Writing on the wall: Roger Gastman pumps up the Corcoran

February 28, 2013

Sterile, white-washed walls of art galleries often eclipse the very artwork they present, sending the comparatively insignificant pieces into a void beyond the reach of memory and effortless appeal. Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s, the Corcoran’s latest exhibit running through Apr. 7, evades this danger and becomes a vibrant work of art in and of itself while cataloguing the tumult of the D.C. underground scene.

Though it is arranged chronologically, the giant collage of an exhibit is far more than a simple documentary on the 1980s. Curated by Bethesda, Md. graffiti artist Roger Gastman, Pump Me Up weaves together a tapestry of intertwined themes throughout the Corcoran’s atrium and rotunda as it traces D.C.’s history from 1968 to 1992 through the lens of Go-Go music, the rise of punk, the war on drugs, and a growing appreciation of graffiti as an art form.

A brief section on the ‘70s serves as a base for the remainder of the exhibit; photos and framed newspaper clippings from the race riots of 1968, including black-and-white shots of “soul brother” hastily scrawled on storefront windows to prevent looting, are juxtaposed with 7- and 12-inch singles from emerging Go-Go and punk groups. Flyers announcing concerts, most notably a neon pink hand-written sign advertising the performance of the B-52s and the Urban Verbs at the Corcoran Art Gallery, dot the early sections of the exhibit.

The 1980s begin with color photos of the opening of the 9:30 Club as the impetus of the hardcore scene that dives into a rich, vivid segment of Pump Me Up that does not fade until the final collage. An extensive collection of independent punk label Dischord Records’ Minor Threat memorabilia, including the original handwritten lyrics of anti-drug anthem “Straight Edge” and concert tapes repeated on flat-screens complete with headphones, transitions into T.T.E.D. Records’ LPs and continued coverage of popularization of Go-Go music as a genre unique to D.C.

Particularly enthralling is the sizeable collection of bright District graffiti ranging from Go-Go-related photo collages to the New York-style tags growing in popularity and merging with local styles in 1986. Nearly every renowned Go-Go artist is pictured with a signature style at the relevant historical section of the exhibit.

The most prominently displayed artist is Cool “Disco” Dan, whose infamous tag, seen on buses, buildings, and billboards, is a pervasive part of the D.C. landscape. His tribute of a scattered series of photos and news coverage includes a section of wooden wall featuring an original tag and a rare 1991 photograph from a Washington Post profile. While such artifacts may be individually insignificant and fleeting in a larger historical context, their presence in Pump Me Up grants legitimacy to and guarantees the timelessness of the exhibit as a whole.

This ephemeral nature of each individual work is perhaps the most salient feature of Pump Me Up. A decidedly local scope largely ignores the broader history of D.C., instead offering a natural yet meta-historical snapshot of the 1980s. Framed photographs of arrests made by the MPD Narcotics Division, a rotunda inundated with Globe Poster Printing Corp. ads for Go-Go performances, and the board game “Just Say No” among randomly scattered anti-drug propaganda in a glass stand epitomize the Corcoran exhibit, sending the visitor head-first into a pulsating assault on the senses rivaled only by the genuine experience of living through the ‘80s in the District’s underground.

Kirill Makarenko
Former Assistant Leisure Editor

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