Devil art: Exhibition connects the dots between rock music and the avant garde

By Mark Guarino

When Paul McCartney imagined another band besides The Beatles singing Beatles songs and hired British pop artist Peter Blake to bring his idea to life, the result became the rock music milestone “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” McCartney’s decision created a role most musicians did not previously have the liberty to play: That the visual wrappings could dictate what the music sounded like and maybe, could even be more important.

The year was 1967, also the beginning date of “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967,” a new exhibition now running through early January at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Chicago.

Even though rock and the avant garde in America had a flirtatious relationship with each other in previous years, it wasn’t until the late 1960’s they became partners. Both worlds became less underground and more regarded as outlets for serious expression.

Up to that point, rock stars faced being marginalized as scruffy outsiders or, worse, lumped together with entertainers of an earlier generation. Now, through the intersection of art world and with art schools starting to churn out just as many musicians as visual artists, rock musicians faced the opportunity to become art stars and vice versa. In London, Pete Townshend espoused theories why smashing a guitar was really a statement on violence, an extension of what he was taught by auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger. In New York City, Lou Reed posed for films and photographs by Andy Warhol, who became the Velvet Underground’s first producer while also the designer of the famous “banana cover” for their first album.

The MCA exhibition picks it up from there. Concentrating the most on the New York City and British punk scenes of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the collection surveys over 100 paintings, drawings, installations, and videos that explore how inspiration is a two-way street. Some of the work comes directly from artists who either worked alongside musicians, such as Peter Saville, who created album covers for New Order, or others like Chicago’s Ed Paschke who did not deal with musicians but happened to paint with bold colors and whose subjects displayed a surreal bent that suggested he was from the same world.

The exhibition’s failings come from works that come across as lazy concepts or literal conceits, such as the work of Christian Marclay who created “1476 Records (Louisiana Floor),” requiring the viewer to walk across a floor of vinyl records, or “David Bowie,” a portrait of the singer constructed from body parts from different album sleeves.

There is also work that is especially precious, notably “Daydream Nation” by Jay Heikes, a video replication of the Sonic Youth album cover that runs 40 minutes, the album’s exact length. Or Melanie Schiff’s “Emergency,” a photograph of an empty Jack Daniels bottle — a drink long favored by rock roughnecks — re-imagined as a religious beacon.

Artwork aching to proclaim a connection with rock music deserves to be more provocative but also — in deference to its inspiration — also able to stand on its own merits. The difficulty of trying to connect the dots between the sweaty, visceral and bare-knuckled world of rock music with the more sedate and intellectual aesthetic inherent to visual art is that the two may seem to have many things in common, but the execution of those ideas is often a failure of middle ground. Artists that borrow themes and styles from rock musicians often look like they’re trying to co-opt a level of cool they can’t normally access. Likewise, musicians that try to incorporate minimalist or conceptual art theorizing come across as pretentious and, worse, not very enjoyable listens. Experimental music aside, the bands that seem to pop up the most in this exhibition — The Stooges, Sonic Youth, Parliament-Funkadelic, for instance — made a name for themselves not because of mission statements created in songwriting sessions or heady critiquing published in art journals, but because their music sounds good in a concert hall on a Friday night.

The special glory of music is that, no matter what the intention, it is beautifully simple, a trait an exhibition like this one is in danger of drying out.

The artists that carry this exhibition are those whose work introduces new ideas of their own volition. They include Robert Longo, the New York City artist, whose three wall-sized charcoal drawings — “Untitled (Men in the Cities)” series from 1980-81 — feature two men and a woman dressed in business attire contorting their bodies as if in either agony or ecstasy or maybe both. In a single stroke, the drawings summon the paradox of energy created in the post-punk era.

There are also clever re-imaginings. Like a club owner with an ingenious idea, video installation artist Tony Oursler places seven large-screen video projections into one room for “Sound Digressions in Seven Colors,” creating a concert between the seven musicians individually composing on their instruments. Another video installation, Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore,” assembles footage of dancing music fans from different time periods. By chopping up the footage, colorizing and slowing frames down, what is otherwise considered group frenzy becomes the distinctive expressions of individual people.

Historic steps in the development between music and the visual arts are also represented. Viewers can watch Andy Warhol’s videotaped “Screen Tests” of individual members of the Velvet Underground. Near the exhibition’s end is a history of Destroy All Monsters, a collective of University of Michigan art school students that were early noise rock innovators who also immortalized Detroit’s music legends through wall-sized paintings.

Ultimately, “Sympathy for the Devil” is limited. Curator Dominic Molon admits he is mostly interested in the pre- and post-punk era of New York City and London. His bias exempts equally interesting and innovative time periods that would have served this exhibition well. The underground college rock era of the 1980’s is largely absent, a surprise considering the cut-and-paste aesthetic of groups like Pavement and Guided By Voices (led by Robert Pollard, also a well-regarded collage artist) drew heavily from art school tastes. The exhibition also ignores regional folk artists such as Howard Finster, Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis and others who profoundly impacted the music of bands like R.E.M., Nirvana, The Meat Puppets and others who themselves, in the age of MTV gloss, were considered outsiders early in their development.

It is also startling that for an exhibition created and staged in Chicago, it pays little or no attention to its hosting city and the Midwest in general. That excludes another significant chapter, from Pollard’s collages to Chicago’s noise-rock and industrial-rock scene to Jon Langford of the Mekons who through his paintings, connects forgotten country music stars with Day of the Dead iconography.

The single work of the exhibition that is more inclusive than the exhibit itself is “I Want It Louder” by Dave Muller that visualizes the dozens of rock subgenres into a landscape drawn along a wall. The effect is profound in how it illustrates how far rock music’s history deepens. Portrayed like roots from a tree, the timeline shows the artist’s bias (1975-1992 is blacked out), but it also shows a future where everything will become new again; against this wall, it is just written upside down.

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