Exhibition Review: Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s

– Kristen Korfitzen

A few weeks ago I went to the opening night for the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s new exhibition Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980sI was super excited to see the exhibition and grabbing last minute tickets to their sold out opening party was the icing on the cake! (literally, there was cake!)

the opening text for the exhibtion

the opening text for the exhibtion

From the Cororan website:

Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s is the first exhibition to explore the thriving underground of Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, giving visual form to the raucous energy of graffiti, Go-Go music, and a world-renowned punk and hardcore scene.

The exhibition explores the visual culture of the “other D.C.,” demonstrating its place in the history of street art as well as that of America’s capital city. In the midst of notorious problems with drugs and corruption, D.C. gave birth to an infectious visual culture captured in the exhibition through posters, graffiti, graphic art, archival photographs, and ephemera. Pump Me Up tells a local history from a local point of view, while providing a framework for the contemporary surge of interest in street art and underground graphics.

Pump Me Up traces the history of graffiti in Washington while emphasizing its inextricable ties to the burgeoning forms of local music. The exhibition highlights the vibrant scene that sprang up around Go-Go, a local form of funk pioneered by Chuck Brown and others, including the stripped-down “Go-Go graffiti” style. Started by neighborhood “crews,” this style became a hallmark of the D.C. style of graffiti writing. Around the same time, an underground hardcore and punk scene sprang up in venues like the Wilson Center and the 9:30 Club.

The exhibition was really well done, and anyone with even a passing interest in Washington D.C. history should make time to check it out! Starting in the 1970s, the exhibition takes you through some the darkest and brightest moments in recent DC history. The objects on display were largely donated by their original owners, men and women who where there at the time and a part of the scene. It was great seeing pictures and videos of some of these people, who were just kids trying to stay out of the streets, and then being able to speak with them today. Many of the artists and musicians are still heavily involved with the DC area “scene” (what’s left of it) and were out that night supporting the Corcoran. My friend and I even had a few geek-out moments when we got to meet Henry Rollins and Cool “Disco” Dan.

Overall I thought Pump Me Up was really well done. More of a history exhibition than an art one, it’s not to be missed. I’m fairly new to the DC area and it was really great to see so much history of the city. Especially harrowing was seeing video footage of the 1968 Riots with U Street on fire just blocks from where I live today. Another favorite bit of mine where the Globe Poster collection. I’ve written about Globe Posters before, I’m a big fan. Something about that garish neon paint! It was great seeing such a large collection of posters in one space.

And let me close by saying that the Corcoran knows how to throw a party! I had a blast. Three hours of free drink, free food, (and free Shake Shack!) and dancing? What’s not to love!


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