Art is not, despite what some say, all about ideas. It may detour around, short-circuit or transcend ideas in favor of sensation or emotion. An art show is another matter, the group art show in particular. A well-curated exhibition involving the work of multiple artists must be idea-driven. And when the ideas have relevance beyond the academy, and the curator pushes them like he was riding a Ducati on a mountain road, the viewer gets to have almost as much fun as the driver.
Trevor Schoonmaker, curator of contemporary art at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, has spent the last three years accelerating out of the curves and downshifting on the reverses to bring us this season's most exciting, most intellectual museum show. Officially opening Thursday, Sept. 2 after a preview week, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl will spin your head, no matter where you stand on the timeline of record albums. Whether you still have your BIC turntable and a wall full of vinyl, or you tend to view 12-inch LPs in a historical light and subsist entirely on MP3s, this exhibition offers plenty to think on, lots of interesting things to look at and, naturally, a significant aural component.
"Looking backwards to records is now almost like being on the cutting edge," says Schoonmaker. Enough time has passed since both the death of the LP and its more recent and totally unexpected revival that artists, curators and ordinary thinkers can begin to consider all the ways in which vinyl records and analog recording have led up to this day. There have been many—maybe too many—museum shows with multimedia content, but there has never been one on this concept, and possibly never one as mature as this in terms of the complete integration of formats. Multimedia now, says Schoonmaker, is "not being defined any specific way. It has become common, not rare." The "media" part doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, either in the art or the exhibition—a social statement in itself.
Schoonmaker turned up 300 artists from around the world who are working with records—actual vinyl disks and their covers, or the idea of records and recording. He reduced that number to a mere 41 to include in the exhibition and has designed a show that comfortably includes their astonishing range of expression. As interesting as the mix of formats, media, styles and concerns in the art is, the mix of artists is given equal billing in the gallery. From household names like Laurie Anderson and Jasper Johns, to the almost famous and the locally famous, to the totally unknown outside a tiny art world, everybody's jamming on the recording phenomenon and the wondrous graphic and physical qualities of the record and its cover. In museum-speak, this is called "expanding the dialogue," but you might call it listening to the whole album.
The exhibition is accompanied by numerous events, talks and listening parties. Notable are those on Sept. 16, when exhibiting artist Xaviera Simmons will speak at 7 p.m., and Superchunk will play a concert afterward. See www.nasher.duke.edu/therecord for details.
In Raleigh, the N.C. Museum of Art will reopen its East Building Nov. 7 as a center for temporary exhibitions, leading off with a traveling exhibition that most definitely looks backward, and without the tonic commentary of the irreverent. American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell, organized and circulated by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., will feature 323 Saturday Evening Post covers from 47 years of Rockwell's association with that magazine. It will also include a chronological survey of his paintings, 40 of which will be hung in the gallery. Many of Rockwell's images, out of context, have been degraded by overfamiliarity, and yes, the sweet odor of Mayberry hangs over them, but Rockwell, who covered an important slice of the American scene (post-World War I to the Vietnam War era), was an expert graphic artist and a surprisingly good painter. As another Rockwell exhibition currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum demonstrates, he was preternaturally talented at shaping a narrative within the confines of a magazine cover, and the paintings that preceded the graphic form are often quite powerful, with delicate spatial and color relationships that make them very satisfying. The show will be balanced by another exhibition opening at the same time, by one of North Carolina's most important sculptors. Bob Trotman: Inverted Utopias will feature Trotman's carved, painted figures from the last 10 years—they are quite thoroughly anti-Rockwellian in attitude, action and tone.
Should you be longing to see some good old-fashioned drawing—and don't want to wait for Rockwell in November—consider a short road trip to the Greenhill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro (www.greenhillcenter.org). Opening Sept. 10 (through Oct. 31) is Drawing Revisited, with work by a long roster of superb draftsmen from across the state.
Also in Raleigh, yet another show takes a look at where we came from in the 20th century and the objects that made us how we are today—in the Triangle specifically. Southern Roots of Mid-Century Modern runs at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design (in the Talley Student Center, NCSU) through Dec. 18; its opening reception is Sept. 9, 6–8 p.m. Like the history of Black Mountain College, where so many important artists and designers found sanctuary for modern ideas that changed art and life, the early history of the NCSU School of Design is fading from memory. It is now called the College of Design, and we take it for granted that great designers will teach there and invent wonderful things. But when the design school began, it dropped modernism like a bomb on central North Carolina. Curated by the Gregg's Matthew Gay, Southern Roots tells the story by means of "rooms" filled with furniture, textiles and ceramics, and with architectural drawings and models—including one of the late, lamented Catalano House. In conjunction with this show—see the show first, if you can—the group Triangle Modernist Houses is conducting TMH 2010 on Sept. 25, 1–4:30 p.m. The Triangle is third, behind LA and Chicago, in the number of extant modernist dwellings, and the tour will feature eight of them. For more on the show and the tour, see www.ncsu.edu/gregg/exhibitions/modernist.html.
The Gregg will open a second, smaller show with a reception on October 14. Handcraft is Contemporary Design, featuring Raleigh artisans Ben Galata and Evan Lightner, is curated by the Gregg's Lynn Jones Ennis and will look at an aspect of design assiduously eliminated by the great mid-20th-century designers like Eames and Saarinen—that of the handmade. The big push of 20th-century design was to make objects reproducible, manufacturable and affordable. The frequent vacuity of design in contemporary manufacturing has spurred a return to handcrafted, high-design objects with honest physicality (somewhat like the way the invisible music on the iPod has spurred a longing for a big square record jacket that you can hold and ponder). Galata and Lightner both come out of the Modernist tradition, but neither has completely stripped away the decorative in his metalwork or woodwork, respectively.
If decorative flow in utilitarian objects interests you—or you just like beauty—you will not want to miss the Ackland Art Museum's Flowers From Earth and Sand: Art Glass and Ceramics, 1880–1950. Opening Sept. 12 with a reception from 2–4 p.m. and curator's remarks at 2:30, the show will run through Dec. 12. Nearly 100 vases and vessels by some of the greats of Art Nouveau and Art Deco will be on display—including work from the Hungarian Zsolnay Factory. There will also be prints (the show is curated by the Ackland's excellent curator of works on paper, Tim Riggs), posters and illustrated books that show the dissemination of these styles throughout popular culture. It will be fascinating to compare these reflections of society with those of Rockwell and to contrast these pre-Modern luxury objects with, say, the handsome, undecorated Russel Wright dinnerware on view at the Gregg.
To get your high-contrast art experience all in one museum, wait to visit the Ackland until October 2, when more of Big Shots: Andy Warhol Poloroids goes on display. The high-bourgeois delicacy of art glass and the subtle play of glaze on Zsolnay ceramic surfaces may momentarily be effaced by the impact of Warhol's bold gaze, but Art Nouveau has long ago proved its fame to be lasting, and you can return to its loveliness, even after 15 minutes. This particular Warhol show should be of interest to anyone curious about Warhol's process and craft in creating the large portraits: It includes examples of the many images that were made for a portrait before the final, most telling, presentation of the sitter was chosen. See www.ackland.org/index.php for more details.
If you find yourself still thinking about the relationship of art and craft, you might consider visiting the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park (www.nationalhumanitiescenter.org). The NHC mounts a couple of exhibits per year in its serene central atrium. On exhibit today through Dec. 17 is a two-person show by Violet and Rose Jane Designs, Aesthetic Perception of Arts and Crafts. The two women are showing both individual and collaborative work in an attempt to discover what belongs, aesthetically speaking, to textile work and what to painting. Their collaboration is another form of multimedia—but without sound. When you've exhausted yourself on that question, and it is time to raise the volume on the low spark of high-heeled scholars, head back to the Nasher, where you started, and drop the needle in a new groove. The Record is a show you are going to want to play over again.