The New York Times
By HOLLAND COTTER
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — When art and pop culture tied the knot in the 1960's, they made a hot couple. Forty years on, the marriage is solid, but the honeymoon fizz is gone. So maybe the time has come to re-examine their mutual history in order to expand their options. Most of that history has been told in set ways. By now we've heard quite a lot about how comics and advertising have shaped contemporary painting. We hear far less about the impact of nonvisual media like pop music on art, but it was powerful.
It had a tremendous effect on the American artist-musician Christian Marclay, who is the subject of a traveling survey now at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College here. Encompassing sculpture, collage, painting, video and performance, the show is essentially a record of one artist's attempt to give a physical form to music, and create new music in the process.
Mr. Marclay arrived at his project almost accidentally. Born in California in 1955 and raised in Switzerland, he enrolled in art school in Boston to study painting. But during an exchange year at Cooper Union in Manhattan in 1977, he took the plunge into the local punk and hip-hop scenes, as well as the performance art and experimental music scenes, and was swept away. He decided to generate work from the point where all four intersected.
With a fellow student he formed a two-man band. Mr. Marclay had no music training, so in place of a guitar he strapped a working stereo turntable over his shoulder and percussively scratched away at vinyl records bought at thrift shops, amplifying the sound.
He made further abrasive use of records. He covered gallery floors with them, so that visitors to a show created random scratch-compositions just by walking in the door. He also shattered records and made new ones from carefully joined but mismatched fragments. Thus, Beethoven, the Beatles and nursery rhymes might share grooves in a vinyl version of the D.J.-style mixing and sampling that are now Mr. Marclay's primary performance medium.
His aesthetic of abrasion and accident had links to the fringier pop music of the 1970's and early 80's — anarchic, low-tech punk; cut-and-paste hip-hop — and to 1960's figures like Jimi Hendrix, who played guitar with his teeth and routinely demolished instruments on stage. There were also connections to art: Fluxus, John Cage, the readymades of Duchamp and a whole range of sound-artists and composer-performers like John Zorn, with whom Mr. Marclay has collaborated on several projects.
And all along, he produced exhibitable objects, some of which have a sly political edge. Two big collages created from castoff album jackets, for example, riff on the sexual politics of music's commercial packaging. One piece, 'Dictators,' is made of album covers with photographs of orchestra conductors in self-aggrandizing podium mode: soulful, dominating; gods, basically. 'Incognita,' by contrast, consists of jackets for easy-listening mood music albums of the 1950's and 60's, all adorned with images of female models, eye-candy for the Playboy generation.
His best-known collage work is the 'Body Mix' series. In it he manipulates album graphics to shape a pantheon of fictional, hybrid superstars, pop-divas of indeterminate race, sex and species. But not all of his work is conceptually subtle. Still pursuing the idea of material embodying sound, he recently designed sculptures in the form of unplayable instruments: a tuba twisted like a pretzel, a drumkit on a 10-foot-tall stand, a guitar with a droopy, detumescent neck. Their cartoonishness is appealing, but they suffer from a cuteness that has been a recurring flaw in his art.
It is not so evident in his music or sound-pieces, though that entire aspect of his career — probably the most innovative and fecund — is almost impossible to present in an exhibition context. It can, however, be experienced through his videos, which are his strongest visual works.
'Video Quartet' (2002) is his culminating exercise in collage. Four different video channels are projected on four screens. Each consists of rapid-fire clips from dozens of Hollywood films. Arranged in thematic clusters, the clips are about making sound of some kind: playing the piano, singing, screaming. The video is accompanied by a score composed of sound clips from the same films. The results are brilliant. Sound and image are identically and seamlessly orchestrated.
Pop culture is transformed into art, and the material of that art is an American collective unconscious of pop fantasies and ambient noise.
A second video in the exhibition — organized by Russell Ferguson, chief curator of the University of California's Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it first appeared — reveals a dark side of Mr. Marclay's art. Titled 'Guitar Drag' (2000) and shot in Texas, it is technically pretty straightforward. We see a man — maybe the artist — tying an electric guitar by a rope to the back of a pickup truck; he then starts to drive down a rocky country road, pulling the guitar behind him. For the rest of the film, it bumps and crashes along the ground, gradually splintering and emitting roars and shrieks.
The video is, in part, a nod to Hendrix's shattered guitars, and to the sonic assaults of punk. But it is also a symbolic enactment of the murder of James Byrd Jr., an African-American, who in 1998 was tied to the back of a truck by a group of white men and dragged to his death.
Although it would be a mistake to try to recast all of Mr. Marclay's art in the dark light of 'Guitar Drag,' the piece is a reminder of his capacity for gravity, which pop culture also has. And it also exemplifies the complex, cross-disciplinary vitality that has made it influential for younger artists, performers and musicians who are similarly probing less obvious facets of the art-pop union. I suspect it is they, not the neo-pop painters, who will rejuvenate rather than merely perpetuate the marriage, and move it to a new plane.
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