Last Saturday afternoon, at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, John Harrison and Maria Albani—the founders of Minus Sound Research, which curates and presents the visual art of local musicians in galleries—appeared cheerfully disheveled.
In a simple gray T-shirt, the diminutive Albani looked up from a workbench, pushing dark strands of hair out of her eyes. The bearish Harrison smiled happily above a hearty beard and an unbuttoned flannel shirt. They exuded a mixture of weariness and satisfaction, having spent the bulk of the day installing their new group show. Sprawling through the main gallery and one wing of the space, it's MSR's biggest, most impressive outing to date.
From the names columned in black on the white walls and the lavish catalog on display, it was obvious that, in its fifth year, this annual show had come a long way from its humble origins. The sheer variety of the work—painting, photography, sculpture, audiovisual art, collage, drawing, assemblage, all manner of hybrids—quickly validated that idea.
Albani and Harrison first thought about curating an art show by their musician friends in 2005, while touring together with Albani's band Pleasant and Harrison's North Elementary. Albani was studying printmaking at UNC; Harrison, a painter, had recently visited The Kingsbury Manx's Bill Taylor at home and noticed one of his paintings on the wall. How many other local musicians were covert visual artists, Harrison wondered?
It can be tough, Harrison said, for musicians to break into art circles. To do so can look like presumption ("Oh, since you're a musician, you think you can make art," he summarizes) or mere novelty. But MSR doesn't thrust crayons into the hands of bass players just to see what happens. "All of this art," Harrison explained, "would exist even if MSR didn't."
After two years at the Chapel Hill restaurant and bar Fuse and two more at the Carrboro gallery Wootini, MSR is reinventing itself for its fifth-anniversary show, which coincides with The ArtsCenter's 35th. Instead of the usual seven or eight artists, a whopping 27 are represented, with one new work apiece from prior contributors and four or five new works apiece from some newcomers. Harrison and Albani have traditionally been serious about the "minus sound" part, but this year, there will also be two nights of music at The ArtsCenter—Friday, Oct. 8, and Saturday, Oct. 9—to celebrate the opening. The bands, including a reunited Shark Quest, will receive no money; ticket revenues will support The ArtsCenter.
Traces of the show's origins in the local music scene permeate the pieces. One of the most skillful paintings is of a face that blurs into lurid flora; owners of Jett Rink's 2003 EP will recognize Viva Cohen's ropy, hot-colored style. Another standout, a painted collage with ghostly wading figures, hints at the identity of its creator—Pete Connolly, of the band Birds & Arrows—with the attached broken arrows. You might guess that the video of a subwoofer's cone pulsing in time with a roaring beat is by Drew Robertson of experimental duo Phon. Fans of the North Elementary album Berandals, with its horse-mounted astronaut cover, will recognize the hand of John Harrison in a similarly themed painting. Its strong color blocking marks it as a best-in-show contender.
Inevitable for such a group show, the identity of the artist sometimes subsumes the work itself. Melissa Swingle's rudimentary painting of a seascape with a rooster and a female figure was the cover of Smelling Salts, an album by her band Trailer Bride. Mac McCaughan offers a flat, simple painting of an amplifier tube—the same one that hovers over the seashore on the cover of Superchunk's latest album, Majesty Shredding—along with some colorful paintings of headphones. These works have their own charm, but they seem largely notable because they're by Swingle or McCaughan and because the images already carry a context beyond the gallery.
Prior contributors have pushed themselves for this anniversary compendium. Nathan White, who entered a neat wooden tooth sculpture a few years ago, has channeled his dental fixation into a lightbox with black line drawings—some of teeth—on each side. (Anna Bullard employs inventive media as well, working variously textured leather scraps into a subtle color scheme, though its big pale moon shape seems distractingly literal in an otherwise enticing abstraction.) Bill Taylor, whose lovely paintings are familiar enough, instead turns in a black-and-white samurai illustration straight out of a comic book—very unexpected and professional.
From Catherine Edgerton's elegant little painting and collage to Wendy Spitzer's tiered bric-a-brac assemblages, happy surprises abound. There are a few obvious ringers here, though, largely from musicians who have more serious long-term careers as visual artists. Ron Liberti and Casey Burns threaten to wreck the grade curve—the former with his typically eye-popping silkscreens (including one showstopper in the small gallery that must have nearly 10 layers), the latter with a gorgeous sumi ink-style drawing of a woman in profile full of delicate brushstrokes and inviting oranges. Laird Dixon's elaborate, totemic sculptures—one quite large—also set a high bar for artistic seriousness.
Measured against it, a few more modest offerings can't help but feel stylistically underdeveloped. For instance, it takes a lot of craft to collage magazine cutouts without looking like an arts-and-crafts amateur. Billy Sugarfix's planet-headed figures, cavorting on inward-collapsing rectangles of pink and green, succumb to such a fate. His other offerings—a horned mask and photos of masked people, complete with their own meta-story—are chewier, more realized and delightful, but even the little figures work because they are so totally "Billy."
Here one discovers the crucial difference that remains between Minus Sound Research's satellite and the art world it revolves around. Gallery artists often feel inaccessible and ethereal, in that our only relationship to them is their work. With Minus Sound, locals will know many of the artists—they play at our clubs, hang out at our bars, work our service industry jobs. It's difficult, then, to separate the person from the work. That's what makes the show simultaneously so difficult for clearheaded judgment and so fun to see.
MSR has made great strides toward artistic significance. The next obvious step would seem to be abandoning its policy of accepting whatever an artist turns in after they've been commissioned to contribute. Maybe Harrison and Albani don't need to go there: Where they're at right now feels like a pitch-perfect compromise between high aesthetic standards and community support. It took five years of research to find that balance, but Minus Sound has mostly arrived.
See Page 2 for info about the two associated concerts Oct. 8 and 9.