Retna, the 31-year-old artist from Los Angeles, opened his first New York solo exhibition last week, and I got to see what it’s like to be an artist at the brink of his moment.
Retna, whose real name is Marquis Lewis, comes from a graffiti background. The nom de plume – derived from a Raekwon song – was originally given to a friend. “I gave him a sketch, and he went and battled some dude and he lost,” Retna once said in an interview with Upper Playground. “And he wasn’t even supposed to battle anyone anyway with my sketch that I gave him. And on top of that he lost, so that really pissed me off, so I took the name back.”
Over the past few years Retna has been known less for his graffiti pieces than a unique written language derived from various ancient scripts.
It draws on Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan glyphs, as well as Mexican and pre-Columbian heritage
“It draws on Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Mayan glyphs, as well as Mexican and pre-Columbian heritage,” Jeffrey Deitch, director of MoCA in Los Angeles, said. “He filters those traditions through the tradition of tagging and graffiti that has been seen in Los Angeles since the 1970s. Within these traditions, he has come up with something entirely his own.”
The New York exhibition, majestically titled “The Hallelujah World Tour” (Venice and London are the two other stops) is Retna’s biggest show to date.
Inside a big pop-up space one block away from the West Side Highway, 35 large paintings – almost exclusively black, white and silver – covered virtually every inch of wall space. An installation of block letters, spelling Retna’s name occupied the center of the gallery. There was a line of waiters in black holding glasses of white wine on silver trays. A team of publicists pulled the show’s two organizers, Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, through the gathering crowd for interviews and photo ops.
“It’s a million-dollar show,” said Valmorbida, who owns an eponymous gallery in Manhattan. He was wearing a white shirt (untucked), black tie and black jeans. Restoin-Roitfeld, sporting a dark suit with a finely sculpted scarf situation, stood next to him, surveying the crowded gallery.
Retna: His First Graffiti Piece
The two profess to be star makers to mid-career artists. “We set up a package for the artist, with gallery and exhibitions and publicity,” Valmorbida said. “We look at thousands of artists and pick one.”
In 2008, they plucked Richard Hambleton, a street artist and contemporary of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, out of relative obscurity and promoted him as the forgotten connection to that golden age of graffiti. They set up star-studded shows for Hambleton in New York, London, Moscow, Milan and Cannes. The show in New York sold out.
Valmorbida and Restoin-Roitfeld have the same plans for Retna, who sold almost all his paintings (at prices upward of $25,000) before the night was over. “He has what it takes to make it big,” Valmorbida said.
“The Hallelujah World Tour” is on view at 560 Washington St., New York, NY, through February 21.
Follow Richard S. Chang on Twitter: @r_s_c
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