Devil Art MCA Exhibition Connects the Dots between Rock Music and the Avant Garde

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic

"Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967"

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago

When: Through Jan. 6, 2008

Tickets: $10/$6. Call (312) 280-2660 or visit

What: "Mall Culture"

When: 2001

Who: Destroy All Monsters Collective

When Paul McCartney imagined another band besides the Beatles singing Beatles songs and hired British pop artist Peter Blake to bring his idea to life, the result became the rock music milestone "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

McCartney's decision created a role most musicians did not previously have the liberty to play: one in which the visual wrappings could dictate what the music sounded like and, maybe, even be more important.

The year was 1967, also the beginning date of "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967," a new exhibition running through early January at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Even though rock and the avant garde in America had a flirtatious relationship in previous years, it wasn't until the late 1960s that they became partners. Both worlds became less underground and more regarded as outlets for serious expression.

Up to that point, rock stars faced being marginalized as scruffy outsiders or, worse, lumped together with entertainers of an earlier generation. Now, through the intersection of the art and music worlds and with art schools starting to churn out just as many musicians as visual artists, rock musicians faced the opportunity to become art stars - and vice versa.

In London, Pete Townshend espoused theories why smashing a guitar was really a statement on violence, an extension of what he was taught by auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger. In New York City, Lou Reed posed for films and photographs by Andy Warhol, who became the Velvet Underground's first producer while also the designer of the famous "banana cover" for the band's first album.

The MCA exhibition picks it up from there. Concentrating the most on the New York City and British punk scenes of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the collection surveys more than 100 paintings, drawings, installations and videos that explore how inspiration is a two-way street. Some of the work comes directly from artists who either worked alongside musicians, such as Peter Saville, who created album covers for New Order, or others like Chicago's Ed Paschke, who did not deal with musicians but happened to paint with bold colors and whose subjects displayed a surreal bent that suggested he was from the same world.

The exhibition's failings arise from works that come across as lazy concepts or literal conceits, such as the work of Christian Marclay, who created "1476 Records (Louisiana Floor)," requiring the viewer to walk across a floor of vinyl records, or "David Bowie," a portrait of the singer constructed from body parts from different album sleeves.

There is also work that is especially precious, notably "Daydream Nation" by Jay Heikes, a video replication of the Sonic Youth album cover that runs 40 minutes, the album's exact length. Or Melanie Schiff's "Emergency," a photograph of an empty Jack Daniels bottle - a drink long favored by rock roughnecks - reimagined as a religious beacon.

Artwork aching to proclaim a connection with rock music deserves to be more provocative but also - in deference to its inspiration - able to stand on its own merits. The difficulty of trying to connect the dots between the sweaty, visceral and bare-knuckled world of rock music with the more sedate and intellectual aesthetic inherent to visual art is that the two might seem to have many things in common, but the execution of those ideas is often a failure of middle ground.

Artists who borrow themes and styles from rock musicians often look like they're trying to co-opt a level of cool they can't normally access. …