The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl

For the diehard music geek, a towering stack of vinyl can evoke all kinds of emotions, from the excitement of discovering a promising stash at a garage sale to the dread of all the heavy lifting required when it comes time to move. The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, which opened at the Henry Art Gallery last week, triggers a comparable flood of emotions. William Cordova‘s “Greatest Hits (para Micaela Bastidas, Tom Wilson y Anna Mae Aquash)” confronts museum visitors with a precarious-looking tower comprised of 3,000 reclaimed vinyl records. Cordova’s piece inspires awe, reflection... and mild dread, setting the tone for the whole exhibit, which constantly provokes the audience to reexamine its relationships with records from unexpected angles.

Originally staged at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and curated by Trevor Schoonmaker, The Record brings terrific breadth and depth to its subject material. Although the hands-on “Cover To Cover” section tasked contributors with taking a conceptual approach to album covers and filling crates with LPs that reflect a visual theme, The Record is not a survey of sleeve art. Nor do the usual art world and pop culture suspects dominate the show. Although Christian Marclay, the Swiss-American artist who has specialized in exploring records and sound in his work since the early ’80s, figures prominently, his works included are lesser-known and distributed judiciously. Only two popular musicians (Laurie Anderson and David Byrne) are included, and familiar museum fixtures like Ed Rauscha share space with artists rarely shown in the States. If you’ve only seen the meticulous work of Washington DC outsider artist Mingering Mike and his D.I.Y. record sleeves in the pages of Wax Poetics, YETI or The New York Times, The Record affords a rare opportunity to examine over a dozen of them up close.

While the culture of collecting records can often seem embarrassingly homogeneous, Schoonmaker made sure white males didn’t monopolize the conversation in The Record. Towards that end, one of the most striking pieces, Xaviera Simmons‘ “Thundersnow Road, North Carolina,” was commissioned specifically for the exhibit. When asked about her proposed contribution, Simmons told Schoonmaker she wanted to make a record—but her approach was a unique, nontraditional one in keeping with her own aesthetic. She assumed characters, photographed them in various landscapes, and then asked musicians (including members of TV on the Radio, Superchunk, and My Morning Jacket) to respond to specific images with original compositions. You can listen to the music while scrutinizing the pictures—and forming your own narratives around the photographs. (And, yes, she got to “make a record”: Merge Records compiled a limited-edition LP featuring ten of the songs.)

In conjunction with The Record, the Henry is also hosting The B-Side, a participatory learning and resource lab dedicated to exploring the traditions of art, music, and record manufacturing in the Pacific Northwest. The walls in the Henry’s Test Site space are dominated by vinyl records sourced from over 130 labels in Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Anacortes and points in between, all of which the public are encouraged to pick up, examine, and peruse at a listening station. Throughout the run of The Record, The B-Side will host listening parties and live shows; this Wednesday through Friday, Mike Dixon of People In a Position to Know (PIAPTK) is cutting a series of limited edition, high-quality 10-inch lacquer recording blanks, featuring exclusive performances by Grand Archives, Eric D. Johnson (of the Fruit Bats), and Joe Plummer (of Modest Mouse) aka Robert Horse, on a 1940′s record lathe in real time. (They’ll be available on a first come, first serve basis, with proceeds directly benefiting the museum.)

Make sure to check out some of Mike’s other specimens while you’re in The B-Side, too. He’s cut grooves into X-Rays, picnic plates, and chocolate. “I try to make records that you haven’t seen before,” says Dixon. Which dovetails neatly with the overall spirit of The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl. By playing with myriad ideas of design, nostalgia, music and identity, this stellar exhibit will make you see, hear and contemplate records in ways you never have before.

The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl runs through October 7, 2012. More info, including museum hours and special events details, can be found at henryart.org

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