The Hard Sell and Other Tomfoolery at Marginal Utility


Jayson Musson’s show The Hard Sell, at Marginal Utility on 319 N. 11th Street, is an atypical gallery show, to say the least. The walls are full of long, written rants, hilariously offensive t-shirts and the occasional art object, like a sculpture. It’s apolitical, atheistic and, come to think of it, a-pretty-much-any-other-adjective-you-can-muster. It’s a splendid experiment in the cheeky and the inappropriate and, looking back on my visit, all I can hear are the words of my sarcastic eighth grade science teacher Mr. Withers: “I’m only serious when I’m serious.” If Jayson Musson is serious about anything, it’s circular logic and borderline humor, and I seriously dig that.

Musson Hard Sell

Upon entering the room, the first thing you notice is a wall of t-shirts on hangers. “Am I on the Jersey boardwalk?” you’d ask yourself at a glance. Well, close, but no cigar. Instead of “Beer Pong Champ” or cheesy slogans about fist pumping, you would be met with such classic lines as “Kiss Me I’m HIV Negative” or “Morally Bankrupt.” Musson’s shirts are in the style of those ubiquitous, tacky souvenirs, except smarter – and tackier. After all, who wouldn’t want to walk around Philly in a shirt that exclaims, “My ancestors survived slavery and all I got were these stupid rims?”

Formerly the author of the Philly Weekly (and later Mad Decent Records) column “Black Like Me,” Musson is as much a writer as he is an arist. The Hard Sell consists of large-scale, printed tirades that evolved from his poster series Too Black for B.E.T., which was exhibited in 2001 and 2006. These rants cover topics from why only Christian nations should own nukes to how believing in god would be worse than having a jealous ex because god has superpowers. They are delightfully derisive contradictions.

Musson Hard Sell 2

Musson said his content is drawn from the observations in his life: the people around him, the news media and his own personal experiences. His work, although potentially a social critique, is made almost entirely for its humor-value and absurd dissonance. “There is no way to gauge when I put on my serious tie and take off my funny slippers,” he told me.

While many of his pieces wield a blatantly dark humor, like the shirt “Suicide is for Winners at Losing!,” or lengthy tongue-in-cheek explanations of why some people should have been aborted, a couple of more subtle pieces get lost in the clamor. For instance, a connected strand of three-dimensional letter Z’s appear to fall off the edge of a pedestal. Wrought with implications of the boring and the mundane, this statement acts as a centerpiece for a show that is anything but.

A personal favorite of mine is the wall mirror with a red 2nd Place ribbon hanging from one corner. Possessing a healthy dose of scorn for the day-to-day rat race and enough self-doubt to go around, this devastatingly simple piece frames the sheer absurdity of it all and forces us to reflect. “Congratulations,” you can almost hear it say, “you didn’t win.” Perhaps not because you lacked anything, but because there was never a competition to begin with.

The Hard Sell is up to Mar 27 at Marginal Utility.


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