How Richard Hell, Sky Ferreira and Perfume Genius Are Improving the Broad Museum's Masterpieces

(Photo courtesy of the Broad)
Perfume Genius performing at the Broad Museum's inaugural Nonobject(ive) Summer Happenings event on June 25, 2016.

A new museum series with music shows how culture doesn't exist in silos.

There was something of a perfect moment last month at the inaugural Nonobject(ive) Summer Happenings at the new Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

Perfume Genius was performing his fierce '80s-damaged rock-tronic anthem "Queen" when suddenly from another part of the museum the L.A-based experimental troupe Mutant Salon appeared. The group, which does grotesque de-constructions of traditional beauty makeovers, piled into the crowd that was gathered on the museum's plaza with all their misfit beauty on glorious display, perfectly complimenting the emotional rawness of Perfume Genius. It was a brilliant and random confluence of artistic expressions, one that in this context made all the sense in the world.

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The entire evening was thematically inspired, created and centered around the concept of "Imitation of Life,"  the title of the Broad's new Cindy Sherman exhibition featuring 120 images by and of the artist who is synonymous with transformation and reinvention. 

"With this series we're helping people make these connections and realize that culture doesn't exist in silos," says Ed Patuto, the Broad's director of audience engagement and who oversees the Broad's NonObjec(tive) Summer Happening series. His mandate is to have as many people as possible engage with the Broad's stunning collection of contemporary masterpieces in as creative and interesting ways as possible.

"When you put an artist's artwork in a gallery often times it's somewhat alienated or abstracted from the context that helped create it," Patuto asserts. "My job is to animate those objects through other art forms--music, film, dance, performance--and re-contextualize them."

Patuto, who formerly ran New York's Issue Project Room, brought in two guest curators to help the Broad to achieve its mission: Brandon Stosuy, an author, culture wonk, co-curator of MOMA P.S. 1, Basilica SoundScape and the Tinnitus Music Series and, until recently, Pitchfork's director of editorial operations; and Bradford Nordeen, a bi-coastal independent curator, writer and founder of Dirty Looks, a platform for queer experimental film and video. The duo have done a spectacular job bringing in an array of disparate artists, some of whom will be on full-display again at the museum's second installment this Saturday (July 30).

"For this Nonobject(ive) Summer Happenings our theme is Downtown because Sherman is associated with downtown New York," says Stosuy, "and we were thinking, 'Let's make something that feels kind New York-ish and LA-ish at the same time,'" One of the first artists booked for the evening was Richard Hell, the author poet and punk rock icon inextricably tied to downtown New York and who is paired with the very contemporary musician Haxan Cloak, a U.K. native now living in L.A. who creates dark ambient electronic soundscapes.

"The idea was kind of based on the late-70s or or early--80s when someone would read poetry and someone else would play along with them," Stosuy explains, "like when Patti Smith was initially a poet and and she would read and Lenny Kaye would play along."

Stosuy met Hell while compiling his 2006 book "Up Is Up, But So Is Down New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992." He had little trouble convincing the former member of the Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers and Richard Hell and Voidoids who long ago put down his guitar for a pen to read at the Broad. Or to perform with Haxon Cloak.

"I agreed to do the gig and then Brandon said a month or two later, 'Hey, this guy I really admire is on the bill too, maybe you guys can work together,'" says Hell (born Richard Lester Meyers). I listened to the Haxan Cloak's music and it immediately clicked and I was already in the same sort of mode with the tone of the novel I'm working on."

Hell, 66, says his new novel is in the vain of the dark 1950s pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson. "I wanted to write a relentless cold-ass noir book but also with a hard-bitten style to the writing with just short, declarative sentences. But it's kind of morphing and developing tendrils and it's not as pure as I originally intended it to be, but it's still staying very cold and hard. That's what I'm focused on now and I thought that's what I'd read."

Hell says he and the Haxan Cloak (born Bobby Krlic) have exchanged music and text and the 31-year-old British musician will provide a soundtrack to his reading that will come in and out. "I've done something along these lines once or twice before and like the effect," says Hell, "and the sort of stuff he writes matches well to the book because it's really evil."

Other musicians on the Broad's Downtown bill include Sky Ferreira, who will DJ dark 80s pop; Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who performs a sustained organ drone piece; Mas Ysa, whose electronic/indie-pop meld Stosuy says gives him and his co-curator an "old school New York or L.A." vibe; and Anenon, an experimental saxophonist.

All of these modern musicians will be playing before and informing a slew of contemporary masterpieces created by artists greatly influenced by downtown New York who include: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Jenny Holzer, Chuck Close, Eric Fischl, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, Robert Rauschenberg and Kenny Scharf among many others.

Hell, who first moved to New York City in the late-60s to be a poet, has lived in the same East Village apartment since 1975. When asked about his conception of what "downtown" means and the once-flourishing culture of his neighborhood in the 1970s and '80s, he chalks up part of it to real estate. "I don't know what accounts for it suddenly developing here and there," he says, "but I know that it is often encouraged by being an affordable place that's internationally appealing. That was true of Paris between the wars and that was true of New York in the 70s. It's not true of New York now," he says. "Everyone today wants to write a blockbuster app... that's what people who live in Williamsburg want to do and that's very different from what we were doing."