The hip-hop gallery


FROM Soviet realism with a twist to portraits of American rap stars might seem something of a leap -- but not necessarily for Alexander Melamid.

The Russian-born artist has often been interested in creating more than a bit of political havoc. Known for decades for work that was both bold commentary and incisive satire, Melamid and his creative partner, Vitaly Komar, were renowned as conceptual art rebels in Soviet Russia and were also considered to be the architects of the Soviet Realist Pop Art movement. But in 2003, Melamid parted ways not just with Komar but also, it seemed, with the international scene.

As it happened, Melamid had simply turned another creative corner. His son, Dan “The Man” Melamid, a video director, had introduced him to hip-hop’s royalty -- literally. From 2003 to 2005, Melamid spent time with a dozen of the business’ most famous icons, including rappers Kanye West, 50 Cent, Lil Jon, Snoop Dogg and Reverend Run and entrepreneur Russell Simmons. During their sessions together he both photographed and drew them, providing the basis for what would become a new series of paintings.


“Holy Hip-Hop!” is the result of Melamid’s close study and conversations. The portraits -- rendered larger than life and cast in an amber light that references the Old Masters -- find the figures all about their business: on the telephone, at the computer, ready to take a meeting, poised for performance. They are decorated with the trappings, or iconography, of their time -- diamonds, cellphones, designer watches and shoes. The show, which premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, is Melamid’s first solo exhibition and will be on view at the Forum Gallery in Los Angeles from Sept. 12 through Nov. 1.

-- Lynell George