Visual Arts

Exile on Central Avenue

Beyond sex, drugs, Top 10 marketing and the self-indulgences of youth, it's hard to name many lasting cultural associations with rock 'n' roll. Politics, maybe, but only from time to time. Satan, I suppose, if embarrassment doesn't keep you from saying so. Yet one rarely thinks of fine art.

With its new exhibition, "It's Only Rock and Roll: Rock and Roll Currents in Contemporary Art," Phoenix Art Museum clearly aims to change that. Organized by David Rubin, the museum's curator of 20th-century art, this sprawling show of more than 100 works by about 100 artists represents the art-museum world's first formal examination of how the "devil's music" has influenced art and artists.

Like Rubin's previous theme show about art and the American flag, rock art is something of a catchall, offering more than a little something for everyone--dioramas, photographs, prints, paintings and sculpture, artifacts, gizmos, less-easy-to-categorize fetish objects, a jukebox and more images of guitars than you can strum a chord at.

The show's theoretical ground is just as broad. Beginning with a section devoted to the teen-idol days of the 1950s and early '60s, it advances Jabba the Huttlike through the '70s, '80s and into the '90s with categories of works that pertain to rock stars, song titles, rock 'n' roll icons, and the materials and paraphernalia of rock 'n' roll business/culture.

These groupings are sufficiently general to corral just about any art displaying the least hint of rockness. And what little focus they bring to the galleries helps to underscore that this is not a show about rock memorabilia or art by rock stars. It is a show about artists' reflections on rock.

The distinction between museum art and popular art is an interesting one, given that rock is largely a popular art form with little connection to the world of fine arts. Occasionally, rock stars--John Lennon or David Byrne and his Talking Heads come to mind--would rise from the free-spirited ranks of art students. Or aspiring socialites such as Andy Warhol would mingle with bands (the Velvet Underground). But, by and large, music of the rock era has been one kind of experience, visual art another.

That isn't to say there was no art associated with rock. In fact, there was/is plenty of it. But it is the popular art of mass-produced commodities and memorabilia--posters, albums, liner photographs, not to mention the kitsch of Beatles and Elvis dolls.

David Rubin says that when he began organizing the show, during his stint as a curator at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, in 1990, his aim was to complement events and exhibitions being planned for the opening of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since the Hall of Fame had cornered the market in memorabilia, Rubin looked at rock's influence on contemporary art.

What he found, or--more precisely--didn't find, initially puzzled him. "There really wasn't much art about rock, to speak of, in the '50s and '60s," he says. "But I realized that, except for Andy Warhol and Wallace Berman, the pop-art generation was older and probably listening to other kinds of music."

Baby boomers were the ones weaned on rock and the culture of the airwaves. As a result, says Rubin, "art about rock didn't begin to flourish until the '80s, when the baby boomers began making their own contributions to culture."

As the show charts this lag between the onset of rock and the creation of art about rock, it also reveals the subtle shift that occurs in the kind of rock art that's made.

In the early years, one finds such illustrational partners of the music as Peter Blake's 1963 screen print of the Beach Boys and Derek Boshier's 1962 drawings of Bill Haley. Then the art gradually becomes a commentary on rock and an array of rock-related values and issues.

Wallace Berman's curious collages from the '60s depicting the faces of rock stars on the body of a hand-held transistor radio are the show's earliest signs of that change. Perhaps because Berman was old enough at the time to be the father of a teenager, his works have a combined immediacy and distance that are surprising. His images of the radio and several of the day's key rock messengers seem to say, "Here is the new church of culture, the maker of icons, emitter of the new spiritual buzz."

Such prescience is a far cry from the more campy, nostalgic mood of most recent works. Jim Butler's large 1993 oil painting of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass late-'60s album Whipped Cream & Other Delights, Mary Ann Jones' 1993 canvas "El Rancho Lounge and Twist Palace," and Cary Leibowitz's ice trays inscribed with the words "I Remember When Disco Counted" all have their eyes on the past.

Carrie Mae Weem's piece on affirmative action and Richard Posner's Holocaust-inspired "Have Mercy" point to a shared cultural and social past. Yet most of the works in the exhibition seem to stem from the convergence of personal and rock history, marking intimate moments or realizations that were enriched or made more poignant by the power of the music, its message or personalities.

Cliff Benjamin's "If 6 Was 9," also the title of a Jimi Hendrix song, is one of the more elegant and brooding examples of that, as is Ed Ruscha's beautiful pastel "Hit Record." And in the realm of objects made with materials of the rock 'n' roll trade, Christian Marclay's comforting pillow crocheted out of audio tape of Beatles songs stands out.

Unfortunately, such high points are surrounded by a number of works that barely pertain to rock. (Dan Collins' "U-2," for example, in which a television camera assembles pieces of a plane into a whole image of one, says far more about the illusory reality of mediated experiences than it does about rock.) And too many other works here are little more than footnotes to Rubin's theme, which might just as well have been "Art That Begins With R." Hovering between curiosities and personal artifacts, they prove that rock art exists, but offer precious few visual reasons one should care.

"It's Only Rock and Roll: Rock and Roll Currents in Contemporary Art" continues through Sunday, June 15, in the Steele Gallery at Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow