Banks Violette: Whitney Museum of American Art

Article excerpt

In a single, melancholic afternoon, I recently saw Gus Van Sant's latest film Last Days, and the Robert Smithson and Banks Violette exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though unplanned, the itinerary made sense: Each presentation was haunted by the theme of early death, a fate that has long been a trigger for cultish devotion. As Shelley wrote after Keats died at twenty-five: "He is secure, and now can never mourn / A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain." Or, in the words of Neil Young, quoted memorably by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note: "It's better to burn out than to fade away."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Burning out, in grand, theatrical fashion, is (both literally and figuratively) the overarching subject of Violette's first and much-anticipated commission from a museum. Sparkling like moonlit snow, the fragmented skeleton of a torched gothic church cast in salt stands on a glossy black, knee-high platform, almost filling a black-painted room. Untitled, 2005, is, according to the lengthy wall text, underpinned by a range of art-historical allusions including Caspar David Friedrich's Romantic sublime and Smithson's stoner musings on crystals and entropy. (Perhaps surprisingly, Sol Le Witt's "Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes" (1974), also comes to mind--each rough-looking white beam was cast from a single original mold, evoking Le Witt's interest in seriality.) Despite the broad selection of aesthetic references, the installation's true north seems to be its commentary on black metal, a neogothic subgenre of heavy metal that has flourished in Norway.

Characterized by its theatrical morbidity, the sensibility of black metal mirrors Violette's own grim preoccupations. A crucial component of the work is its sound track, which was commissioned from Snorre Ruch, a black metal pioneer who served time for his part in the "ritual" murder of a musician in a rival band in 1995. …