“Picasso Baby,” One More Time

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