A New Show Proves Art and Music Can't Play Nice
If not entirely unknown, pleasures are oddly hard to come by at Simon Lee Gallery's show of visual art by and about music and musicians.
Merlin Carpenter, Amy Winehouse, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery
If all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, as critic Walter Pater famously wrote, art almost as constantly reminds us of the ways in which it falls short. New Pleasure at New York’s Simon Lee Gallery collects 15 works by 14 artists, all ostensibly treating or inspired by music. But few of them really sing, and none of them approaches the perfect unity of form and subject that Pater pondered in the 18th century.
This is not entirely the artists’ fault. Trying to mimic or even evoke the effects of music by means of static media—paintings, photographs, sculptures, assemblages—is a fool’s errand. The only other genres that might have a chance are those that move through time: dance, drama, film, video, performance. As for writing, see “dancing about architecture” (which is not entirely fair, as written language has its own music, and reading and writing mandate progressive activity of the eye and hand). Unfortunately, the only time-based work in the show, Hilary Lloyd’s The Band (2017), consisting of a widescreen TV playing footage from an extremely hand-held videocam as its owner wanders around a rock club, is perhaps the weakest (the hideous tie-dye sheet above the monitor doesn’t help).
Entering the gallery, I recognize no one; stranger still, no music is playing. The show begins with a large silkscreen print of a bunch of randomly scattered ovoid black dots by the thoroughly overrated Christopher Wool (the checklist finds it important to note that Wool’s name is “blind stamped” on the front and signed on the back; with a title like Untitled and work this ineffectual, this is understandable). Claudio Parmiggini’s Senza Titolo (1980) offers faint, inky handprints on musical staff paper—pleasant, and the very definition of “gestural.” Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon presents a 2015 painting, Destroy All Monsters, which renders the titular words in the drippy hand of hastily applied political street graffiti. This was the name of artists Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw’s band, and the resonance is endearing, Gordon being the only New Pleasure artist other than Suicide’s Alan Vega to have near equal footing in the music and art worlds.
George Condo, a former musician, is represented by John Lennon (2001), a large, two-field painting—the lower field a visual dance of Miro-like squiggles on a yellow background, and the much smaller upper field spelling out the Beatle’s name in orange caps on a blue background. Hans-Peter Feldmann provides some abject comic relief with five snapshot-like photographs (printed family-album size) of car dashboards, focusing on their stereos. The work is untitled and undated, but has a caption reading “Carradios [sic] while good music is playing.” (If you say so, HP.) Dexter Dalwood’s huge two-field painting Second Set (2016) is said to be inspired by the cover aesthetics of Lou Reed’s Transformer, but the only echo I can see is the thin yellow line dividing the grey-scale fields, one depicting a rock band’s stage setup, the second showing the same instruments broken and strewn around the stage.
Under the title Human Torch as post-modern Apollo (1981), Steven Parrino contributes a small charcoal drawing involving a tiny rendering of the Marvel Comics hero bursting into a black rectangle with a diagonal Roman column. Also thoroughly unmusical. And dominating the space along with Dalwood’s Second Set is Merlin Carpenter’s Amy Winehouse (2014), a massive pink-and-green headshot portrait painting of you-know-who, modeled after a Warhol silkscreen. The press release makes some vague noises about Winehouse’s unwitting sellout of the “original essence” of punk “despite having an earnest passion for its message.” Apparently, she “could have been a counter-culture icon,” but “unintentionally became the neoliberal version of resistance.” (I have no idea what they’re talking about; Winehouse was a soul singer.) Two small works by sound poet Henri Chopin, quadrille (1992) and Les danses spirituelles (1992) are two of the best pieces in the show, both tight grids of dense, overtyped typography, seemingly consisting of dingbats, that have a slight Op-Art effect.
Honoring Cubism, Matana Roberts’s Always Say Your Name (2014) is as close to a Braque collage as you’re likely to find in the 21st century, notable for its use of handwritten musical staff (of a hymn?) as an element. Latifa Echakhch’s found sculpture Sans Titre (jouer de tambour a) (2010) piles a marching band drum, a discarded majorette’s uniform, and other related items on a plinth at the back end of the gallery. The aforementioned Alan Vega offers one of his many junk assemblages, a small crucifix made out of scrap wood, electrical wire, and three small light bulbs, inexplicably titled Battleship (2013).
Behind the Echakchch on the rear wall of the gallery is my favorite work in the show, Bitches and Bastards (1985–86) by Richard Prince. One of his photo-grid “gang” works, the large print is a collection of anonymized black-and-white promotional photos (the equivalent of actor headshots) of 1980s hair metal bands (all hopefuls, I assume; I don’t recognize any, though my knowledge of the subgenre is willfully limited). The tension between the band’s absurdly outré outfits, menacing scowls, and overall air of unearned self-importance (these are people who answered want ads reading “big hair and attitude a must”) and the total absence of band names or identifying information provides some much needed Spinal Tap giggles in an otherwise ponderous show. Despite Simon Lee Gallery’s yeoman effort, the most effective artist response to rock-’n’-roll remains Dan Graham’s 1984 essay film Rock My Religion; it’s got a good beat, and even Shakers can dance to it.
New Pleasure is on view at Simon Lee Gallery, New York, through December 23.