Visual artist G. Farrel Kellum says he's passionate about the hip-hop influence on his work

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Kellum has a new exhibit, "Urban Aesthetics," that opens Friday.

G. Farrel Kellum
Photo courtesy of G. Farrel Kellum on Instagram
G. Farrel Kellum in his studio at Ninth and Spring Garden streets
Hillary Petrozziello

Staring at one of G. Farrel Kellum's mixed-media sculptures, the first thing I notice is a 45 r.p.m. of James Brown's "Caldonia." My eyes travel up and notice a cutout of a bottle of Armadale vodka (a bottle of Armadale!), another of a Suzuki motorcycle and finally a man in a red sweatsuit, missing his face. Who might that be?

"It's no one," the 67-year-old, West Philadelphia-bred Kellum says. "I took advantage of the shape — I love the shape. I love the way that he was sitting. It was very much conducive to the narrative that I was trying to put into the piece."

Kellum's narratives don't run in a straight line. Instead, he bounces around from topic to topic, cautioning that we're only really "skimming the surface." The pieces hanging in his studio are dressed in splatter and marked with curving, unintelligible graffiti-inspired writing. His comfort as a painter is apparent, but his training (at the University of the Arts) was actually in illustration.

He's not 100 percent on board with being called a hip-hop visual artist, and yet "Urban Aesthetics," an exhibition of his work opening Friday at the University City Arts League, 4226 Spruce St., has been lovingly steeped in the genre's iconography. City Paper spoke with Kellum, following him from one sculpture to another, as he described inspirations for pieces in his new exhibit. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

City Paper: Urban is becoming a loaded term. What does urban mean in this context?
G. Farrel Kellum: Everything has a negative and a positive, without a doubt. The way I look at urban is the great experiences that I had growing up.
Just walking around the city, I see mailboxes that have all the graffiti on it. You see all of this stuff that is violated. But as I walk around, this is the artist side of me, or I guess the Buddhist side of me — I'm not a Buddhist, but there's a part of me that is — I see beauty. ... I feel very fortunate to live in a city. To me, these are free art galleries.

CP: Was capturing different eras important to you for this show?
GFK: Here's the bottom line: I don't consider myself necessarily a hip-hop artist — I do a lot of different things. But I'm passionate about the influence that hip-hop has in my work.
I love my jazz. I love my classical music. I love my R&B, the blues. But here's this hip-hop that's — all of a sudden — its light was really shining. Really, it permeated. It was able to flow into these other disciplines that I felt comfortable with over the years.

CP: Which themes did you work on before this?
GFK: I did a series called Flashs from a Disfigured Heritage. That was a lot of African masks broken up into pieces. It sounds really ugly, and the message is sad, but there's still this power within the image. After that series, that's when I really started focusing on the middle passage to the urban contemporary — how hip-hop changed the world I see around me. Look at this piece right here.
If you look closely, [there are] prehistoric palimpsests — African palimpsests— there. This is written language in Africa before we were dragged [to America]. It's all hidden. They pop out, ghost-like, here and there. Then if you look closely, somewhere along the line there's binary code. Then you have [graffiti] hits.

CP: These examples you pointed out, is this how you hear hip-hop music?
GFK: Yes. Yes. Yes.

CP: Why does history matter so much to you as an artist?
GFK: It's inseparable. It's breaking away from a dualistic way of looking at things. It's getting away from a dogma that there's no connection.

The Urban Aesthetics show opens Friday at the University City Arts League, 4226 Spruce St., and runs through June 27.

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