My love of Sonic Youth is unconditional, but the series of small canvasses on the gallery wall were pushing it. They were by Sonic Youth’s perennially hip and glamorous bassist Kim Gordon, whose longtime associations with cutting-edge artists are nothing to scoff at; she has an art degree, has written for Artforum and has participated in projects in and out of Sonic Youth that blur the lines between performance art, music, design and fine art. But her Rocked Up paintings–sloppy explosions of black acrylic paint strewn with heaps of silver glitter–looked like she threw them together in half an hour after cleaning out an art-supply cabinet. If that was the point, it was a very boring one.
Still, there they were, part of the “Music Is a Better Noise” exhibit at MOMA’s P.S. 1 in New York. The show, whose name comes from the title of a 1979 song by the band Essential Logic, brought together work by arty musicians and musical artists. It’s a great idea; the scenes that artists and musicians run in often overlap to the point of merging inextricably. The connection is underexplored, perhaps because the visual element is such an important part of popular music that it seems silly to separate the two.
Many bands have created their own album-cover art, while artists like Raymond Pettibon started out drawing Black Flag flyers and wound up with works in the permanent collections of world-class museums. In fact, if you want to luxuriate in a local hotbed of musician-designer-photographer-artists, seek out most any band in the North Bay indie-punk underground.
Not surprisingly, “Music Is a Better Noise” is New York-centric. Its first gallery focuses on three artists–Alan Vega, Barbara Ess and Rammellzee–whose activity in pre-post-punk New York of the mid-1970s to the early ’80s influenced musicians in various genres for years to come. Those familiar with the cold mechanical nihilism of Vega’s band Suicide could easily trace that aesthetic to his buzzing electric crucifixes constructed of busted neon, New York street detritus and broken dreams.
Rammellzee’s bizarre robotic assemblages form a renegade army of mutant Transformers who, in a fully realized fantasy world Rammellzee calls Gothic Futurism, engage in an epic battle between concrete symbols and abstract meanings. It helps to know that Rammellzee gained fame as a graffiti artist, and his bombing buddy Jean-Michel Basquiat produced Rammellzee’s 1982 single with K-Rob, “Beat Box,” now a hip-hop classic.
But those wishing to know more about what Rammellzee or Suicide sound like are out of luck, because “Noise” provides next to no context of the artists’ musical activities; the stiff little blurbs on the wall reveal little information, and the galleries are eerily silent. If music is the pretext for bringing the whole thing together, then what’s the point?
Entering the gallery, one reads that the exhibit aims to “epitomize the role of artist as a participant in diverse fields of cultural activity.” Fields like, uh, music and art? If these folks were not musicians, would anyone care about this art? Would it be hanging in a museum or represented by a gallery? In both the music and art world, quality and originality can sadly have very little to do with what gets large-scale attention.
Not many visual artists have famously made the leap to popular music (the doomed early Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, perhaps? Yoko Ono?). Musicians have a vast upper hand when it comes to jumping fences of artistic disciplines. How many rap stars, for instance, have met acclaim and commercial success when transitioning to a film career?
Meanwhile, when actors-cum-musicians like Billy Bob Thornton or Minnie Driver go out on tour, I can’t help but wonder if the people in the audience are there to enjoy the music or to stare at their favorite actors in the flesh? Courtney Love once said that all actors want to be rock stars, but rock stars are indifferent about acting. And no wonder. When you’re a rock star, you’re already a rock star. Why bother?
Artistic folks are often multi-artsy: chefs who play guitar, dancers who take photographs, rockers who glue shit together and see it hanging in P.S. 1 because they are in Sonic Youth. Does creativity occupy a person, spreading like poison ivy, infecting and awakening untapped disciplines? For now, the answer is not coming to a museum near you. I suggest you try the local practice space instead, where gifted artists may doodle with both notes and images, and continue to be nonchalant about it.