Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Blame Game

Sneakers are in the DNA of hip-hop. Since its earliest incarnation on the streets of 1980's New York, the beginnings of hip-hop saw training shoes seduced away from their athletic heritage. The conservative sneaker archetypes of performance and function suddenly had to accommodate for the emergence of the individuals style and aesthetic to champion their game. This was as important when on the mic as off the mic even as when on the hallowed turf as off it. If you came into the circle, the wall or the mic (the arena that governs them both) all of a sudden you had to represent yourself. You are forced to be the art form in both appearance and substance. It was more than simply peacocking. An identity had to be forged through the performance and its flavour respectively. This mindset would eventually spill out beyond the streets, beyond the 80's underground music scene into the mainstream and infect primarily the world of professional basketball and its global audience. This evolutionary development is best illustrated by the publication of Michael Jordan's comments to Tinker Hatfield: 'If I look better, I feel better. If I feel better, I play better. If I play better, I win'.

With the rise of any new cultural maxims, it is symptomatic of current society to remember the innovators over the failures. Explaining the reasons for failure within the sneaker hip-hop crossover is simply not as straightforward as one might think or willingly believe. Pinpointing the influences of sneakers on hip-hop might as well be the history of hip-hop's influence on sneakers. Any questions as to who wrongly influenced who in their mistakes is a round robin game. Was it the ambitions of the music embodying the artist's image and lifestyle or the very design execution of the sneaker for this new cultural market? What is certain within this article (and I choose my last few introductory words carefully) is that it's possible to unearth the primary suspect at the source of this  sneaker and music failure. Our culprit is the album art of graphic design firm Pen & Pixel.


Our first work is from the perennially under-appreciated Solo Slim collection, hip-hop's most fervent crotchet aficionado. Much of the classic Pen & Pixel imagery is present: the gilded typography and the sleepy, vaguely displeased-seeming black man. One must note the skewed perspective. The Brobdingnagian heft of Solo Slim's knitting needle is typical of Pen & Pixel's surrealist style. To me this work begs the question, "When the skyscrapers burst aflame, how many Slims will it take to sew'd it up?"

The question that really should be asked is, "can Solo Slim achieve such a feat without sewing himself a pair of Nike Air Footscape's?" With or without a skewed perspective the object matter is less than desirable if not confused in aesthetic. The classic Pen & Pixel imagery is visibly present yet with some additional ad ons and perks: an overly zoomed in subject, a bland monochromatic palate, oversized detail in the stitch work of the upper and the subject's placement in a space void of reality, fertile for surreal imagery and thought. The real surprise though is the fact that Solo Slim isn't wearing a pair Nike Footscape's. In answer to the earlier question, Solo wont be sewing up the burning skyscrapers but rather sewing himself a pair of equally crackers sneakers.


Pen & Pixel are at times known to flaunt and dabble in a Warhol-influenced Pop Art aesthetic. For the critics of Warhol, who seem all to keen to alert us as to why his drab silk-screens refuse to re-imagine their subjects in any real, concrete way, will be more easily pleased by Pen and Pixel's interpretations of the genre. Both cheeky and satirical, they are both an homage and a parody. A more determined individual than most will have to see beyond the more obvious parody of Ireland's smallest and most tanned leprechaun pimp in order to decipher the confusion generated by the distorted perspective, misplaced apostrophe and contradicting iconography. Though ask yourselves one thing, does this quintessential confusion, so decadently topped off with innate references to bling, make Pen & Pixel the rightful, contemporary heirs to the legacy of Warhol?

If not, then why not Adidas? On paper its a winner. After all, Adidas have managed to obtain the licensing for two incredibly iconic figures in popular culture. By shooting for the stars they have obtained the stars in Warhol and Ali. If Pen & Pixel, however, fell into the trap of maybe lacking a distinctive and positive quotation from the original art form, then Adidas have certainly come the full circle. There is a troubling honesty in the transparency of the conceptualisation and design of this shoe. Choosing the reincarnated boxing boot, contextualises the icon that is Ali's face but does little to reinvent the function, purpose and performance of the shoe. The Warhol-ian palate and composition only confirms Ali's status as a super star worthy to be displayed alongside any of Warhol's Marilyn's. The intent of the collaboration has to be questioned on the basis of this clumsy result. Lacking a clean finish and discipline of execution its a failure of a style not  compatible for sneaker design. If Pen & Pixel's attempt is to aid us in any way, a misunderstood pop art aesthetic is firmly placed in the realm of novelty and failure when paired with sneaker design and hip-hop cover art.


This would be Pen & Pixel's latest lampooning attempt to redefine subtlety. Given our recent familiarity with Pen & Pixel's style and repertoire we could be gawping at a victorian pose, a coquettish smirk, even a lady's coy, sophisticated choice of garment. But no. We are treated with another dose of surreality with its Lewis Carroll influenced lexicography enforced with Pen & Pixel's trademark play on words and images. Titled 'Rear End', its both a rear end and a front end; buttocks and bonnet; verily two ends, both ends, devouring themselves like a ravenous ouroboros. There is indeed no limit to the symbolic layers present.

Its hard to know where to begin with the Puma First Round Women's Boot. We might digress to say that they are a worthy garment for miss Mercedez (as pictured above). But the level of surreality in this example is beyond the capabilities of a Lewis Carroll influenced lexicography to explain why these sneakers stylistic merits as both a sneaker and design concept are other worldly. They're more suitable for the limitless bounds of science fiction. The stylized distopia of Luc Besson's Fith Element with its seismic dreamland springs to mind. Only in such settings can a sneaker,  arguably seen to be devouring itself from back to front, in so leaving voids where fabric and material once existed, can be seen and treated as normal. Such a confused consummation is worthy of Pen & Pixel's awaiting seal of approval.

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