Dear Nostalgia

March 18th, 2012  |  Published in *, March 2012

Title: Wanderlust Music: Björk Director: Encyclopedia Pictura, courtesy of Contemporary Arts Center

I visited the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art for the purpose of reviewing the music video exhibition, “Spectacle:  The Music Video.”  Although I was overwhelmed with the exhibition’s nostalgic content involving the history of the visual components related to music, what I found myself captivated by was the work of artist Dasha Shishkin several floors below. Both exhibitions opened on the same evening with a musical performance by electronic musician Dan Deacon that was, indeed, a spectacle.  And while I intended to attend the opening, I drove by during Deacon’s performance to find a line (and white tent) full of excited patrons snaked to the corner.

 I returned the following week not just once but twice, since I couldn’t stop thinking about the works in “I surrender, dear,” so I will address both exhibitions in this review.

“Spectacle” is an exhibition about the music video genre, which, the curatorial team of Jonathan Wells & Meg Grey Wells of Flux asserts, has effectively “proven that music now must be seen, not just heard.”  Having grown up during the heyday of MTV’s inception, I remember when success was based more on sound than image, and performance artists weren’t the supernaturally attractive glambots they often are required to be today.  Watching the videos in “Spectacle” evidences this development.  How the irresistible nostalgia factor affects visitors’ interpretation of the exhibition likely varies, based upon the ephemeral influence of the music video on each of our lives, but the CAC continues their programming that targets a young, hip audience with this accessible and buzz-worthy show.

The curators included the work of some of music’s heavy hitters who have feet firmly planted in more than one creative realm, (Patti Smith, Madonna, Kanye West, Bjork, & Spike Jonze among others,) highlighting the near necessity of artists to be multi-hyphenates these days, in order to stay relevant. The exhibition also demonstrates the collaborative nature of musical artistry by showcasing how interdisciplinary artists work together to create the various parergon required to promote a creative endeavor.  For example, Barbara Kruger’s poster “The Perfect Kiss” (1985) is an (apropos of Kruger’s oeuvre) advertisement for English rock band New Order’s short film, directed by Academy Award-winning American filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

There are indeed beautiful things to look at in “Spectacle”:  videos, costumes, props, sets, and even literal objets d’art (the latter of which comes notably in sketch drawings from A-ha’s iconic “Take On Me” rotoscope/live-action video,) but since the visual language of “Spectacle” consists heavily of videos + earphones and wall-text, one should come ready to spend some serious time just watching & reading.  Perhaps because so much of the exhibition’s imagery has become quite commonplace in our meme-filled world, it behooves the curators to offer another access point and therefore, there is quite a lot of text within the exhibition—so much so, that there were workers still installing vinyl text to gallery walls when I returned a week after the exhibition opening.  Additionally, because “Spectacle” is so heavily reliant upon audio/visual technology, some exhibition components were already not working properly.

There are of course inspiring objects associated with music videos in this exhibition.  The aforementioned A-ha video was a main focal point, displaying some original cells as well as including a “drawn” frame one could pose for a photo behind.  A LEGO sculpture from Michel Gondry’s stop-motion video for the White Stripe’s “Fell in Love with a Girl” (2002) video, as well as an immersive portion of the set for New Zealand punk/rapcore band Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man” (2004)—the videos for which, are widely recognized as bringing both bands their initial notoriety.  Indeed, Gondry is so influential in the visual culture of music video that it’s a shame the curators didn’t allot the director his own viewing room for any of the numerous videos he’s created over the past twenty years of his career.  However, given the plethora of available works to choose from, deciding which videos and artists to emphasize in “Spectacle” would be challenging, to say the least.

Perhaps that is my only real beef with this exhibition: because so much of the imagery/videos/interactive experiences are already available to the museum-going public online, they lack a kind of preciousness that I yearned for in my haze of nostalgia.  A more important question might be, what does it say about how we value these the same objects when they are shown within a different context at cultural/commercial institutions like Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or even a Hard Rock Café?  Although the videos grouped (mostly chronologically) throughout have a cumulative effect on the viewer when culled together, the text alone is not sufficient to dispel the commonness of each, and were it not for the corresponding paraphernalia related to the videos themselves, I would have been much less satisfied with my experience.

On the subject of preciousness, the work of Russian American artist Dasha Shishkin is worth mentioning.  Shishkin’s first solo museum show, “I surrender, dear” features more than a decade’s worth of the Brooklyn-based artist’s work, and it demonstrates a quality of carnal naiveté that is exemplified by the exhibition’s title.  Shishkin’s oversized mixed-media drawings, paintings, & etchings prominently include figures but (despite the implications of interaction) resist any obvious narrative.  Droves of mutant humanoid figures (sometimes as simply depicted as circles with eyes) inhabit highly patterned interior dream-like spaces and have physical encounters with each other—often in various stages of undress.  Old faces sit upon baby bodies, phallic appendages skewer varying orifices, and throughout, the artist’s use of line is equal parts childlike and technically adept.

Despite the various figures she draws, line is Shishkin’s major subject.  She rejects the label “painter,” because of her commitment to drawing, focusing more on “line and eloquent silhouettes that line creates.”[] Indeed, her mark-making can seem intentionally superfluous and an integral part of the composition at the same time, and the abundance of populated scenarios presented in each image are a result of the dappled nature of her line-making.   The ten aquatint etchings (and the inherent speckled nature that the aquatint process lends to the final look of a print) in the back hallway are a good demonstration of the artist’s pervasive marking technique.

The installation on the second floor lower-level gallery of the CAC is totally bare with the exception of the furthermost walls and a connecting hall—providing the viewer with a visual palate cleanser before the sensory explosion of color and line within Shishkin’s set-up of forty-seven works (twenty-nine of which are small-scale untitled doodle-like drawings in pen on paper,) installed in a patchwork pattern.  The works begin just where the ceiling of that gallery rises higher, creating an immersive niche of vibrant works that feel like they might be in varying stages of completion.  Shishkin recently compared her process to the Surrealist game of chance saying, “it becomes like an exquisite corpse game where someone else—the material—is suggesting something to me,” and the plurality of media, as well as Shishkin’s ubiquitous mottled mark-making within each piece adds to the visual cacophony of the installation. []

While Shishkin’s choice of banal materials such as ripped wallpaper, folded paper, and leftover fabric inform the imagery, the titles are playfully ornamental.  Some noteworthy examples are “Chupa y Tira” (translation: suck and pull,) “If God is for us, who can be against us,” and “Everything That Ends in Torture is Good,” and they demonstrate the artist’s dry sense of humor as well as her penchant for the visceral experience.

Shishkin’s work is an attempt at a postmodern twist on numerous modernist sources. She relies heavily upon chance composition (like her Surrealist forerunners,) depicts dreamlike bodily distortions à la Francis Bacon, and echoes the spontaneity of Egon Schiele’s figurative line.  Matisse’s bold use of color and pattern to portray interior space is another apparent source, but Shishkin also deftly tackles Japonisme and printmaking in her own characteristically spattered and expressive manner.

In searching for narrative within each piece, assumptions about the age, sexual inclination, and even gender of Shishkin’s inhabitants must be discarded.  The worlds she depicts allow—or rather, implore—for ambiguity, implying a multiplicity of voices.  Whereas the modernist visual language that she mines traditionally employed the figure to imply a universal narrative, Shishkin seems to be searching for a solution to the singularity of modernist expression, and offers her viewers a postmodern representation of pluralism instead.

Spectacle:  the Music Video is on view, March 3-September 3, 2012.

Dasha Shishkin:  I surrender, dear is on view, March 3-April 29, 2012

*Thank you to Yusef Quotah and Chris Reeves for their help in researching this article.

–Maria Seda-Reeder


[] Cashdan, Marina. Modern Painters April 2010: 15-17.

[] Berning, Dale. Nylon, February 2012:

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