I'm waiting beneath the tracks of the Belmont L station in Chicago for Meaghan Garvey, a visual artist whose works are interwoven with hip-hop iconography, who DJs under the nom de guerre Moneyworth, and who garnered twin titles--Best Rap DJ and Hip-Hop Illuminati Conspiracy Theorist and Best Reappropriator of Hip-Hop on Etsy--in the Reader. The newly decorated Miss Garvey arrives by bicycle and is instantly recognizable, not merely from her picture, which I came across in my initial research for the piece, but by her vibe; that is a nebulous description, vibe, and one which is not preferred except for lack of a better descriptor. Artists resonate in certain ways, a half shift or so, at least, from the world around them. Imagine the last show you were at where a young, local act opened for a seasoned veteran. Even if the young nobodies are exceedingly talented, the stage presence of the headliner, nine times out of ten, identifies them as the Main Attraction; they capture every eye in the room, becoming the Copernican center, red shifting the audience away from themselves and the real world and towards the artist's gravity. Be near enough to talent, and you will feel the vibe splatter across your flesh like rain. Musicians have it, actors have it, politicians and academics and athletes have it, and Meaghan has it so strongly that it shimmers across Belmont Avenue.
She is built like a clarinet, couture lean with a slight flaring at the hips, an effect enhanced by the fact that she is dressed head to toe in blacks of various shades--midnight shirt with stark grays and whites saluting rapper Gunplay, jet tights clinging desperately to her legs, ink and charcoal Nikes on her feet, her kohl eyes framed on one side by a Cimmerian cascade that encompasses hints from mahogany to raven to heather not only by virtue of the way the light falls upon it but also by the way her underlying skin shows through on the patch she has taken a razor to, trimmed tight to her parietal--which are then shot through, like Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, with colors, soft purple sea urchin on the shoes, spider threads of gold supporting necklaces or composing hoops, canary nails on her fingertips and a face, oval with low zygomatics, featuring a pair of Hockney red lips that are leaving an echo of themselves on the plastic lid of her Americano.
Garvey lived in Oak Park, Illinois, like Hemmingway, before moving on to South Bend and three years at Notre Dame, an experience she describes as "pure hell, just hell on Earth." After an early infatuation with radio R&B and hip-hop, she fell in to the indie rock scene in high school. The return of rap in her life was a direct response to living at Notre Dame. "I started to get more into rap just because I was like pulling away from every one," she explains. "They were like listening to Kelly Clarkson … my roommate was like 24 hour Kelly Clarkson party." Garvey left South Bend for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, only to find herself yet again on the outside looking in.
"At that point, it felt really weird, because there is another level of doucheiness where, almost on some like Scientology level bullshit, where you have to pay $40,000 to be inside some sort of bougey inside joke, you know what I mean?" She assumes a pompous tone: "'If you just pay us like, 10,000 more dollars, then you can laugh at these noobs who don't understand post-modernism or whatever.' I got so burnt out by that."
Fatigued on fine art, Garvey once again turned to rap as a way to pragmatically differentiate herself from her peers, to put distance between herself and a scene she no longer necessarily wanted to play in. "I was really embarrassed at first," she says, "because obviously art school is like the most white washed place ever. Everything is like punk, and fucking witch house, and nobody's like listening to rap in art school … well maybe now, for like ironic reasons or something. I straight up talked to one dude in one of my classes, and he was like 'I love Gucci!' and I was like no way, I've never met anyone else at this school who was into Gucci. And he's like 'yeah, actually I got into him through Salem, they did this remix … ' and I'm like dude, you had hit the nail on the head."
Pulled to various pieces at SAIC, the ground work was laid for her art now, which feeds primarily on the juxtaposition of trivial or aesthetic subject matter with the decadence and presentation afforded to more "serious" forms of art. "I just got like burnt out about doing serious art, or shit about like emotions, and I was at a stand still," she explains. "I have to do something, because I'm here, and I'm paying money to do art. So, I did this illustrated version of "Juicy." I was like oh my God, people are going to think I'm such a lame teeny-bopper, like some sort of TMZ reader or something, but some people liked it so I was like alright, I guess this is something I can keep going with."
She is unafraid to continue working with hip-hop themes thanks to a refreshingly practical position on the potential of her being type cast. "I'm totally with it, honestly. Even if I am pigeon holed, it's not like there's an end to what I can do with it," she says. Aside from her attention garnering Illuminati portraits, wherein artists and lyrics are depicted stepped in occult imagery, she has already begun work on two new projects, a set of tarot cards featuring Chicago rapper from the drill scene to Do or Die and an illustrated book tying Future with greek mythology, an inspiration she received upon noting that the rapper's album Pluto, aside from the obvious astronomical reference, is also the Roman name for Hades, God of the Underworld.
Garvey's pieces reverberate so well because hip-hop, for all of its pomp and circumstance and lofty political ideals, in the end is often as ludicrous as any other art form, if not more so. Drake and Kanye West rendered dripping in sinister atmosphere and garnished with Illuminati symbols and lyrics not only plays with the notion of the rapper-cum-New World Order harbinger but simultaneously reinforces it; seeing Yeezy unflinchingly portrayed with the accoutrements of power, the ridiculousness of the conspiracy theories begins to waver, battered by the Beautiful Violence of her aesthetic persuasion, until one is thinking about how well those bars interplay with the mythology and begins connecting the dots, both real and fabricated, in an attempt to realize the picture she is giving you.
It's a simple prayer inscribed in an unassuming serifed font within twin triangles directly below the glass lip of the votive candle and directly above the image of a man whose body and visage bears the scars of an unusually savage existence, a small plea to a benevolent God in a constantly expanding universe: "Free Gunplay." The rapper, whom Garvey adores--on the day it came out, she listened to "Jump Out," which she describes as nothing but "gun shots and women screaming," over and over again in her room until her neighbors had to come knocking--adorns but one of her votive candles, where saints, the Madonna, and the Sacred Heart are replaced by Ghostface Killah, Lisa Lopez, and R. Kelly. They are currently being arranged on a table in her apartment, an artist's residence, with contractor white walls and hard wood floors and various textures, shapes, and colors strewn about, and she is telling me how they have affected her reputation in the neighborhood. "I go to the same little Mexican grocery store every time to get the candles, and I'm pretty sure they think I'm practicing witch craft," she laughs.
Her Etsy shop, under the name Moneyworth, is her primary source of income, perhaps the only place in the world where one can find a copy of Talking to the Holy Ghost In My Bugatti, the collection of her Illuminati illustrations; a sticker collection enshrining the finest tweets of Lil B, and a Beyonce knit cap. Every piece in the shop exemplifies Garvey's blend of the banally popular and the Decadent, a strange middle ground she staked out for herself with that first notorious project at SAIC (which one can own a copy of here; like Warhol and Hirst, Garvey not only appreciates the commercial realm of art, she revels in it) and which she flits about in with ease. Seeing icons of pop culture treated with the reverence of religious icons is mesmerizing, and her baroque, darkly luxurious, black rococo style shares a similar timbre with photographers Pierre et Giles, with the darkness lacquered in lines rather than film. The entire juxtaposition that is the key to Garvey's work is encapsulated by her book shelf, where the images of Aaliyah and Rick Ross sit with Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest.
As smoke curls in tiny, creamy tendrils out of the window and into the air above California Avenue, talk turns to one of Garvey's favorite subjects, Riff Raff, and we bemoan how few people seem to take him for what he is, which is more Dada performance artist than rapper. She asks me if anyone will be going out for Halloween, due to it falling on a Wednesday this year, as she has already acquired the color contacts she needs to go as Jody Highroller. I tell her it would be foolish not to go out, Wednesday be damned, and contemplate what Wilde meant when he maintained that life imitates art.