It was bound to happen. When DOVA Temporary Gallery opened last May, anyone who saw the location—crammed into a storefront flush against legendary record retailer Dr. Wax in Harper Court—had to know that at some point, gallery and store would intermingle through some cultural osmosis. With Dr. Wax captures the big and small machines for the enjoyment of the people, the wait is finally over.
In truth, it’s been over since December 14, when the exhibit officially opened. But tonight there will be a reception, with Dr. Wax employees as DJs—including DJ X-ray, one of the members of the influential early ’90s Chicago hip-hop group Dem Dare. So if the arctic chill doesn’t dissuade returning U of C students from making the trek down to Harper Court, there’s still much to see at DOVA Temporary Gallery.
Dr. Wax explores the similarities between the musical technique of sampling and the artistic technique of re-purposing, or taking an object out of its traditional cultural context and transforming it into an art object. Running the gamut from Joseph Grigely to Public Enemy, the artists on display “pull the image or sound out of the cultural slipstream and reconfigure it, not to express a universal cultural value but a specific, personal value system,” said Geof Oppenheimer, assistant professor at DOVA and curator of the exhibit. “The name of the show comes from the fact that both these groups of artists take something that is mass-produced and has no cultural identity and infuse it with an individual’s identity.”
The exhibit consists of art works by Matt Saunders, Joseph Grigely, and Cristian Andersen, and music by Sun-Ra and his Intergalactic Infinity Arkestra, Steve Reich, and The Bomb Squad. Three sets of earphones attached to CD players on pedestals in the middle of the gallery pipe in the music.
One of the more striking visual acts of re-purposing is Cristian Andersen’s sculpture “Untitled” (2008). This is a ceramic cast of a stack of seemingly random, utilitarian objects—gloves, sponges, bits of wood—painted and lacquered a bright white. The piece has architectural connotations, but the glove that caps the tower, all its fingers removed except the pinky, index, and thumb, suggests a devil’s horn.
Joseph Grigely’s contributions will be familiar to anyone who has seen his show currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Entitled “Songs Without Words,” this selection of three out of a 12-piece sequence consists of pictures of opera singers printed in The New York Times. Grigely, who has been deaf since the age of 10, has spent his career creating works that explore how sound is experienced by those who can’t hear. The singers in the photographs stand with mouths open in mid-song, their faces shot through with passion, the lines of their bodies as straight as brass instruments. Though mute, these pictures speak to the power of music and provide an interesting foil to the real music in the show.
Music lovers will find much to salivate over in Dr. Wax. The exhibit features the Early Works of Steve Reich, an influential minimalist classical composer who pioneered the use of tape loops and ambient sounds in his music. Notable works include It’s Gonna Rain, a recording of a black Pentecostal preacher giving a sermon about the end of the world. Employees at Dr. Wax were also able to locate the rare The Night of the Purple Moon, a 1970 album by famed jazz musician and cosmic philosopher Sun-Ra. According to Oppenheimer, the album is a very early example of sampling in jazz.
But the most interesting and accessible musical piece in the exhibit is Public Enemy’s 1990 Fear of the Black Planet, produced by The Bomb Squad. The album does a lot of the thematic heavy-lifting in the exhibit, as it’s the only artwork that arose out of a wholly different cultural context than the other pieces. Sun-Ra, Reich, and the visual artists, although certainly different, probably all shared some notion of creating Art with a capital A. By contrast, Public Enemy’s albums were created for public consumption.
“Public Enemy is a great example of a group taking sounds from the media, sounds of police sirens—things that were figures and images of oppression in a particular community—and re-purposing them, working them back into the cultural slipstream they pulled them from,” Oppenheimer said. “Public Enemy represented ideas of black power and black liberation but pushed them back into the commercial economic system.” In Dr. Wax, Public Enemy appears far more culturally sophisticated than its more self-consciously artistic counterparts.
Though a small exhibit, Dr. Wax packs in an impressive amount of interesting content. In the end, it’s unclear whether the connection between the music and artwork is as strong as claimed. The Grigely pieces, though attractive, seem shoehorned in. And the very idea of using an art gallery as a venue for free-standing music is dubious—who is actually going to listen to a full Steve Reich album standing in a gallery?
Still, you don’t have to buy the premise to enjoy the individual works. And Oppenheimer gives his assurance that tonight’s reception will be “super awesome good times.”