Impressions of Ringling's "Beyond Bling"

By Megan McDonald May 19, 2011

I fully admit that when I RSVPed to the media preview of the Ringling Museum of Art’s Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art, I was skeptical. Beyond Bling is billed as a celebration of hip-hop and a conversation about how it affects all aspects of our contemporary culture, and I wondered about that. Hip-hop? Really?

When I arrived at the museum, I learned that Dr. Matthew McLendon, the exhibit’s curator and the Ringling’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art, would be taking us on a walking tour of the exhibit and talking about each artist, one or two of his or her paintings, and the philosophy behind his or her work. McLendon is young, but he’s also an encyclopedia of art knowledge, and listening to him discuss why he decided to put on Beyond Bling quickly made me a believer.

Vince Fraser's Bling Pop.


All of the artists featured in Beyond Bling, McLendon explained, are truly contemporary artists—in fact, all of the work in the show is from the 21st century.  Ten artists in total are represented, of all different ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation. Admitting that hip-hop has, at times, been thought of as misogynistic and homophobic, McLendon said that he hopes to “turn [those thoughts] on their head. Four out of 10 of the artists are women, and there are also openly gay men and women in the exhibit.”

When asked what he thought the Ringling Museum’s regular patrons—some of whom are older—would think of the pieces being shown, McLendon replied that he hoped they would spark conversation, and even debate, that is intergenerational. “I’ve had people who are grandparents tell me they’re interested in the work here because their grandkids listen to hip-hop all the time,” he said.

When you walk into the gallery space, you’re given the option of picking up a museum-provided iPod that contains three hip-hop music mixes specifically created to complement the art—appropriate because the first thing that comes to mind for many of us when we think of hip-hop is music.

Sofia Maldonado's Concrete Jungle Divas, which feature Beyonce, Rhianna, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and M.I.A.

You can then meander through the gallery, where you’ll find a mix of art that is both small and large in scale, in a variety of styles—you’ll see portraits, graffiti, photography, paint and mixed media, including video and an eye-catching pair of Swarovski-studded speakers (“something silent that is normally loud, although it’s a loud silence,” McLendon noted).

The points that McLendon brought up as he talked to us are thought-provoking: identity, history, gender and representation, materialism, the subversion of power structures and, of course, the artists’ particular biographies of experience. I’ll leave you to draw your own thoughts from the exhibit—and no matter your age, you should definitely go see it; it runs through August 14—but rest assured you’ll leave with an appreciation for the artists, their work and the hip-hop culture influencing it, which is to say the culture influencing all of us.

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