Review: Jayson Musson’s “The Grand Manner” at PAFA

Fictional hip-hop art commentator Hennesy Youngman has some f*cked up things to say about The Gross Clinic

This ain’t your grandma’s art show.  Jayson Musson’s “The Grand Manner,” the aggressively satirical new installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, seamlessly combines urban culture and in-your-face art commentary with some of the city’s most treasured works of fine art. Don’t forget to bring your cell phone—you’ll need it to experience this show.

Musson, a graduate of University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania, has been making waves around Philly since the early aughts when his energetic rap group, Plastic Little, garnered recognition from music rags like Pitchfork and NME. Since then, he’s shown everywhere from the artist-friendly Last Drop Coffee Shop to the successful Fleisher/Ollman Gallery and briefly wrote “Black Like Me,” a column in the art section of Philadelphia Weekly.

About a year ago, Musson turned his attention to the Web, creating a series of YouTube videos under the guise of an alter-ego named Hennesy Youngman. In these videos, titled “Art Thoughtz,” Youngman weaves his sharp-witted, obscenity-laced, street-smart voice with contemporary art criticism. In just a few short months, the episodes went viral and Youngman has become a underground hero for young artists. Esteemed art magazine Art in America aptly summed up Musson’s work as Hennesy Youngman as “Ali G with an MFA.”

Now, Musson has taken his wise-ass alter-ego off the Internet and into the gallery. In “The Grand Manner,” which opened Friday and runs through February 5th, Youngman takes on a selection of works in the Academy’s revered collection. As visitors enter, Youngman’s face appears on a small television screen where he explains the concept: Throughout the gallery, small tie-dye stickers have been placed next to the works he’s critiqued. Use a cell phone—any cell phone, smart phones aren’t necessary—to call the number printed on the sticker and hear what Hennessy Youngman thinks of the artwork.

Youngman holds nothing back when he weighs in on PAFA’s most beloved treasures. When critiquing Thomas Eakins’s masterpiece The Gross Clinic, he admits he’s not a fan and wonders why Dr. Gross isn’t wearing any gloves. In regard to Militia Training by James G. Clonney, Youngman notes that it looks “more like an old-fashioned b-boy circle” and that “white people always doing something silly trying to be black. Irked by the appearance of a Basset Hound in Charles Wilson Peale’s Noah and His Ark, Youngman ponders why Peale couldn’t “be a bit more discrete about it” if he was going to “fudge biblical history like that,” before concluding, “I don’t really like this painting and I don’t like the way Charlie Peale just went and fucked with the Bible.” When comparing a painting of George Washington to a painting of George III, Youngman admits he has a hard time telling white people apart before launching into a digression about George III’s lavish wardrobe.

The downfall of this exhibit comes in its execution. Descriptions on PAFA’s website detail additional components—including two of Musson’s other alter egos—but they are no where to be found—or not readily evident to visitors. Similarly, the show could take a note from the Whitman’s Sampler and get a map. While wandering, it’s easy to find yourself confused by the seemingly disorganized placement of stickers and it’s disappointing to think that you’ve missed a slice of Youngman’s commentary because you weren’t sure where else to look.

Though Musson’s commentary is often funny, sometimes silly and always charming, it would be a disservice to the artist to dismiss his words as simple comedy. Musson’s critiques have deeper meaning and he’s often addressing racial and gender inequality and other pressing cultural issues when he takes on the persona of Hennesy Youngman.

“The Grand Manner” runs through February 5th.