It looked very much like Jayson Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman, had arrived last Thursday afternoon, as he sat in the tony Upper East Side townhouse that is Salon 94 gallery, surrounded by piles of Coogi sweaters. Even if he did have to keep ditching calls to his cell phone from creditors (“I have the credit rating of a fucking turtle,” he said. “It’s bad”), and even though he dwarfed his small wooden chair. Mr. Musson, 34, is a large, wide man, so big that he would resemble two people even if he didn’t make a point of referring to his online alter ego in the third person (e.g., “That reminds me of something you said in one of the Hennessy videos …” “Well, I think the analogy Hennessy made was …”)
The Coogis had been cut apart and stitched together to form the body of work for his upcoming exhibition “Halcyon Days” at Salon 94’s Bowery branch, his first solo show in New York, which opens July 11 with nine of the works. Last Thursday he was still stretching the Cosby ephemera over wooden frames like canvases for paintings. He said they were inspired by Jackson Pollock. I said they reminded me of David Hammons. “That’s because you’re a racist,” he deadpanned. “It’s okay, a lot of people don’t know that they are.”
It’s a tale as old as time. Man goes to art school because his rap career isn’t working out, man starts making satirical videos on the Internet, popular videos lead to widespread art world notoriety, man moves to Brooklyn, gets solo show at Salon 94. At an art party on a rare night out recently, he was photographed kissing the artist William Powhida on the side of the head while Jerry Saltz looked on and threw some horns for the camera. “It was actually Hennessy’s Facebook photo for a while,” Mr. Musson said, “As I was kissing William, he was like, ‘You’re an insider now, by the way. You’re done.’”
The viewership for his Art Thoughtz videos, in which Hennessy spouts off on the absurdities of the art world, is not large—their YouTube channel shows only a million views—but if you work in the art world, chances are you’ve seen them. Hennessy wears cartoon-character caps and pharaoh chains, often introducing himself as “the pedagogic pimp,” and lectures in over-the-top thug speak on art world absurdities presented as pure fact. He’s seemingly too stupid to be angry about any of them. Talent is not a factor when it comes to art world success, he explains in one video, evenly. What you need to know about modernism is that it’s something white people can do and black people cannot do. Bruce Nauman is most notable for being the guy who already did everything you that you want to do, but in the 1970s.
Suffice to say the videos were the driving factor in Mr. Musson’s being asked to do the Salon 94 show, and gallery owner Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn said she arrived at his studio wanting to show whatever two-dimensional work he had. In the art world, she said, one million views is nothing to sneeze at.
“It’s a different form of dissemination than we’re used to in the gallery system,” said Ms. Greenberg-Rohatyn. “He’s probably the first artist who has been able to bridge that online audience and the art audience as well, so that’s always been interesting to me, how to break through audiences and cross audiences.”
The fans are rabid, said Mr. Musson, whose real voice sounds like Hennessy imitating a white person (he describes his own ethnicity as West Indian). Like girls sending you naked pictures of themselves rabid? “I wish,” Mr. Musson said. “No, I get people sending me their portfolio websites, asking for crits.”
“I thought he should have been in the Whitney Biennial,” said the artist Marilyn Minter, who recruited Mr. Musson to curate a show for the Family Business gallery this spring. Mr. Musson, she said, serves as a vital antidote to academia in a contemporary art world where “the academy has become the salon,” the arbiter of what art is or isn’t acceptable. “Art about art and backstory has taken over visual pleasure,” she said.
In his faux ignorant truth telling, Hennessy has been compared to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G, though there’s a crucial difference. Ali G was a hip-hop idiot, but he wasn’t the focus of his bits, his interviewees were. The whole point was to get four-time husband Newt Gingrich to patronizingly explain child support to someone who seems to be from the ghetto. With Hennessy, there is no foil—Mr. Musson is simply talking into the camera, and it’s quite possible that the bastard in this equation is you.
Not that that’s a problem. Hennessy, being a moron, can really be only so biting, and he tends to keep his references on the name-drop level. Take institutional critique, the genre of art that skewers the museum-gallery-industrial complex. Hennessy made a video about institutional critique, which promised to be an institutional critique critique, but it really just consisted of him critiquing institutions like Riker’s Island and slavery. His video on Damien Hirst mainly pointed out how obnoxious Mr. Hirst looks when he poses with his art, a joke that Mr. Hirst essentially placed on the tee for him. So no one is ever too offended. Ms. Minter said she showed the “relational aesthetics” video to Maurizio Cattelan, who is considered a relational aesthetics artist, and he loved it.
British artist Chris Ofili was the subject of one of the weirder asides in the video titled “How To Be A Successful Black Artist.” At the end of it, in a sequence Mr. Musson loves, Hennessy accuses Kara Walker of a liason with Mr. Ofili, which he says is disgusting because Mr. Ofili’s best-known work involves elephant dung. “Don’t front, girl,” Hennessy says like a jilted lover. “I don’t touch shit. Let me put my finger in you.”
Mr. Ofili actually came to visit the Skowhegan artist residency in Maine last year when Mr. Musson was there, but the two never got a chance to discuss the video. Mr. Musson did have a chance to offend Mr. Ofili in person, though, with a rendition of a Notorious B.I.G. song at karaoke night that Mr. Ofili deemed “the worst karaoke I’ve ever heard.” Mr. Ofili’s hip-hop heavy lecture at the residency inspired Mr. Musson to finish a rap album as Hennessy titled “7 MINUTES IN HENNYNOHOMO)” the last part, Mr. Musson explained, because “Hennessy didn’t want anyone to misconstrue it as a come on.”
Mr. Musson owes what he calls his super-ignorant style to his nine years in the hip-hop group Plastic Little in Philadelphia, where he spent his undergrad years and earned an MFA at the University of Pennsylvania last year. Sample lyrics: “I’m from America, I wear Nikes/Y’all from over there, y’all make Nikes/I’m from America, nigga, I’m the bomb/Y’all from over there, y’all get bombed/like Saddam, sippin’ tea up in his spider hole.”
“That whole underground hip-hop scene that we came out of worshiped the early and mid-’90s, it was so sickening,” Mr. Musson said. In his opinion, heroes like Biggie—who, like Bill Cosby, also favored Coogis—always let you down.
Mr. Musson didn’t watch The Cosby Show much growing up. His tastes were more in line with the heavy irony of Married With Children. His family came to this country in 1965 from Jamaica and, though he was born in the Bronx, he grew up middle class in Spring Valley, N.Y.
“With white sitcoms you have a myriad of situational comedies that detail a normative American life, and before The Cosby Show blacks didn’t really have that,” he said. “You had Good Times, where everything goes wrong, and you had the Cosbys, where you were like, ‘Man, Good Times was tragic!’ Cosby was like the dream that comes out of the civil rights movement.”
Coogi used to sell itself as “wearable art,” which seemed to be truth in advertising to Mr. Musson, who always saw an Abstract Expressionist strain in the sweaters. Sewn together on the frames, he calls them paintings and thinks they look like liquid. Ms. Greenberg-Rohatyn said they hadn’t been priced as of Monday, but would probably sell for around $20,000 each.
Mr. Musson will round out the summer with a residency at Carnegie Mellon University and is apparently at work on a children’s book and a play. I asked him if Mr. Powhida was right about his being an insider now. “I’m too poor to be an insider,” he chuckled.
“Maybe I should start going to parties,” he said, then, seriously. “I think part of the notion of being an insider is having actual power, and I don’t. I’m just a voice in the woods, I’m a new kid off the boat.” That’s something you’d never hear from Hennessy.