October 5, 2007

MCA keeps the rock 'n' roll alive

Adam Pendleton’s paintings in Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967 occupy the entryway of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) without really enticing viewers to check them out. Pendleton’s 90 acrylic paintings of images from post-punk posters, promo photos, and record covers have a sexy rock ’n’ roll vibe. But the sleek black-and-white paintings recall iPod ads as much as Andy Warhol’s work with The Velvet Underground, the latter of which is the kind of thing I had really come to see. Others seemed to agree; visitora walked quickly by the entrance into the exhibit, which begins with Warhol.

Five of Warhol’s 1966 Screen Tests, short films of Nico, John Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker, are on display. These Screen Tests became part of Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a series of stage shows from 1966 to 1967 including dancers, Warhol’s films, lights, and performances by The Velvet Underground and Nico. A projection of Ronald Nameth’s film Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable occupies the wall next to the screens. The short films themselves are captivating, and presenting them next to a film of the stage show they were part of adds a nice, historicizing touch (and probably lots of fuel for discussions about “performance” and “representation”). The exhibit is organized geographically, and the gallery cards offer good background information on the artists and their work. It is clear that the MCA’s goal is to put the art in historical context, which they do well.

Next to Screen Tests and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable is one of the many pieces by a collective called Assume Vivid Astro Focus, whose work is spread throughout the exhibit. This first piece is a wall decal in the corner of the room. Bright, pulsing images of mouths, animal skin, and colorful patterns comprise the collage-style piece. While wildly fun to look at, Assume Vivid Astro Focus’ pieces do add to the exhausting, overloaded feel of the chock-full show.

Standing out among the many pieces are the drawings of Raymond Pettibon. The MCA displays pieces of his work that graced ’zines, flyers, and album covers for the band Black Flag, of which Pettibon’s brother Greg Ginn was a member. Pettibon’s cartoonish line drawings are, as always, sardonic, witty, and horrifying, but that these drawings are so closely connected with music of such a similar ethos underscores the intense connections between the worlds of contemporary art and music. My favorite of Pettibon’s pieces is “No Title (It Terrifies Me),” a drawing of the devil as a marionette with the sentence “It terrifies me that they think they can get away with anything” written on it.

Douglass Gordon’s installation “Bootlegs,” though, really steals the show. “Bootlegs” consists of altered bootleg footage from concerts by The Cramps, The Rolling Stones, and The Smiths projected onto two screens and two walls. The footage is slowed down, somewhat fuzzy, and on a huge scale, which gives the whole room an ethereal quality; the viewer gets the sense of a dream about a silent, slow-motion rock montage. The piece provides viewers with much to ponder about the performance, that most visual aspect of rock music.

Some of the less interesting pieces straddle the boundary between questions of music and using music as a way of making their own points. Some may see Jeremy Deller’s “What Would Neil Young Do?,” a stack of posters (for the taking) with those words on them, as a brilliant examination of the role of musicians in our society. To me, it seems to use text and name recognition as a substitute for creativity. Mark Flores’ “Jayne County (at the Roxy)” and “I Need More” do probe the boundaries of gender, but they use glam rock icons only as convenient source material rather than figures around which to base a point about music.

To be a part of what the MCA calls “the dynamic relationship between contemporary art and rock music,” contemporary art may not need to go beyond simply using music, though the most intriguing pieces in the show do. An interest alluded to in the show is, naturally, the connection between high and popular culture. Visual art, or, at least, the visual art in galleries, is often seen as the paradigm case of one, and rock ’n’ roll music the other. It is one thing for artists to lure viewers to their work by referencing pop culture or using their work to criticize it. It is quite another, and, I think, an infinitely more interesting option, for artists to unite the two and explore the interplay between them. The MCA included many artists who did the latter, but it could have improved the exhibit by better focusing on that more fruitful theme.

Sympathy for the Devil will be showing at the MCA until January 6, 2008. In celebration of its 40th Anniversary, the MCA is free until November 14.