BROKEN SPOKE, Austin, TX 2010 Color coupler print 20 x 20” © Rhona Bitner
Art and rock fans should check out STATIC NOISE: The Photographs of Rhona Bitner showing until April 15, 2012 at University Art Museum Cal State University Long Beach (UAM CSULB) -- concurrently with Lou Reed's Metal Machine Trio: The Creation of the Universe and Split Moment. All are reflections of museum director Christopher Scoates's particular interest the intersection of art and music-related pop culture (as previously evinced by 2009's Brian Eno exhibition, 77 Million Paintings).
New York-based photographer Rhona Bitner previously spent years with a circus and with stage lighting and her earlier photography and surroundings evince a taste for colorful performers and dark, warm shadows. The jump from garish clowns to raffish rock musicians probably wouldn't have been much of a leap but the subjects of Bitner's latest are America's iconic rock music venues and recording spaces themselves, not the musicians and engineers who made and make the music happen.
THE MASQUE, Los Angeles, CA 2009 Color coupler print 40 x 40” © Rhona Bitner
The impetus for Bitner's project was the then-imminent closure of CBGB in 2006. As with all the photos that followed (except when additional light was necessary to illuminate otherwise pitch blackness), she photographed it au naturel, without additional arrangement or human figures adorning the stage. An interesting choice because is an empty venue, especially bathed in sunlight, really its most natural state? It's certainly not the version most of us see unless we work at a club or return as soon as we get off work because in our state the previous night we left our credit card there (I've heard of that happening to people). Fast forward to the present and Bitner's now criss-crossed the US, photographing over 200 other settings, which she reckons is about 2/3rds of her wish list. Static Noise is a well-chosen selection of 28 of the entire, still-growing Listen series.
Bitner, like the filmmakers of the Cinéma Direct movement of the 1950s onward, is apparently keen not imprint too much of herself into the art, remaining as strictly observational as possible and the same arguments about the pursuit of objectivity can be made. The photographs necessarily exist as reflections of both the subject and artist. For one thing, the point of view is generally that of the spectator looking at the performance space rather than from the stage, which distinguishes it from most music-related photography, which usually depicts a guitarist mugging mid-solo, a stylized poster or flyer, or the exterior of a venue with the marquee serving as an in-frame caption.
TUXEDO JUNCTION (the Nixon Building), Birmingham, AL 2010 Color coupler print 40 x 40” © Rhona Bitner
The subjects themselves -- the venues -- exhibit more variety than one might expect. While many are alluringly colorful, others are Anabaptist in their stark neutrality. There are baroque ballrooms and impressibly sparse dives. There are thoroughly-designed and still functioning studios as well as abandoned, empty rooms -- casually decorated by nature and well on their way to returning to dust.
One of Bitner's stated aims is to convey sound. For someone like me for whom the combination of the words "rock" and "show" is almost as distressing as "sports" and "bar" or "cole" and "slaw," I was happy that many of the venues evoked nothing more than the buzz of a neon beer sign, the soft clicking of a failing fluorescent tube, maybe the crackle of an amp. Rather than a moldy, punk oldie unwelcomingly lodging itself in my defenseless noggin, I was struck by how these visual depictions meant to evoke sound equally evoke smell - the familiar and almost universal mix of mildew and dank peculiar to crumbling ruins -- or the putrid stench of spilt beer, and acrid, bleached bathroom tiles combined with an unfortunate carpet permanently imbued with stale cigarette smoke.
RANDY’S RODEO, San Antonio, TX 2009 Color coupler print 40 x 40” © Rhona Bitner
And that's one of the interesting things for me; these venues mean different things to different people at different times. The CBGB space opened in 1878 as the Palace Bar and is now an intimidatingly posh John Varvatos menswear store. In the scope of time, if not most people's view of historical significance, there was only a brief flash when it hosted acts like The Fast, Magic Tramps, Suicide, and Wayne County.
Even more ephemeral is the San Antonio's Randy's Rodeo's brush with rock significance. The Sex Pistols played there but one time in 1978 on their only tour of the US. Sure, Squeeze, The Ramones, and U2 all played there at least once too but presumably almost no one associates them with the venue. It began life as a bowling alley (Bandera Bowl). Later, soul singer OB McClinton recorded a live album, Live at Randy's Rodeo, there. Later still it served as a Tejano club that hosted then-rising star, Selena. So whether looking at the picture evokes any of them, The Country Gentlemen, Coal Chamber, or anyone else that's graced there stage, is in the mind and ear of the beholder.
NEW ROXY THEATER, Clarksdale, MS 2008 Color coupler print 20 x 20” © Rhona Bitner
Finally, although Bitner said that evoking nostalgia isn't her aim, I for one couldn't help but feel nostalgic, even elegiac, looking at her photos -- even though its a nostalgia for places I've never been, and mostly in an era in which I didn't exist. I'm prone toward that sort of feeling - the smell of a crayon can send me back to elementary school. Rock, in 2012, is also nostalgic for me. From its birth in the 1950s with artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, to its final stabs at originality and growth a few decades later, today its dwindling numbers of practitioners, even when undeniably talented, content themselves with either slavish retro recreations or at best, peddle an interesting pastiche. To me, rock is no more alive or evolving than ragtime or dixieland are -- and these beautiful images are the golden amber in which it's embedded.
You have until April 15th to check it out for yourself.