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Marley's Ghosts

At Reggae on the River, visions of Bob and Mary Jane



Dare we consider a festival under the banner of visual art? Reader, in 2016, I think we must. This week let's consider the notable sights from last week's Reggae on the River festival.

This year the festival was graced with an officially designated "Art Cave." The compositions within its precincts were consumed by tightly rendered, densely patterned mats of swirling forms. Palettes skewed day-glow. It was as if all the artists had once been those kids who only liked drawing with the most contemporary crayons in the box, the ones with names like Mango Tango and Jazzberry Jam.

Reggae is a challenging place for an artist's work to get traction, to be sure. The fairway provided a cornucopia of competition in the imagery department, and artists responded by putting on a show. One way to do that was by getting viewers physically involved. Inside the Art Cave, bodies were being painted and glitter tattoos were being applied.

Within the sky-lit confines of Shawn Griggs' pop-up gallery, each painting popped even further when viewed through 3-D glasses. People put the cardboard glasses on and moved back and forth in front of the small paintings as though they were sliding on rails. "This is dope!" one festivalgoer cried.

Mark Henson adopted the on-trend gambit of live painting, working throughout the weekend on a large canvas in public view. On Friday he was painting a spiral. By the time I saw the canvas late Saturday, the snarling features of a lion had been superimposed over a nebula in brown and blue.

Many of the pictures in the Art Cave labored to seduce, aping qualities that paintings do not inherently possess. Paintings were 3-D; they were attached to moving bodies; they happened live. Some artists believe extraordinary measures are needed to meet the attention thresholds of contemporary viewers. After all, the argument goes, today's audiences did grow up mainlining the fire hose of images that is the Internet.

What about the grass roots? Much of the festival's most striking imagery was not being sold as "fine art." Like other festivals, ROTR established a look that unified adherents of the groove. You already know the components of this look, which have scarcely changed over time, although they have evolved new configurations.

Reggae emblems include the palmate marijuana leaf, the likeness of Bob Marley and the red-green-gold color scheme — all three of which were much in evidence. That color triad, by the way, goes back to Marcus Garvey's usage, and it originally meant things: red for the blood of black martyrs, yellow for the wealth of the African motherland, green to represent its natural beauty. However, its contemporary usage in the U.S. often slips sideways, losing the allegory. In Arcata, I've heard houses, cars and apparel described as being "Rasta-colored;" it's a look, an alternative to options like "psychedelic" and "camo." This year's festival could fairly be described as Rasta-colored, in its entirety.

Celebrations of the weed were ubiquitous, with the totemic leaf being sighted innumerable times over the weekend — spangled all over leggings, printed on cargo shorts, chalked by hand on the pylons beneath the concert canopy. Bob Marley's face, while harder to draw freehand, likewise adorned a significant percentage of the tank tops, totes and T-shirts on display. It was so omnipresent as to be neutral. Through decades of reiteration, the artist's face has become more and more familiar, even as it has come unmoored from its original historical context. From what I could discern, today's American consumers may regard Bob Marley as something like a cool friend who is also a beacon of positive righteousness and an ambassador from an exotic culture — a black man whose message of One Love and positive vibes means white people do not find his advocacy threatening.

Marley's image-afterlife paralleled the fortunes of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara's similarly iconic mug. Both pictures were first wielded in the service of progressive causes but lost their political edge when they evolved into brands, finally emerging as international emblems of dissent to be bought and sold. This year's festival prompted the question: How does an icon of dissent adapt to a culture of tolerance?

Reggae fans have been singing along with Peter Tosh for decades now: "Legalize it!" Now that California may be poised on the brink of that achievement, it seems like a good time to ask: Once it's legalized, then what? Bob Marley died 35 years ago, and his heirs' Marley Natural brand is now poised to become a major player in the nascent marijuana-industrial complex. How will we use pictures to represent irie vibrations once we have entered into this novel, non-dissenting cannabis landscape? It's a new world out there, but so far the zeitgeist is finding expression through fresh mash-ups of the same old.

Still, there was no shortage of exciting visual effects. The Mateel Community Center's photo drone productively complicated the concert experience all weekend by beaming performers' images to big screens behind the stage. Musicians performed in front of their own almost-synchronized likenesses, so that at any given moment their bodies might be dwarfed by giant close-ups of their faces seen split seconds before. When pioneer video artists were creating such effects in the 1970s it was avant-garde stuff, and it was trippy to see such complicated time signatures becoming part of the mainstream concert experience.

At the same time, this phenomenon could be construed as more evidence that the artist's role has been redefined. Artists don't generate images anymore so much as they manage them. How familiar pictures are reproduced holds great interest for us now, oftentimes more than the images themselves. What we look for now are the curating, reproduction, remixing and transfer of images we already know.


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