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Not unlike blues legend Robert Johnson, considered by many to be the granddaddy of rock and roll, Dominic Molon must have found himself tempted by a Faustian deal.
Five years ago, the curator was at the crossroads between rockers and artists, confronting the daunting task of exploring the deep-rooted and primal alliances between rebellious spirits haunting both the sonic and visual realms.
Molon's nearly pitch-perfect twanging of these complementary chords is on view in "Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967" at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), featuring more than 100 paintings, drawings, installations, and videos by 56 artists and artist collectives.
The show was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where it drew stadium-size crowds, and judging by the throngs attending opening night last Thursday, MoCA's turnstile numbers will skyrocket as well.
Capturing the angst and transgressive nature of the raw underbelly is an unenviable task for a museum, let alone shoehorning the four-decade flirtation between musicians and artists across the globe into one exhibit. For the most part, though, "Sympathy for the Devil" riffs heavily on the New York, Los Angeles, and London scenes, with the exception of a few jarring notes in between.
Molon says he was thrilled at how the show jelled at MoCA, given that its first incarnation in the Windy City was more sterile and lacked some of the amped-up energy exuded here.
"In Chicago, because of the larger space, everything was more manicured," Molon explains. "Here it was more go-for-broke and more frenetic. It's interesting what we were able to accomplish in this space."
David Muller's There Are Known Knowns and Unknown Knowns (With a Hefty Dose of Negation) is a work that addresses the difficulty and bias of such an exhibition. The site-specific mixed-media mural takes the shape of rock's family tree with its subgenres overflowing from its roots. At the center of the piece, a large chunk of history (1975-1992) is swallowed by a black cube reflecting Muller's notion that the period was ripe with wooden one-hit wonders, or perhaps plain tone deaf.
Molon also readily admits a fanboy's appreciation for the music of his youth: "I grew up listening to postpunk music and cut my teeth on the Pixies and Sonic Youth."
Although the show takes its name from the iconic Rolling Stones tune, few works cover either the Stones or the Sixties.
At the rear of the museum, Ronald Nameth's trippy 22-minute film Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, documenting the pop icon's early collaborations with The Velvet Underground, is projected onto a steel storage space door. Twitchy dancers, a yowling Lou Reed, and a psychedelic light show capture the radioactive dissonance of the times.
Across from it are Andy Warhol's Screen Tests (1966) — featuring four-minute video portraits of Velvet rockers John Cale, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker, and Nico — which were part of the light show during Exploding Plastic Inevitable events.
Another work that directly references the avant-garde band is Jason Rhoades's Velvet Underground Perfect World (2000-'05), engulfing a wall with orange, blue, green, white, and pink neon signs vomiting street slang for the word vagina. Priceless terms for female genitalia — "mind flaps," "phat rabbit," "crankum mucker" — split the sides while conveying a sense of the influential band's gritty vibe.
Led Zeppelin fans will enjoy Slater Bradley's noisy 2004 video The Year of the Doppelganger, in which a scrawny ringer for the artist thrashes out the drum riff to Zep's "When the Levee Breaks" at the UC Berkeley football stadium while befuddled jocks run wind sprints on the field.
Even though the show is freighted with videos and installations, some of the drawings and photos pack a wallop all their own. Some highlights include Raymond Pettibon's searing early-Eighties drawings created for flyers and album covers for his brother Greg Ginn's band Black Flag. The works mirror the intensity of L.A.'s punk scene.
Chicago's Pedro Bell distills the irreverent nature of funk-rock with his four original drawings for Funkadelic's 1981 album The Electric Spanking of War Babies. Because of protests, the record company eventually censored his sexually charged futuristic depiction of women.
A striking gelatin silver print by Richard Kern, which ended up on the cover of Sonic Youth's Evol, captures actress Lung Leg in a feral pose as she crouches, snarls, and draws her claws. It's one of the more startling images, encapsulating the confrontational veneer of the aggressive punk scene.
In another Kern photo, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon brandishes a shotgun while standing in front of a pickup truck. It's a production still from Kern's video for the band's 1984 single "Death Valley '69" and alludes to the Manson Family's Tate-LaBianca murders that year.
Marnie Weber's spooky 24-minute video fiddles with a barnyard séance mood. Visitors can watch A Western Song while sitting on a hay bale. The bushwhacking video is screened on a wall inside a rustic wooden frame, where members of Weber's imaginary all-female rock band, Spirit Girls, have returned from the dead wearing bizarre animal costumes and knocking back hooch from a jug or jitterbugging on a saloon bar.
Molon leads spectators to a display documenting Throbbing Gristle, a band he calls one of the most critical and influential marriages between art and music to evolve from England in the Seventies.
"They invented industrial music, and their transgressive performances and subversive and confrontational style still influence contemporary artists today," Molon says. He explains that the outfit's notorious reputation was enhanced by the fact that band member Cosey Fanni Tutti often appeared in porn, shocking the Brit upper crust. Unfortunately the band's postcards, 'zines, and album covers are sealed in vitrines, which give the items an air of precious objects.
Tucked around a corner, Robert Longo's iconic Men in the Cities drawings — depicting Gordon Gekko-esque drones contorted under Reagan-era power-hungry ambition — get retweaked as spastic symbols of New York's downtown scene of the Seventies and Eighties, in which the artist was active.
One of the show's strongest hooks is a cell phone audio tour boasting tunes related to works on display, such as the New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis," the Ramones' "Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" and Sonic Youth's "Kill Yr. Idols." It even has an introduction by the curator himself.
The show also features Rirkrit Tiravanija's Untitled 1996 (Rehearsal Studio No. 6 Silent Version), which offers local musicians free recording time for the duration of the exhibit. Located at the entrance to the show, the Plexiglas cube includes a guitar, bass guitar, electronic drum kit, microphones, and recording equipment.
Visitors can listen through one of six pairs of headphones outside the space while musicians cut their demos inside.
They can find inspiration in artist Tony Oursler's amazing Sound Digressions in Seven Colors, a video installation featuring experimental rock performers jamming on separate screens and assailing the peepers.
With so much going on, it's impossible to absorb everything in only one visit. The good news is that this show is worth seeing again and again. Best of all, MoCA has slated a lineup of events to keep the exhibit fresh during the summer. While you're there, pick up the show's impressive catalogue, a treasure trove of information about the subject matter.
And kudos to Molon, who had no problem choosing Douglas Gordon's grainy, slow-mo bootleg videos of the Cramps, the Rolling Stones, and the Smiths, which reflect the jolting spectacle of the rock experience.
"If I had a really big place, Douglas Gordon's bootleg videos are what I'd have in my home," the curator says.
Despite the fact that some knuckleheads will bitch about holes in Molon's rock history, you can't leave without thinking you have to give this devil his due.