Group show harnesses the unlimited imagination unlocked by what we think about when we think about rock stardom
Published: February 2, 2011
Self-Portrait as Rock Star
People hated the swan. And maybe even continue to do so. For as long as memory serves, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Oscar Awards have been that night that Hollywood congratulates itself—and television viewers have participated in the mass spectacle that is witnessing what the rich and famous decide to put on their often tanned and toned bodies. Despite some egregious fashion faux pas over the years—Tilda Swinton’s black potato sack in 2008, Angelina Jolie’s Morticia getup in 2000—the Oscars’ real train wrecks come from musicians. Who can forget Cher’s alien showgirlish get up in 1986 or Celine Dion’s 1999 backward baseball cap—I mean, white suit and rakish fedora? And, of course, there was Björk hitting the 2001 red carpet wrapped in a swan dress.
In all fairness, though, would we really have it any other way? We expect nothing less than the outrageous from our rock stars—which is perhaps why not one but two artists envisioned themselves wearing that swan dress in Self-Portrait as Rock Star, the Gary Kachadourian-midwifed exhibition currently installed at Current Gallery. Willa Fan offers a simple sketch of herself wearing the infamous dress, while Michael Benevento, in one of many instances of the exhibition’s cheekiness, delivers a very different take. He illustrates the dress in an economic series of squiggles and then plops his head, out of proportion and almost as an impertinent afterthought, right at the top where the swan’s neck curls around its wearer’s shoulders.
There’s so much more where that came from. Last October, Current and Kachadourian put out a call for entries for this self-explanatory exhibit: “We would prefer that all images be on paper (spiral bond lined paper is our favorite but anything is fine) and that images larger than 11x14” be able to be rolled. “We will also accept canvas board just because we are hoping to get at least one psychedelic self portrait as George Harrison.” Roughly 100 artists submitted work, including four video pieces, and the 2D work was compiled into a photocopied zine featuring cover art by Post Typography (the graphic design duo of sometimes City Paper contributors Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen).
The definition of rock star was left up to the submitting artists’ imaginations, which is what makes the work so alluring. Kachadourian’s curatorial streak has a way of getting at how and what artists think in a casually silly manner: a previous exhibition he organized at Current featured collections of artists’ doodles, the sort of quick sketches and time-killing illos artists do when bored out of their gourds during staff meetings, while waiting for the bus, while on hold on the phone, and other such ordinary moments. Collected en masse, it offered a delightful peek into artist’s minds during the sort of brain-dead activities we all have to endure.
Self-Portrait riffs on that idea with gleeful extremity. Thankfully, even in this day and age of games like Guitar Hero enabling you to pantomime the music of your favorite bands and declining music sales in general, the allure and idea of the rock star survives. We want to party like them. Rock Star the movie was inspired by a fan getting the chance to join the band he adored. American Idol and reality shows of its ilk exist trying to manufacture them. Myriads of tribute bands endure because people don’t just want to be like some famous musician, they want to be a famous musician—even if it’s for a few songs at a strip mall bar on a Thursday night in the Pennsylvania heartland. Rock stardom for some reason means something, exerts a gravitational pull on the imagination captured so perfectly by the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream,/ don’t expect him to thank or forgive you./ The best-ever death metal band out of Denton/ will in time both outpace and outlive you.”
The fruit of such imaginative labor is particularly ripe for local gallerygoers and music fans in Self-Portrait, because it’s a witty blast to see how visual and music artists you know respond to this challenge. Some people allude to pre-existing imagery of rock stars. Rachel Balsing imagines herself as Lauryn Hill as depicted on the cover of 1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, while Benjamin Funke’s headshot photo of his stone-faced bearded self as Dennis Wilson recalls the late Beach Boys’ lone solo album, 1970’s Pacific Ocean Blue. Craig Hankin (a former CP art director) imagines himself as a Beatle in a drawing recalling the Fab Four’s legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The fab Christine Ferrera imagines herself as all five of the cold-creamed Go-Gos as captured on the cover of 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, while Sick Weapons vocalist Ellie Beziat imagines herself as “L.A. Woman,” recreating a Jim Morrison pose—shirtless, arms outstretched—that has appeared on an inordinate number of dorm-room walls.
Even more fun, though, is when artists take a more inspired, curve-ball, or deadpan approach. Current Gallery co-organizer Monique Crabb draws herself as party hard-era Andrew WK—holding a microphone with blood strewing from her nose—on simple lined notebook paper. Amy Harmon depicts herself, mustache and all, as Weird Al-Yankovic in a cartoon-y illustration with the Weird Al Harmon surrounded by satellites of accordions. In one of the video pieces, AK Slaughter’s Emily Slaughter casts herself as Linda Manz’s punk-loving Cebe imagining herself as Elvis in Dennis Hopper’s 1983 gem Out of the Blue. The indubitable Charles Brohawn offers the sort of encyclopedic narrative in a single image you’d expect from one half of the Tinklers: Right in the middle of the page is a guy in a “Rat Fink” T-shirt leaping into the air holding a guitar, surrounded by band names (the Cramps, MC5, VU, CooCoo Rockin’ Time), songs (“Wild Thing,” “Gloria,” “Surfin’ Bird”), and metaphysical ideas (the devil, the Holy Spirit, Memphis, Detroit, chimps) that define “rock star” to Brohawn. And in the personal favorite, Erin Womack—an artist this writer only knows through her wonderfully awkward drawings and sculptures—depicts herself as Stevie Nicks. This Nicks looks like she is wearing, for some reason, a single glove, leg warmers, and a tunic right out of the original Clash of the Titans, and this single self-portrait produces some of the purest chuckling you’re liable to get without a personal supply of nitrous.
No idea if the pieces in Self-Portrait as Rock Star produce the same sort of chortling without a knowledge of the particulars, but it feels like a safe bet. Besides, the exhibition feels like it exists purely for the feelings its ideas elicit. As capital-A Art, the quality of the work hanging on Current’s walls varies from purposely amateurish to expertly achieved, but it’s less about the how than the what powering the choices. Rock stars as a species of human beings are among the most ridiculous statuses we’ve created, people we’ve elevated to some vaulted status simply because they made sounds that tapped into some ineffable emotional reservoir. It’s irrational and beyond absurd—and yet, sometimes it’s a total gas to imagine what it might be like to live that life, even if just for a moment.
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