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Michael Mahalchick performing “Picasso Baby” at Louis B. James (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jay Z’s “performance art film” may be debuting on HBO tonight, but if you weren’t cool enough to be invited to missed his live performance at Pace and are craving something a little more real, there’s Michael Mahalchick. He’s currently performing “Picasso Baby” for six hours straight at Louis B. James gallery on the Lower East Side. He’ll be there until 6 pm today. Go.

Mahalchick doing the nerdy white-guy version (click to enlarge)

Mahalchick is big, goofy, endearing, and white. He’s got different versions of the song in his repertoire, which he dresses up with character-appropriate sunglasses. When I visited this afternoon, I saw two: the gangsta version, in which he channels Jay Z and flows pretty easily, and the nerdy white guy version, in which he channels Woody Allen and delivers the lines congenially, as if they were a corny joke. Or as one fellow audience member put it, “I think that’s the Jew version.”

The atmosphere in the white-walled gallery basement was super laid back and informal, with Mahalchick stumbling over the lines at times (rapping is hard!), laughing, and chatting with guests between takes. “I think I got these free at Burger King,” he said, donning a pair of frames with thick lines of gold on top. He was quick to point out that his version was for everyone, not just select invited guests, and that “I’m not making it an endurance performance; I’m making it an appropriation performance.”

One of the strengths of appropriation art is the way it calls attention to its original source, often making the latter seem foreign, or at least getting us to rethink it, by changing the context. That effect was definitely in practice at Louis B. James, where Mahalchick’s repetition of the words made them seem unbelievably strange, at times misogynistic and at others surprisingly relevant. When Mahalchick said, “Surrounded by Warhols” and gestured to the artwork on the walls, were we seeing the work of future Warhols? On the other hand, “Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up / Condos in my condos, I wanna row of / Christie’s with my missy, live at the MoMA” — what does that mean? Audience members chuckled and laughed throughout the performances; one woman even asked if those were the real lyrics. During another rendition, when Mahalchick rapped the Mona Lisa line — “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa / the modern-day version with better features” — a man in the audience shook his head and buried it in his hands. “Ca ca” sounded distinctly fecal.

Another nerdy version, with different sunglasses

When I asked Mahalchick more about his reasons for the performance, he explained, “If Jay Z’s now a performance artist, I can be rapper.” And then he added a thought Jay Z would no doubt approve of: “He has the cash and the caché — I have the caché, and I’m trying to get the cash.”

Michael Mahalchick is performing “Picasso Baby” at Louis B. James gallery (143B Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) gallery through 6 pm today.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

27 replies on ““Picasso Baby,” One More Time”

  1. I guess it’s easier to write about something when it perpetuates the status quo of the art world… Jay Z in one afternoon does more to bring the art world to a community that has been systematically shut out by that world for decades, but all anyone can talk about is how it signifies the “end” of things? To that, I question what “end” are we talking about? To me, the fact that a white man can appropriate a Jay Z performance and have an actual critical discussion written about it speaks volumes about the white male privilege prevalent in the art world people are so desperate to keep from coming to an end. I have many problems with Jay Z, but despite that I can still recognize the impact he has on many people who still believe (justifiably of not) that the art wold isn’t, and never will be open for them. I grew up believing I was one of those people, but was lucky enough to have some extraordinary teachers who taught me otherwise. Anything that helps bring those walls down, I’m all for.

    1. Jay-Z appropriated his performance wholesale from a Serbian-born, sextegenarian woman.

      How does that fit into this equation of privilege?

    2. I would first off like to point out that I didn’t use the word “end” once in this piece. And in the previous one, which you’re obviously referring to, it was tongue in cheek. That said, I’m happy to hear that Jay Z’s performance had that kind of positive impact on you. I find it hard to understand how filming a music video in a room at one of the biggest-name galleries in the art world with artists and fellow insiders does anything to break or challenge any kind of status quo. Not even close. I assure you that I have no interest in keeping white male privilege prevalent in the art world, but in the case of Jay vs. Mahalchick, it comes down to whether the “art” was actually interesting. And the latter was a lot more.

      1. The “end” I am referring to is this notion that his performance in some way damages the art world… a sentiment that seems to be shared by many people, not you specifically. I just find it frustrating that there hasn’t been any conversation about the demographic Jay Z appeals to, their attitudes on art, and how this performance may change their perceptions of it. Never would I have expected to see hip hop bloggers talking about Marina Abramovic, but now she (and performance art by extension) has been exposed to that community. It may be small, but it’s a start. I’ve been fortunate enough to have Marina as a guest lecturer in a class I took with RoseLee Goldberg years ago, which still has a tremendous impact on me to this day. The video is obviously an insider party, but I doubt the casual Jay Z fan knew who she was (along with many of the other insiders) prior to this music video. I think it’s important to recognize our own privilege when we critique, and accept that non-traditional points of access into the arts are sometimes necessary.

        1. I would actually love to hear about how Jay Z’s performance may have affected his demographic, about how hip-hop bloggers are writing about Abramovic…if you have something to point me to, please do, or if you have thoughts on this, you should write something! From my POV, I didn’t really see how his performance would do much to open up a dialogue about art: if fans watching the video don’t know who the people are anyway, then they’re neither in on the joke nor learning much, no? But I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise, and I think you’re definitely right that it’s important to be aware of our privilege when we critique. Thanks for that reminder.

        2. your premise that Marina Abramovic is obscure to anybody seems flawed, she has been courting the mainstream media like she were a Kardasian for the last few years

          1. Mainstream to whom? The idea that she isn’t obscure to some people just demonstrates the kind of tunnel vision I am talking about.

          2. mainstream is mainstream

            her institute was news on all the normal news cycles

            lady gaga was in the video for her kickstarter

            Willem Dafoe is in her “life and death” thing

            you know

            pop-culture mainstream

            i don’t know anything about high-culture and i know who she is

          3. I hate to break it to you, but there are many people (both in the US and abroad) that do not care about or follow what Gaga, Defoe, or Abramovic do. Maybe all those hip-hop fans are secretly into Lady Gaga as well… who knows?

          4. have fun being done in your cocoon of hip-hop culture which is apparently impenetrable by things like the network news or national newspapaers, where all us dummies learn about popular culture

          5. Okay then, I’m not done… Not sure why you would assume I am in a “cocoon of hip-hop culture” (though I can guess what superficial reason would lead you to that point). I just think it is naive to assume that someone is known by everyone because they appear in a news program or a magazine. There are so many other factors that contribute to how “popular” culture is defined at an individual level; Geography, income, education, class and race play a huge part as well. But I guess I’ll just take my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NYU and go sit in my coCOON… SMH

          6. if you decide to delete your comment it becomes an anonymous comment, turning individuals who thought better of the discussion they were persuing in the open into anonymous trolls

          7. i want to know, enlighten me?

            do you mean that he is right that it is a mistake to define popular culture by what the media covers?

            i thought stuff the media didn’t cover was considered dichotomous to popular culture, and labeled “underground”

    3. Actually, they both perpetuate the status quo of the art world, since it is all so infatuated with materialism and celebrity that the art is a commodity. Acquisition of Big Names. How much of Jay-Z’s lyrics in Picasso Baby are about acquiring versus the ones about admiring?

      The headline of the first article (if it’s the same one I read here on hyperallergic) that hinted at the claim of “the death of performance art” was taken directly from public tweets. The article was essentially a compilation of public, social media reaction.

      As for something positive to take from this, I’m certain there could have been something there, but it all gets so muddled in the multiple layers of exclusivity (and therefore becomes just like any other Big Name art party), such as the guest list of art stars and critics, that it amounts to yet another private art function.

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