"Sympathy for the Devil," the new rock 'n' roll exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is getting a distinctly unsympathetic response from certain quarters. Subtitled "Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967," the show's intended to examine the "dynamic relationship" between rockers and artists, and it includes art from all over the world. But it's organized in geographic chunks, so it's instantly clear that while there's lots of art from Los Angeles, lots from New York, and a good deal from the United Kingdom, there's very little from Chicago. While LA and New York command their own expansive sections, Chicago is lumped with Detroit and Rhode Island and the rest of the country in a single grab-bag category. In this group, Chicago's represented by two Ed Paschke paintings and one Karl Wirsum. These are relatively small works hung cheek by jowl with muscular murals at least twice their size by members of the Michigan-based group Destroy All Monsters (most of whom now live in New York or LA).
The few other pieces by Chicagoans in the show--Melanie Schiff photos, Funkadelic album covers by Pedro Bell, video by former Chicagoan Josh Mannis (who recently relocated to LA)--aren't enough to alter the impression that the local scene has been dissed. Painter Wesley Kimler, who's been stomping and shouting about Chicago's neglect of its artists for years, says this exhibit, with its "pronounced anti-Chicago bias," is just the latest and most blatant example of a chronic second-city problem.
"It's not just about this one show," Kimler says. "The main thing Chicago artists need to ask themselves is, Why is it that artists here are treated like second-rate citizens? Why can't our curators create their own canon? Why must they copy what's going on in LA or New York?" Curators in those cities aren't afraid to promote their own, he adds: Raymond Pettibon (prominent in this show) made his name as an artist after appearing in LA MOCA's 1992 hometown showcase, "Helter Skelter." Los Angeles and New York support their local artists, Kimler says, "and here in Chicago we support their local artists too, to the exclusion of ours." He says he wasn't considered for the MCA show despite his history of work and events with musicians and bands like Billy Corgan, Nicholas Tremulis, Alejandro Escovedo, and Eleventh Dream Day. "Tony Fitzpatrick, who's done nine CD covers for Steve Earle, wasn't considered," he adds. Chicago, "where rock and roll was invented," is basically missing.
Kimler says that MCA curator Dominic Molon, who put this show together, ignored the real issues when it comes to rock and visual art in favor of "trading in artists as signifiers--how hip they are, the coolness factor. It isn't about research, it isn't about being serious. It's about Dominic Molon making himself something on the international scene." Where, Kimler asks, is photographer Paul Natkin? Where's musician-painter Jon Langford? "A curator's supposed to be a caretaker," Kimler continues. "Chicago has this whole vast history: Chess Records, Chuck Berry. Instead we got this lame-ass VH1, shallow hipster version."
Langford--who says he and his band the Mekons have been finding "ways to blur the lines between rock and roll and fine art for 30 years"--considers the omissions "a real slap in the face for the arts in Chicago." Reached on tour, he hadn't yet seen the exhibit, which opened September 29, but says he's been curious about it since he was asked to be involved early on. "They wanted my band to play," he says. "Nothing to do with the actual [art] show, which was already set." Langford performed at the MCA last year and respects Peter Taub, who curates performances there, but says for this exhibit they missed what was going on under their noses. "I think it's because they're stuck in some kind of ivory tower, and they wish the tower was in Manhattan or LA," he says. A Chicagoan since '92, Langford says this city is exceptionally supportive of boundary crossing, a place where much of the music that's come out on labels like Thrill Jockey, Touch and Go, and Bloodshot has been made by people who "are basically visual artists as well." Langford wonders why artists like Archer Prewitt and Sam Prekop, musicians whose art has international followings, have been omitted too.
Molon says the show, like any exhibition, is based "on what the curator feels is right" for it. He says that "if there is a history [between rock and roll and art in Chicago], "it's not quite as well documented" as that relationship elsewhere. "I think there's just a greater sympathy between the visual arts and rock music" in Los Angeles and New York. With the exception of what's in the show, he says, there didn't seem to be Chicago art "that I felt compelled to present as part of that relationship." Molon says he focused primarily on the history of such interactions and was much more selective when it came to younger artists because there are so many now whose work intersects with music. "Most of the artists I've presented have developed pretty strong reputations and careers," he says. People have asked him about the omission of Fitzpatrick and Langford, he adds. "Tony's an artist I think is fine, but it's not work that I feel in a rock show is something I would be interested in showing. Ditto Jon Langford. I think the Mekons are fantastic. The music is phenomenal. The [visual art] is not something that I'd feel inclined to present in an exhibition at the MCA."
Fitzpatrick, who says it's not about him, maintains he's "not fire-breathing angry so much as sad. There's a whole culture of people here involved in rock 'n' roll and art--and doing both of those things well. People like the Screwball Press group and [printmaker] Jay Ryan, they deserve to be part of this dialogue. This is a lamentable missed opportunity."
For a show about rock 'n' roll, "Sympathy for the Devil" is also weirdly quiet. At press time, the rental audio component had yet to arrive (though you can download on your own via the MCA Web site).
Sympathy for the Devil
Through 1/6/2008: Tue 10 AM-8 PM, Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660. Admission is free every day through November 14 in celebration of the museum's 40th birthday.