At first glance, Matthew McLendon seems like an unlikely catalyst for a hip-hop-influenced art exhibit at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
The museum’s 6-foot-4 associate curator of modern and contemporary art grew up in a small town outside of St. Augustine studying opera and piano.
A graduate of Florida State University, he received his bachelor’s degree in music and art history before heading off to England for his master’s degree and Ph.D. in art history at the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.
During that time, McLendon worked at the Tate Britain, a 114-year-old gallery that houses British art from the year 1500 to today. The experience solidified his decision to stop singing and pursue a career as an art curator, an occupation that McLendon, 34, says invigorates him and keeps his mind sharp.
None of this, however, explains the art aficionado’s unabashed love affair with hip-hop music.
“I am the hip-hop generation,” McLendon says. “I’ve not known the world without hip-hop. When I was a kid, those were the CDs I bought, the tapes I bought. Growing up in rural North Florida, it really defined my view of the urban existence. MTV was my world.”
“Beyond Bling: Voices of Hip-Hop in Art,” which opens this Saturday at the Ringling Museum, is McLendon’s love letter to a creative culture that rarely receives attention from art institutions.
It’s an exhibit that he says has been brewing in the “dark recesses” of his mind for years.
The former curator of academic initiatives at Cornell Fine Arts Museum, at Rollins College, in Winter Park, McLendon, who was hired last year by Ringling, is the first modern and contemporary art curator the museum has seen in 15 years.
His arrival couldn’t come at a better time for the museum, which has garnered even more national attention, thanks to the Ringling International Arts Festival and its lineup of hot up-and-coming performing-arts acts.
“The museum understood that to stay relevant, you have to offer a broad range of art,” McLendon says. “It’s not that modern and contemporary art hasn’t been on view. It just that it hasn’t consistently been on view.”
Now over a year in the making, “Beyond Bling” is McLendon’s biggest project to date.
The exhibit, which features the work of Gajin Fujita, Luis Gispert, Sofia Maldonado, Nadine Robinson, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Iona Rozeal Brown and Vince Fraser, also includes three performances May 19 to May 21 by Puremovement, a Philadelphia-based, hip-hop dance ensemble led by Rennie Harris, whom McLendon describes as a the “godfather of hip-hop choreography.”
The curator says he’s not worried that “Bling” will struggle to find an audience in Sarasota.
“I think one of the things that people will come to understand is that hip-hop culture is ubiquitous,” McLendon says. “Whether you know it or not, it informs all aspects of our lives. I mean, even the word ‘bling.’ Most people know what that means.”
For those who don’t know what that means, the museum has compiled a glossary of street vocabulary to serve as a reference manual for hip-hop neophytes.
“Some of our older patrons might not have Jay-Z on their iPods, but their grandchildren do,” McLendon says. “One of the things I’m hoping this show will do is spark intergenerational dialogue. I can’t think of anything better to come out of an exhibition.”
MCLENDON’S HIP-HOP FAVES
“I grew up listening to the Beastie Boys. They were played at every school dance.”
“That sounds kind of trite, huh? Who doesn’t love Beyoncé?”
“I think he’s a genius linguistically, but he’s certainly controversial.”
“He’s a remarkable wordsmith.”
“I’m completely in love with her right now. What can I say? I like good dance tracks.”
IF YOU GO
“Beyond Bling” runs May 21 through Aug. 14, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The preview of the exhibit kicks off at 9 p.m. Friday, May 20, with the Hip-Hop Lounge featuring music by DJ Imminent and a performance by Philadelphia-based hip-hop dance troupe Rennie Harris Puremovement.
For more information, call 359-5700 or visit www.ringling.org.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected].