Rock Art and Earth Art: Music for the Eyes
If you go to Doylestown's James A. Michener Museum to see "Rock On! The Art of the Music Poster from the 60s and 70s," try to get there before April 4, so that you can visit Emmet Gowin's extraordinary photography exhibit "Changing the Earth." Merge the two shows into one experience and you can move from a distinctly colorful period of pop-culture history to a timeless, colorless region where nature and perspective create patterns and effects beyond the wildest imaginings of psychedelic poster artists.
Listen to conversations during the "Rock On!" show and you'll hear people talking more about the musicians and the music than the art. This isn't your typical museum crowd. It's safe to say that most of them have come because the groups or performers are part of their personal history.
For someone who has "been there," "Rock On" is bound to have special associations. In a room full of Cezannes or Breughels, you don't think "I was there" or "I heard that landscape" or "I was at that festival." For this reviewer, there is no way to look at the selection of posters for San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom without smiling to see the name of an old friend who did the light shows. If you happen to believe, as I do, that the 60s, not to mention the 70s, would have been unthinkable without the Beatles, your response to the Beatles material on display will be less about the posters and more about remembering, perhaps, where you were when you first turned on the car radio and heard Hey Jude or Penny Lane. Or you might remember how it was when Sgt. Pepper was released and absolute strangers would smile at you and say, "Did you hear it yet?"
The contrast between the 60s and the 70s is clearly illustrated here. The 60s gave us exotic imagery, much of it borrowed from India or Art Nouveau, along with the swirly, playful, enigmatic fun of psychedelia, the drug associations, the whole head-trip aspect, and the idea that mystic messages and images could be concealed within dense patterns and graphic weirdness. Long before certain album covers became candidates for museum display, the rock audience was studying them for hidden meanings or messages. During the "Paul McCartney is Dead" phenomenon, fans became scholar-critics looking for clues in certain lyrics or on the cover of Abbey Road.
The poster and album art of the 60s communicates the anything-is-possible spirit of the time, the sense that it might really be the beginning of a new Golden Age ? something the Woodstock festival seemed to manifest (the original poster is on display here). In the 70s, the slick ad element begins to supplant the free-flying, all-inclusive imaginative excitement reflected in the poster art of the 60s. In the most simplistic sense, it's the difference between clever but shallow commercialism and homegrown druggy inventiveness. The artists of the 60s poured all sorts of influences and associations into the mix. In the 70s you are already aware that artistic spontaneity has been smoothed and polished by a corporate publicity machine operating on the grand scale, with art serving commerce instead of expressing the fun and excitement and mystery suggested by the music.
On both my visits upstairs at the Gowin exhibit, I found that no one from the rock show had bothered to search it out. The empty rooms reflected the desolation recorded in the photographs. If anyone had strayed up there, they might have taken one look and walked away. Nothing to connect with, no groovy associations. Just a lot of high-altitude photographs. It would be like leaving the clamor of a rock concert for some hushed, timeless realm.
But imagine Picasso walking through the gallery upstairs after he's strolled through the "Rock On!" exhibit finding amusement here and there but probably not enough to justify a trip back from the dead. I can't claim it for a fact, of course, but my guess is he would be looking hard at Emmet Gowin's photographs and talking to himself. There would be some nods of recognition, maybe even the French equivalent of "Far out!" Were Picasso to come face to face with Gowin's toned gelatin silver print Drainage Ditches in a Low Agricultural Field, Savannah River Nuclear Site, SC, he might be flashing back to 1907 when he and Georges Braque were discovering and working with similar forms. Fly far enough above it and the earth becomes an amazing painter, with some help from the designs inadvertently imposed on it by civilization.
It was while photographing Mt. St. Helens from the air after the 1980 eruption that Emmet Gowin discovered his art. His is a bleak vision, austere, desolate, yet suggesting the beauty of a world so far removed from mankind that even the bomb craters and ground zeros and other old scars and wounds have achieved aesthetic grandeur. Seen from this godlike view, the game of civilization appears to be over. Art, music, literature, folly, greed, politics, war, disease ? all gone. Since some of Gowin's most striking subjects are nuclear test sites, the endgame idea is implicit. From the air, the Nevada test site resembles the surface of the moon. The general effect is of the planet earth seen fresh and from afar, as if it were a strange new planet: winter fields in Kansas, golf courses in Arizona and Japan, housing projects and industrial parks in the Czech Republic, Iraqi traffic patterns, craters in Yucca Flat. In a posted commentary on his work, Gowin speaks of "the architecture of light and the poetry of atmosphere which welcome the eye into a landscape of natural process": "In a landscape photo both the mind and heart need to find their proper place." No less than the rock-generated visuals in the other gallery, Gowin's visions are music for the eyes.
"Rock On!" will be on display through May 23 in the Wachovia Gallery. On Sunday, March 21, a Beatles film series concludes with a 3 p.m. showing of Let It Be. There is a $4 charge for "Rock On!" in addition to the $6.50 general admission. "Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth" runs through April 4 in the Fred Beans Gallery.