Contact: Jean Dykstra
Brooklyn-based artist Jayson Musson is best known for his alter ego, Hennessy Youngman, the character featured in the YouTube phenomenon Art Thoughtz. In September, the Web site Artinfo.com named Art Thoughtz to its list of “100 Most Iconic Artworks of the Last Five Years.” Art historian Huey Copeland, the director of graduate studies at Northwestern University, calls the character “a thinking man’s thug.”
During a conversation between Musson and Copeland, held as part of the Albert Gallatin Lecture Series on September 20 in the packed Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts, the men spoke about the sharp-tongued Youngman and Musson’s other artistic pursuits.
In circa-2001 hip hop clothes, “mall-bought ice,” as Musson described the jewelry, and cartoon-character caps, Hennessy Youngman sits in front of a webcam, addresses his audience as “Internet” (“Greetings, Internet.”) and makes pointed, funny, obscenity-laced tirades about the art world. His subjects have included “Graduate School,” “Damien Hirst” and “Relational Aesthetics.”
When asked by Copeland about elements of “de-skilling” and “faux naiveté” that are found in his performance of Youngman, Musson explained that he developed the character while immersed in the language of art theory and criticism as an M.F.A. student at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I thought it would be funny if someone who was ill-equipped to talk about these things could talk about them,” he said. In discussing the art world, Hennessy Youngman addresses some of its underlying preconceptions. In “How to Be a Successful Artist,” Youngman’s first direction is to “be a white man.” In “How to Be a Successful Black Artist,” he instructs his audience to be angry.
Despite his critiques of the art world, Musson doesn’t see himself as an outsider. “If you’re criticizing art and if you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re operating within the system,” he said.
In fact, Musson has made paintings and curated exhibitions, most famously the show It’s a Small Small World at the Family Business gallery in New York. As curator, Musson promised that anyone who could get their work to the gallery by a certain date would be included in the show. The closet-sized gallery had to stop accepting submissions early due to the enthusiastic response.
His work was exhibited this past summer at Salon 94 in the show Halcyon Days. It featured “paintings” that Musson made by taking apart colorful Coogie brand sweaters (reminiscent of the ones worn by Bill Cosby in his Cliff Huxtable character) and reconfiguring them.
“My happiness is tied into making multiple things in multiple formats,” he said. “It’s not a conflict to me that I make different sorts of things for different venues.”