Teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules!
By Michael Davidge
Smokin' in the Boys' Room exhibition essay, Modern Fuel Gallery, October 2012
“Everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school.” – Brownsville Station.
The title of this exhibition comes from a Brownsville Station song recorded in 1973 about the pleasures to be found in youthful rebellion, smoking, and rock and roll. As the epigraph, a lyric for the song, explicitly states, the transgressors are fully aware of the rules, they don’t need to be reminded that what they are doing is forbidden, they’re doing it anyways, in exact defiance of the rules. Herein lies the crux of the rock n’ roll problematic: the genre flouts conventions and norms at that same time that it creates its own conventions and clichés, existing as a mode that very often contradicts itself. How about when a beloved underground band becomes a commercial success and is accused of “selling out,” or when fans of a certain subculture, like hard rock, become intolerant of another, like disco, and take on reactionary attitudes that reinforce the same conservative values they were originally rebelling against? The artists in this exhibition, Christopher Arnoldin, Jo-Anne Balcaen, and Matt Rogalsky, each in their own way take rock and roll as their subject matter or theme and open up a rich area for discussion in contemporary art practice, which can be seen to inhabit similar contradictory positions. Though clearly approaching the subject matter from the standpoint of fans, the artists in the exhibition offer new critical perspectives from which to approach both rock and roll and contemporary art. In a modest way, the exhibition offers a brief history of rock and roll as much as it provides a survey of current practices in contemporary art.
Our history begins in 1954, with the invention of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, a model that has become ubiquitous and is an iconic form for music in the 20th century. Used by countless pop and rock musicians (Buddy Holly was a pioneer), this model has been wielded by some of the most revered guitar virtuosos, including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton. Assuming its widespread familiarity, Rogalsky chooses not to name it in his artist statement for “Discipline,” which features 12 gleaming Fender Stratocasters. Each guitar in the installation is tuned to a single pitch class, so that the 12 together represent the 12 tone harmonic scale of Western music. Each guitar resonates and responds to the presence of its pitch class in the live transmission of a classic rock radio station, which is only heard through the sounding of the guitars by the radio signal. “Discipline” is rooted in a predominantly masculine world and pays homage to guitar mastery and its extremes in prog rock (the title itself refers to a King Crimson album and song). But in spite of the history of great guitar heroes, they are noticeably absent from Rogalsky’s installation, the set-up of which extracts a shadowy shimmering sound from the radio station that suggests less a rockin’ good time than the harmonious music of the spheres. A classical, Apollonian atmosphere prevails, manifesting a platonic form of Rock reaching further back and even beyond the nostalgic era of Golden Oldies. The mathematical mysteries at the root of 12 tone harmony remain concealed, however, leading one to conclude that the random patterns sounding from the chance encounter of Rogalsky’s readymade guitar ensemble with a radio broadcast order rock and roll rebels around according to a predetermined scheme.
From the sharply delineated Apollonian forms of Rogalsky’s Stratocasters, we move to the roiling Dionysian canvasses of Christopher Arnoldin. Taken from the series “Progress Bar 3:52,” Arnoldin’s paintings are based on clips from a video made for the song “Looks that Kill,” by the popular ‘80s hair metal band, Mötley Crüe. The video depicts the band performing the song in a dystopian landscape strewn with rubble and lit by torchlight. This is after they have rounded up into a pen a bevy of scantily clad women dressed in ragged outfits that complement the band’s Road-Warrior-type primitive glam hockey armour attire. Arnoldin depicts the scenes in orgiastic surfaces smeared with pigment, capturing the aggression and sexuality in the music, at the same time evoking the degraded pixelated quality of the video as it circulates on the Internet and gets copied into different contexts. There is a nostalgia at work here too, not only for music once consumed enthusiastically by a certain generation, but also ironically in the conservatism of the form. Rendered permanently in paint, these looks will kill any mortal eyes that fall upon them, outlasting any number of fashion cycles. Arnoldin’s paintings are contemporary, however, not only through their reference to and application of digital technologies, but also in the way that they tap into the drives that continue to jack us into the present.
From the ‘50s and ‘60s through the classic rock of the ‘70s and now ‘80s, our little history of rock and roll brings us up to the twenty-first century with an artefact provided by the artist Jo-Anne Balcaen. “Concert Guitar Pick Rob Metallica” is based on a guitar pick which purportedly belonged to the bass player for Metallica, Rob Trujillo. Purchased by the artist on eBay, it is represented by a large format high resolution print and it is accompanied by a condition report that throws doubt on the provenance of the object. Gallery visitors are invited to ask permission to examine the actual object, which is kept in reserve in the administrative offices of the gallery. If Rogalsky’s Apollonian sculpture finds its antithesis in Arnoldin’s Dionysian paintings, then perhaps the exhibition finds a synthesis of the two in Balcaen’s tragic forms. Having bought into the myth of the rock and roll hero conferring value on the purchased relic, the believer’s faith is tested and made vulnerable upon closer scrutiny. Balcaen’s “Drag” also offers a dialectical riposte to Rogalsky’s “Discipline” as it subjects 12 perfect power chords to an audio treatment that reduces them to ominous rumblings that fail to achieve any semblance with music. As stated by the artist, a central dynamic in Balcaen’s work is the struggle between the contradictory forces of an intellectual drive to be critical of popular culture and an emotional desire to partake of its pleasures. The same struggle can also be perceived in the other artists’ work in this exhibition. This self-division is made most explicit in the mirrored component of Balcaen’s “Drag,” which projects the viewer into two spaces at once, amongst the throngs of admiring fans, and as a god-like performer looking down from above.
By exposing some of the contradictions at work within contemporary artists’ engagement with rock and roll, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room attempts to articulate the object of its study within the framework of a critical history, not an antiquarian one. The exhibition will have achieved this if viewers are led to explore some of the same questions that the artists have posed to themselves in pursuit of their objectives. A critical history examines its objects of study not as received knowledge but as aesthetic creations that are open to new interpretations. Following the school of thought propounded by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room celebrates neither hard rock nor soft rock but proposes instead a new genre: weak rock. Weak rock accounts for the attendant desires, emotions, vulnerabilities, failings, and contradictions in the form.
Michael Davidge is the former Artistic Director at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, in Kingston, Ontario. He now works as an independent curator in Ottawa, Ontario.