eliminate layers of perception but rather removes their hierarchy, making the viewers organize the information given to them themselves.

This is not the first time Murakami has collaborated with musical artists. He has provided visuals for Kanye West–most notably for his 2007 album Graduation–as well as the more recent cover for West and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts.

West originally contacted Murakami with interest in viewing the Japanese artist’s sculpture Hiropon, a pornographic female figure study often partnered with a similar statue, My Lonesome Cowboy.  These works are often said to both mimic and parody a historical perspective of the human figure, from the Paleolithic Venus figurines to the pin-up girls of the 1950s.

After this studio visit, their relationship blossomed and West contacted Murakami months after to design the cover of his groundbreaking album Graduation.

Murakami is an expert at blurring the lines between the elitist concepts of “high art” and commercial consumption, most clearly seen by his collaboration with “high fashion” brands such as Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton.

Murakami introduces the joyous iconography of pop-culture reproducibility (continually recycling the images of his rainbow-petaled flowers and jellyfish eyes) but also dirtying the very images he puts forth with gruesome figures sometimes hidden within the rainbow chaos of his larger pieces.

With this teaser, it is clear that Murakami is treading on the darker side of his work to match with the ghostly vibration of Eilish’s song. The lyrics, inspired by a line from Jim Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, are just as haunting as the moody, nearly whispered vocals. While the full music video is exclusively on Apple Music, the teaser trailer has garnered a great deal of hype with the collaboration between the two artists.

Murakami and Eilish have not been the first to collaborate in this way. Probably one of the earliest and more influential meldings of the modern studio art and musical worlds was with the mentorship between Andy Warhol and the rock band The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Warhol helped produce, record, and provide art for their most recognized self-titled album. The Velvet Underground was one of the first bands to write songs completely centered around the seedy underbelly of New York City.

It is crucial, of course, to acknowledge that The Velvet Underground got every cue they ever had from the jazz musicians of their time–from their music to their performative aesthetics.

Warhol was an incredibly successful commercial artist who used his network to mentor younger artists. His fourth-floor loft on East 47th street, The Factory, quickly became the epicenter of New York City pop culture from the 60s into the late 80s.

Warhol, as a gay man in the 1960s, was a mirror for those abandoned in the margins to be reflected back into the center of pop culture.

This collaboration demarcated the end of modernism. In a very strange way, this was the bottom falling out of the Beatnik generation, marking a transformation into the era of OG hipster culture.

More recent examples of these collaborations transcend genre.

Will Cotton is a contemporary American painter known for his hyperrealistic paintings of women and candy. In 2010, he paired with Katy Perry to create the album art for her album Teenage Dream.

This piece, formed as a modern take on a cherubic nude, was one portrait of many Cotton painted of Perry.

Three years later, the artist Jeff Koons, famous for his massive, chrome balloon sculptures, created the cover art for Lady Gaga’s 2013 album ARTPOP. The cover features Gaga and one of Koons’s iconic “gazing balls” with a backdrop of fragmented paintings of Greek myth: from The Birth of Venus to Apollo and Daphne.

This was the first time Gaga brushed up against the art world in 2013: the famous performance artist Marina Abramovic described Gaga as her “daughter” in an interview with MTV. Abramovic has also collaborated with Jay-Z–a relationship that quickly went sour.

As artists are forced to adapt to their surroundings, there will always a continuous melding of both visual and musical forms. These collaborations only enhance the work produced and give an added layer of depth behind its meaning for their audiences to unpack.