The Return of Art Rock

In a 1970 silkscreen seen here, Signs, Robert Rauschenberg included Janis Joplin's photo among those of an astronaut, a peace rally, the slain Kennedys, and Martin Luther King. More recently, artists have viewed musicians' roles as popular heroes more cynically. The artist team Pruitt-Early, for example, pastes Kiss patches on a background of a Miller beer logo in their early Nineties series, Painting for Teenage Boys.

Throughout the rock era, artists have depicted dead singers as contemporary saints and martyrs -- the show includes portraits of the holy (and overexposed) rock trinity Jimi Hendrix, Joplin, and John Lennon, as well as a painting of Kurt Cobain with his face blown off. This last work, by West Coast surfer-turned-artist Sandow Birk, is modeled after a pre-Raphaelite painting depicting the suicide of an eighteenth-century poet. Sandow's explicit portrait is disquieting, as much for the artist's irreverence in creating it as for the subject matter itself.

Rare is the artist's studio that doesn't contain a stereo and a pile of favorite motivational CDs, or at the very least a paint-encrusted radio. Accompanied by music as they work, painters are often moved to translate musical energy into visual art. Piet Mondrian is the most celebrated, but the best-known contemporary example is probably Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is represented here by Horn Players, an expressive canvas paying homage to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker that includes portraits of the musicians and scrawling text. (Gillespie and Parker aren't rock musicians, but it's still an exciting painting.)

While some artists attempt to represent music through painting, others use musical hardware as materials. The show provides a brief retrospective look at artistic experiments with musical technology. Video art pioneer Nam June Paik is represented by a lightweight work, Dharma Wheel Turns (1990), a whimsical figure of a man constructed from old LPs, a CD, a laserdisc, a cassette, and topped with Walkman headphones.

Two photos document Laurie Anderson's groundbreaking experiments in the Seventies. One shows her playing her "Viophonograph" -- a turntable mounted on a violin, an altered instrument incorporating live music and recording. If Anderson's work seems dated, it is still an interesting exploration into the validity of recorded sound versus live, and it has contemporary relevance in the debate currently raging over sampling.

A younger artist, Alan Rath, humanizes technology with his anthropomorphic electronic sculptures. His Transmitter, from 1990, is constructed of four speaker cones mounted on a tripod. Like sensuous mouths, the speakers pulsate as if they were breathily whispering to passersby.

A veteran of the New York music scene of the late Seventies, when he provided turntable scratches for the band Mon Ton Son, Christian Marclay is known for using records and other recording material as media for his artworks. He cuts up old LPs and assembles the pieces into new platters that emit garbled noise when played. Covered with psychedelic collages, these Recycled Records can also be hung on the wall, as they are in the exhibition. Unfortunately there's no chance to listen to them in the museum. Also on view is Marclay's The Beatles, a pillow the artist crocheted from tape recorded with Beatles' songs. A sublime surrealist object, the pillow evokes music's ability to alter our emotions and fuel our dreams. By translating music into a tangible, touchable thing, Marclay stresses its visceral yet ethereal quality.

In setting out to document the interaction of contemporary art and music, curator Rubin has largely succeeded. There are many provocative, attractive, or simply enjoyable works here. For all of the highlights, though, there are twice as many works that have no resonance at all.

These include derivative paintings (several mimic Basquiat), innocuous campy installations, and stupidly pretentious conceptual art pieces. (The worst offender is Richard Hawkins, who plasters images of Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash over photos of celebrated modernist Cy Twombly's elegant abstract drawings.) The conglomeration of so many mediocre works risks allowing the stronger pieces to be overlooked, a situation aggravated by museum guards who neglect to turn the sound elements on.

"It's Only Rock and Roll" is a worthy endeavor, but it doesn't manage to make quite enough noise.

"It's Only Rock and Roll" is on exhibit through February 8 at the Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Dr, Coral Gables; 284-3603. Admission is $5.

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