THE COOGI sweater: Those colorful monstrosities of fabric that Bill Cosby sported weekly on his eponymous show and later rapper Notorious B.I.G. would appropriate for himself. Who knew they could be art?
Jayson Musson did.
Musson, who spent almost half of his 34 years learning and making art in Philadelphia, cuts up each sweater and stitches the pieces back together, stretching the finished piece so it looks like a painting from far away, but up close is filled with differing textures as the knits create mountains and valleys of color.
Musson started creating these works while in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, after his rap group, Plastic Little, went on hiatus. Musson never thought he'd end up at the ivory tower institution, but it was at Penn he got his first taste of art world kudos from outside of Philly, when he debuted his YouTube persona, Hennessy Youngman, who hilariously sends up the art world in a series of videos that have attracted 1.7 million viewers. (Check them out yourself at youtube.com/user/HennesyYoungman.)
Last July, Musson had his first New York solo show at Salon 94, a gallery in New York. His current show, "A True Fiend's Weight," opens Thursday at Center City's Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. There his work will sell from $10,000 to $30,000.
Musson currently lives in an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, N.Y., that, at the time of our chat, contained a large pile of Coogi sweaters cut to ribbons on the floor. He's a big guy, made taller by the mound of hair on his head, fashioned into a pyramid shape that makes him look like some sort of hip-hop mad scientist. That's what he is to some degree, remixing this icon of black pop culture, the Coogi sweater, and placing it into traditions of abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock.
"[Musson's work] isn't just, 'Hey, I stretched sweaters,' " said artist Andrew Jeffrey Wright, a member of the art collective Space 1026, which gave Musson his first solo show in 2002. "It's a specific type of sweater that means a specific thing, dealing with '90s pop culture and hip-hop. But then it's really abstractly interesting to look at, too."
Before Musson was a Philly boy making good in Brooklyn, he grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y., a predominantly black middle-class suburb north of Manhattan.
"Hip-hop was part of the soundscape of where I'm from," Musson said.
"All of our culture was black culture."
That theme has pervaded Musson's work since his early Philly shows, like his poster series "Too Black for BET." He turned down a spot at New York's selective School of Visual Arts to attend Temple University.
"I held Philadelphia in a very romantic light," Musson said. "[Black Panther Party co-founder] Bobby Seale taught at Temple, taught criminal justice, and that was a big sell, to take a class with someone who formed black history."
Musson thought he would go to Temple to develop his brain rather than study art. "But when I was at Temple, I was just drawing fliers for house parties," he said. So he transferred to the University of the Arts, majoring in photography.
In 2001, he formed the hip-hop group Plastic Little, where he went by the name PackofRats. Plastic Little went on to share stages with guys like Diplo (who was also originally based in Philadelphia) and Jay-Z, and worked with other Philly musicians like Spank Rock and Amanda Blank.
But Musson was putting art on the back burner and he needed a change, applying to Penn's master's of fine arts program on the insistence of a former UArts professor, Gabriel Martinez. "I needed something more stable than music," Musson said. He wouldn't trade his time in Plastic Little for anything, but he was also broke, regularly eating white rice with General Tso's sauce (no chicken) from the Chinese spot down the block from his North Philly apartment.
"I'd figured I'd go to grad school, to teach art, to have more stability," Musson said. Then he laughed.
"People I tell this to, go to graduate school for stability, they laugh at me, especially for art."
Graduate school at Penn was a culture shock for Musson. All of a sudden he had to read dense art texts and exist in the Penn culture bubble that he never thought he would be a part of. He said it was like learning a new language.
That's when Hennessy Youngman was born.
Hennessy, according to Musson, is a "cartoon character," a Def Comedy Jam comedian talking about fine art, a person with seemingly no authority parsing complicated art world issues. Art in America called Youngman, whom Musson talks about in the third person as if it isn't his own creation, "Ali G with an MFA." In each video, Musson-as-Youngman wears thick gold chains and glammed-up baseball hats. Each video begins, "What up, Internet?" then goes on to talk about beauty, post-structuralism and how to handle a studio visit from potential buyers. Pro tip: Always have snacks.
"Hennessy was a way to deal with a history I didn't feel a part of and make fun of it at the same time," Musson said.
The Hennessy Youngman videos blew up Musson's art world profile, landing him an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts last year and the July show in New York.
Musson sees the irony in becoming an art world insider by portraying the ultimate outsider, but that in itself is a contemporary art tradition.
"The contemporary art world loves to take the piss out of itself," said Alex Baker, the director of Fleisher/Ollman. "But no one has done it with that kind of humor and wit, that hip-hop gangsta of the art world."
There's a danger for an artist like Musson that the character he created will overtake his legitimate work. But while the art world was watching Hennessy, Musson was creating his first Coogi-based works.
"I've written enough videos, I know [Hennessy Youngman] now, so it's absolutely boring to me. But I can put that down and go back to making physical art objects or writing other things," Musson said. "I always let myself have the space to shift around and play, but I hate doing the same thing over and over again."