“Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s” at Corcoran Gallery of Art to April 7 The Corcoran's retrospective presents an awkward definition of D.C. subculture.

Nick Smith, “Go-Go Tonya F” (2008)

It is a testament to how flat D.C. is today—despite every swagger-jacking bar that the Hilton brothers roll out on U Street, every New York Times article announcing Washington’s arrival as a second city, the edgy art galleries moving to Northeast and wealthy art collectors moving to Southwest, or, through another lens, as a result of these market factors that both enrich and blanch the capital city—that a show about 1980s D.C. subculture can claim almost every aspect of that decade as part of the subcurrent. Everything about D.C. in the 1980s reads as subcultural in comparison with D.C. in the 2010s: go-gos, not condos; punk, not pork belly. Even when that impression is flat-out wrong, “Pump Me Up” strains to make it look right.

“Pump Me Up” is part anthropological dig, part oral history, and part hall of fame. The show is the work of curator Roger Gastman, the graffiti archivist who worked as a consulting producer for the Banksy film Exit Through the Gift Shop and executive producer of the new documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan. (Washington City Paper is the show’s media sponsor.) The Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibit is his second curatorial effort in two years: “Art in the Streets,” a survey of graffiti and fine art, opened in 2011 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “Pump Me Up” hits closer to home for Gastman, a Bethesda native who contributed many of the best artifacts in the exhibit, including a staggering suite of go-go posters from the Globe Poster Printing Corporation that shine in the Corcoran’s rotunda.

But if the show’s highlights are Gastman’s contributions, so are its blind spots. While the show’s catalog mentions Harry Knorr, the graphic artist whose DayGlo inks and wood-type designs made Globe posters the preferred design house of go-go musicians, he’s ignored in the exhibit. Globe started getting its due from the art world well before the company shut its doors: John Waters created a Globe-style print that made the cover of Artforum back in 2004. Other outlets have showcased Globe’s famous showcards. “Pump Me Up” missed an opportunity to tell us about the man behind the type. Knorr’s influence on the 1980s D.C. aesthetic rivals that of Cool “Disco” Dan’s, but in Gastman’s personal cosmology, street-art writers trump other visual and graphic artists. That’s too bad. Some people say that D.C. painter (and Corcoran instructor) Tom Green, who died last year, played an unrecognized role in shaping the career of artist Keith Haring and in transforming street-art vernacular into a fine-art concern.

Green’s legend belongs in any story about 1980s D.C. subculture, but the focus of “Pump Me Up” lies elsewhere: the dueling banjos of go-go and hardcore, or the District in the 1980s more broadly construed, or some muddying of all these streams. The exhibit proceeds chronologically, from a brief gloss of the riots in 1968 and a mention of go-go in the 1970s to 1980, at which point the show provides a year-by-year accounting of the D.C. underground. The flow of album sleeves and show flyers is punctuated by archival material on pivotal moments in D.C. history, from the media frenzy following the 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller to the uproar surrounding the 1990 drug bust of then-Mayor Marion Barry. Crime and corruption aren’t “subculture” issues. It would be hard to pass over these events in any official retelling of Washington’s history.

In places, however, the show fails to provide necessary detail. It’s not clear whether the notorious Fuller murder took place in Northeast or Northwest, for example; that may seem like nitpicking, but knowing the home turf of the Eighth and H Crew—whose members were convicted of Fuller’s murder—stands to educate newcomers who may only know H Street NE as a nightlife playground for a young and largely white middle class. And, in 1984, it was not inconceivable that a brazen murder could happen at 8th and H streets NW, in the heart of a bleak, pre-Bed Bath & Beyond Chinatown.

“Pump Me Up” is on firmer ground with its look at the factors of life in D.C. that relate specifically to its subculture, such as crews and DIY, though the show dissects these regional qualities with scientific remove. “Crews are chiefly made up of black males from the same neighborhoods, but some have a female contingent as well,” some robotic wall text reads. “Pump Me Up” may be concerned with subculture, but it is not a piece of it.

The show’s chief failure is its absent voice—it lacks both swagger and gravitas. The crack epidemic gets played for cheap laughs, from a dumb Nancy Reagan–era “Just Say No” board game to a horrifying chalk outline (actually made with tape) of a dead body that greets Corcoran visitors near the entrance. The outline is too tasteless for words; it should be removed. A show that glosses the crack epidemic can’t ignore the AIDS epidemic, but “Pump Me Up” does. Gays and women appeared to play few significant roles in D.C.’s subculture, which would make it a unique one, if that were remotely true. Cynthia Connolly is one visual artist celebrated by “Pump Me Up,” but primarily for drawing the black-sheep cover for Minor Threat’s Out of Step and for co-editing the book Banned in D.C.—less so for her own photography.

Meanwhile, I suppose it’s cool to see original lyrics by Minor Threat framed and hanging like art. It’s fine for a curator to canonize Ian MacKaye and elevate his effects as relics, of course. But anyone who has given even a passing listen to the decades’ worth of songs that MacKaye has written knows that no one could wish less for lionization. This show also doesn’t take a rounded approach to its heroes even as it embraces them. An art-house band called Urban Verbs once played with The B-52s at the Corcoran, we understand from show flyers, but there’s nothing else about band member Robin Rose, one of the visual artists who pushed the art scene forward after the sunset of the Washington Color School heyday. Some of the people who captured local history get short shrift, too: “Pump Me Up” features concert photos of Bad Brains’ H.R. but misses an opportunity to tell us how local Pulitzer-winning photographer Lucian Perkins took those photos in the first place.

Parts of the Corcoran should have been rendered absolutely off-limits—in particular the Tyler Gallery’s hall of glass vitrines, where Rare Essence trumpeter Little Benny’s horn is on view alongside DJ Kool’s turntable, Chuck Brown’s leather jacket, and MacKaye’s skateboard. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame treatment doesn’t suit DIY.

The abundance of archival material works to reveal the ubiquity of D.C. graffiti, the straightforward stuff of “Cool Ass Lisa of the World” or “Cool ‘Disco’ Dan.” The text-heavy style was subsumed by the more graphical graffiti coming out of New York less than a decade after the D.C. style was born, and “Pump Me Up” shows how this evolution happened in D.C. with the baroque street-writing of SEVEN and HOA (Hoodz of Art, a crew consisting of SER, REK, and GRIZ). Eventually, some enterprising curator will trace the lineage from Cool “Disco” Dan to SEVEN to Borf and beyond—right up to the moment when corporations got into the game, and bored Corcoran kids put down Krylon paint for Adobe Illustrator.

It’s less clear what history “Pump Me Up” is supposed to track. It’s a sure corrective to anyone who’s read with sincere interest a trend story about how the District’s small stakes have been replaced by small plates. And it’s something of a dedication to fans of go-go and fans of hardcore, who may have once lived in parallel Districts of Columbia but now find themselves living increasingly in a shared past. At its lowest, “Pump Me Up” feels like an invitation to District gentrifiers to participate in the culture that they have displaced—its crack and crews and ’core, all safely behind museum doors. None of those conclusions is fair or complete. The same could be said of “Pump Me Up.”

Our Readers Say

the arguments on whats lacking seem to nitpick on a borderline obsessive compulsive behavior. with limited size and resources i thought the four curators managed to produce a nice cross section of d.c in the 80's told through "dueling banjo" musical styles, and yes to dip peoples toes into the urban shame that many ignored. but sadly the same broad strokes used to criticize this exhibit are the same ones used to write it. Yes, Cynthia Connolly and other women contributed greatly to to the dc punk scene and all of this has been documented in other punk artifact text including her opus banned in D.C., Queer subcultures are still being unearthed but lets not forget that Reagan was an AIDS denialist and a majority of interesting queer culture was taking place primarily in new york and san francisco. In D.C. even today queer is something that is discussed distastefully unless you're a woo girl out on the town with your bridesmaids friends trying to hit all those naughty spots. D.C. has always been a transient town where the people in power flee after dark only i found it refreshing to see a walk down memory lane reminding me of seedier stomping grounds and when the city had any pulse of life. i somehow suspect you aren't a native to the area, and thats fine but shoud something like this arise i propose a business venture. you bring some writings and ill bring some sugar. Then ill serve lemonade for everyone else to enjoy

a queer harDCore kid
To build on what Linas said; It is clear that the exhibit, and the main focus was lost to you (Mr. Capps), you clearly do not get it, which is fine. It is subculture for a reason, and you are an outsider thus not expected to. My main problem with your review is you assume that the Curators (mainly Roger) think "street-art writers trump other visual and graphic artists", this is both absurd, and uninformed.
To review, this is a not an exhibit about DC area visual artists, this is an exhibit on DC subculture focusing on hardcore, punk, go-go, graffiti and all the things that may (or may not) have shaped it. Did some things get left out? Yes they did, but to nitpick the way you do in your review is cheap, and you come off as if you are offended that your favorite local artists were not included. I also sense a bit of jealousy that you are not part of these scenes in your review, dare I say sour grapes?
You know, me and you have a lot in common. I'm into hip hop music, but not part of the scene. I have a big body of knowledge when it comes to hip hop and I can criticize quickly anything that falls short of telling the true story of hip hop. But, at least I can say that in the hip hop scene, I don't fit in, and though I could point out where a recording/exhibition/concert falls short, one thing remains-I still don't fit in.
Originally I wrote a long, drawn out comment in response to this review, but just as I finished writing I remembered some words from DC's past that cover everything I wanted to say far better than I ever could. So in defense of Roger & everyone that put in the hard work to bring the Pump Me Up exhibit to life;
"You tell me that I make no difference, well at least I'm fucking trying. What the fuck have you done?!?" -Minor Threat
how can you expect from a rich kid from the burbs to depict how dc really was. roger has never set foot in a go-go in his life, and much like bad brains he was banned from coming into the city for quite a few years for being a bitch and not facing his problems, so yeah, maybe from going to a few shows and having enough money to buy out peoples records he can tell the "diy" aspect of dc hardcore, which really he wasnt much part of, but much of the real street scene, be it go-go or even hardcore was lost to him, almost in the same way some want to act old school when they werent around either.
i wrote this on a friends facebook, you cant tell history you havent lived, you can only tell stories, which for the most part tend to be fiction, much like the roger story.
the movie i havent seen but i hear it was directed correctly by joseph, which is a good thing since i like his work.
"All of this has been documented in her book" really? Because most of the women in that book are behind the camera. That's part of the point. Also, yes, nobody has ever written about white dudes in punk bands before, I had never even heard of them before this show, isn't it nice that the Corcoran was here to illuminate us?

Why is double-dipping in the attention bucket only a concern when it is women and minorities getting attention? The perception is that they are only worthy of artistic or historical consideration because they are women or people of color, so anything but a passing PC mention is over-blowing their accomplishments, whereas (white) men made "real" or "important" contributions that are worth repeating.

I really liked the exhibit and I learned a lot. I think it's a good exhibit and I would encourage others to go see it. But the critique were also substantive and important: women's contributions, queer subcultures, and people whose contributions were as community coordinators, designers, or promoters were all passed over, and they were meaningful and deserving of attention. Anybody who says that they got only passing mention because they weren't that big a deal is just showing off their own ignorance. DC Punk and Go-Go (represented primarily in this exhibit through the attention given to male lead singers like Brown) may be iconic representations of the city, but in a show focused on "subcultures" you do have to talk about other marginalized cultural communities if you're going to walk the walk, and it does no service to the stories you're trying to tell to erase or minimize the role of those who complicate the narrative. Especially when these histories are not "lost"--you have people like Connolly working to actively document them, as well as leaders or participants intimately involved in these scenes who are still alive and able to provide you with information--just as they have provided artifacts for the show, even though their own contributions to the culture are marginalized.

Identifying the silences in the way well-funded exhibits in privileged halls articulate history IS doing something. It highlights that which is deserving of attention despite its absence from a mainstream narrative--precisely the point of this exhibit. This exhibit does a lot of interesting work, and I'm glad it was made, but that doesn't make it immune from criticism about what's left out of the story it claims to tell.
It's fitting that this article opens with the term "swagger jacking," because linking MacKaye, Rollins and the other Dischord kids to Cool Disco Dan and Go Go is just that. Sure there was the occasional punk-funk show, but by and large those scenes were very separate, and the Dischord followers were the only people in the history of Go Go, black or white, who didn't dance as soon as Trouble Funk started up.

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