"Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967," Sept. 29, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611
In art it is important to remember that the most substantial, meaningful, honest, spiritual, cultural rituals, forms and esthetics come from the underground. In rock music the experience of aggressiveness and surprise, the hymns to the forbidden, the raw and vulgar pleasures of sex and drugs, and the frustration and fear of life are the kind of thing a museum can’t pretend to recreate.
So you know that Dominic Molon, the curator of "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967," is in deep trouble when he claims that the show is "the most serious and comprehensive look at the intimate and inspired relationship between the visual arts and rock-and-roll culture to date." Now, here’s a question for the more than capable curator: How do you tame counterculture into the prepackaged pretext of High Art?
Before the show opened, Molon’s efforts already had detractors sufficient to rival the Spanish Inquisition. The reason is obvious -- we all know art exhibitions about rock music suck. Another big problem was that the MCA seems to have scorned one of the most influential and rich rock ‘n’ roll scenes in America by stressing that "the exhibition addresses the importance of specific cities such as London, New York, Los Angeles. . . ."
What about Chicago?
Chicago’s angry new-music mob reports no sightings of the curator at any of the dingy clubs where trends are hatched and passed along to the rest of the country. I can testify I never saw him at the Empty Bottle, The Metro, Fireside Bowl, Hyde Out or Double Door. Talking to the local podcast Bad at Sports, Molon had a good answer for the "poseur" accusation -- he doesn’t go to live shows because he can’t stand drunks. But even if Molon’s admiration for rock is limited to record covers, VH-1 and glossy magazines, he knows he needs the heritage of the city to legitimize his exhibition. Sadly, for "Sympathy," Chicago is a great opening act but not the main attraction.
Very weird, especially since in Chi-town musicians are treated like royalty for their contributions to culture and art at large. The Windy City was key in the development of Electric Blues, Jazz and Rock ‘n Roll, thanks in part to the legendary Chess Records (1950-1972), located at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue. The Rolling Stones even have a song titled 2120 South Michigan Avenue that is an homage to the legendary studios. Also from Chi are Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. The town is the birthplace of House music, Dust Traxx Records, Industrial music, art-country rockers Wilco, record labels Drag City and Touch and Go, and one-time stadium fillers like the Smashing Pumpkins. It is home base for iconic figures like Steve Albini, founder of the punk band Big Black and producer of acts like Nirvana and High on Fire; the experimental musician Jim ‘O Rourke, who has scored films by Werner Herzog and worked with Sonic Youth; and Wicker Park’s staple schizophrenic poet, artist and musician, the late Wesley Willis. This is the city where hundreds of disco records where burned in the name of rock at a bonfire in Comiskey Park in ’79 -- a truly transcendent example of the perfect juxtaposition between social protest, art and sports. And the list, like the music, could go on and on.
I do believe that Dominic Molon had the best intentions and even a good vision, but the end result can be described as a white man’s suburban teen rock fantasy journey into nostalgia. Tourists may embrace the exhibition, but they won’t catch that close relationship of art and music that’s born from the underground, the outcasts and the sidelines. This is the kind of show where criticism is all about one question -- what about X?
There’s not much to think about in "Sympathy for the Devil." Starting from the hackneyed title, the show’s got no angst, no violence and no irony. Even interesting documents and fanzines are placed in vitrines that suck the life out of them, or hidden in the exhibition catalogue. Record covers are rendered as generic blow-ups and there’s way too much painting referencing photo documentation.
Installations take a big chunk of space, too, like Douglas Gordon’s Bootleg (Cramped), a video projection of grainy slow-motion close-ups of the bodies and facial expressions of the crowds and performers at live music shows. Cramped is a typically hermetic high-art view of musical delirium, and nothing new when compared to the campy documentation of the 1980s glam scene by photojournalist Neil Zlozower, or Penelope Spheeris’ multiple documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), where fans, groupies and musicians are interviewed sarcastically in their natural habitats.
Suspicious in the mix are trendy art world tricksters like Assume Astro Vivid Focus, who is good and exotic but definitely can’t rock, and whose inclusion might be directed by market trends rather than any real interest. Nicely framed is Robert Longo, with his fashionable drawings of Republican yuppies from the 1980s, here reinterpreted as some kind of violent seizure to a rock soundtrack.
Also included are the now-overused Mike Kelley, Destroy All Monsters, Sonic Youth and Raymond Pettibon, some of whom looked much better at the Whitney Biennial. One of the biggest mistakes is the inclusion of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled 1996, a transparent and portable rehearsal studio-cum-cage that looks totally out of place, not to mention inessential, given today’s technology. How anti-rock would it be for a band to go to a museum to play on a piece of valuable art made by the favorite pet of curators around the globe?
Not all is problematic, however. My favorite piece in the show is Peter Saville’s sketches, notes and designs for New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies record. My appreciation is based in nostalgia and process. I also enjoyed Jim Lambie’s homage to The Who. Titled Pinball Wizard, the humongous installation, specially commissioned for the show, features his habitual colorful stripes and swirls on the floor along with sticks covered with thin thread that revolve around a life-sized sculptural eagle.
A great surprise is to see works by the Chicago-based artist Pedro Bell, whose paintings illustrate the freaky, raw, sci-fi sexual imagery from Parliament Funkadelick. This reminded me of the absence in the show of things by African Americans and other "minorities," which would include the Black Punk era, Bad Brains and the art-packed magazine Rocktober. Not to mention ‘70s Latino psychedelic rock and the New Wave Argentinean scene from the late ‘80s, and the contemporary Mexican Puerto Rican Hardcore and Noise music that relies heavily on collaborations with visual artists. During the late ‘90s, 7/3 Split Gallery in Chicago would open its exhibition space to weekend shows organized by Traschcore kids, mostly from Mexican and Latino neighborhoods, demonstrating that the multicultural pot assembled for artistic collaborations easily extends beyond the established art centers.
Unsatisfied, I keep looking and thinking of the "what about" factor. What about Peter Hujar, Torbjørn Rodland, David Wojnarowicz, Punk Planet or H.R. Giger? And what about the Chicagoans? Hardcore Histories series at Mess Hall, Crosshair Printing, Screaming in Music projects organized by Marc Fischer, Academy Records, Wesley Kilmer, Terence Hannum, Chuck Jones, Artloinz, Siebren Veersteg, Matt Hanner, Rob ad Zena Zakowski, E.C. Brown, and Phillip Von Zweck.
And after a couple of fast rounds around the MCA’s tunnel vision, I felt sick, angry and ready to find a real club, a real show, and a real cold cheap beer. And finally, I left.
PEDRO VÉLEZ is an artist and writer living in Puerto Rico.