It's almost ridiculous how poetic a vinyl record is. A vinyl record is transubstantiation itself, a material with a soul. To make it speak, you need a ritual that exhumes the past. It generates icons, proliferating 2-D images on its label, its slipcover, its sleeve. And so many people love vinyl records—what's not to love, except sometimes the people who love them—that a record-inspired art exhibition is an easy hit, almost too easy.
The people who organized The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl seemed to know this, so created an exhibition that works harder, reaches farther, and is just better than it had to be. It includes around 100 paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs, and installations dating back to 1965 by 41 artists. It avoids nostalgia. It sets surprises alongside classics. It reflects the union of the personal and the political that's so common to the experience of music. It will charm the pants off you.
The Record was organized at the Nasher Museum at Duke University, went to Boston and Miami, and is now at the Henry Art Gallery, where a stack of 3,000 vinyl records teeters like an abandoned ruin in the Gothic rotunda entrance. Peruvian gourds, an old bootleg VHS tape, and record shards are scattered around the base of the stack. Just past this, you enter a dark chamber where a DVD is playing. The camera—the artist used a surgical camera, to capture detail—is focused tightly on a turntable, the needle head front and center. Every groove of the record that's spinning and the tiny tip of the needle are in sharp focus and writ large. The records are naive pop love songs from the 1960s and '70s, the kind full of kept promises and fulfilled dreams. But the needle keeps picking up and moving (controlled by the offscreen hand of the artist), interrupting the refrains. The artwork is called Looking for Love, a title that's such painful truth in advertising: the dumb faith, the disruptions and disappointments, the pop-sameness of the story no matter who you are.
Those two works—the ruin and the romance—portend that all the art in The Record will be about time, stuff, and love (is anything about anything else?). William Cordova is the artist who created the stack sculpture (the VHS bootleg on the floor is the historical civil rights miniseries Eyes on the Prize), and Christian Marclay made Looking for Love. Marclay, making art out of records since 1979, has several pieces in the show; he's the standard-bearer of this crossover. A smattering of his 1980s Frankenrecords, vinyl collages that can actually be played—they make wild sounds (you can find some on YouTube)—are also on display. So are two of his early experimental performance videos, one in which a bunch of people make sounds on records using only their bodies (it's called Record Players), and another where the young artist wears a turntable like a guitar (with a strap), spinning and scratching Jimi Hendrix records in front of simultaneously playing video of Hendrix's own ecstatic performances.
"It would be easy to put together an interesting show on this subject in five days, but it would be 95 percent white male artists," admitted Trevor Schoonmaker, the curator behind The Record, which is definitely, by design, not reflective of any homogenous identity. Artists are here from Africa, Asia, and North and Latin America. In addition to the hundred works of art in the galleries, there's a listening room of records selected by artists. (The Record is not an immersive environment, like Theaster Gates's The Listening Room, built around the rescued collection of a defunct Chicago record store, which spent this spring at Seattle Art Museum; just as the internet is abuzz with discussion of the New Aesthetic, distinguished by imagery that reflects computer-vision, there's an Old Aesthetic out there in fleshy vinyl.) And not to be overlooked is the extraordinary exhibition book, packed with essays, personal artist statements ("I had always wanted to paint pictures that were like Cure songs," wrote Gregor Hildebrandt—he makes records by meticulously winding up cassette tape), and a nine-page, lustrously illustrated timeline of the history of the record.
Devotion, translation, projection, memory, intimate portraiture: The Record is a universe of poignancy. As Lyota Yagi's record made of ice plays (in a video), it melts, and its strains of "Moon River" crack and dissipate, too. Carrie Mae Weems's Ode to Affirmative Action is her gold record awarded to affirmative action—but created in 1989, not long before the policy began to be dismantled. Dario Robleto's works are familiar and familiarly irresistible: buttons made of melted-down Billie Holiday records, huge fictional record-label catalogs made of cut paper joking about American religious/scientific/political myths (a sample record: Folk Songs—An Amnesiac Realizes His Gift Plus Biochloride of Patriotism).
Do you know about Mingering Mike? In life, he's a janitor in Washington, DC, but in the art he's been making since the 1960s, he's a legendary musician. He's got dozens of LPs with hand-drawn covers and titles like Mingering Mike Sit'in at Home with the Lowdown Blues and Minger's Gold Supersonic Greatest Hits, Vol. 3—just no actual records in those sleeves. A few years ago, a man sifting through a vintage store found a trove of them Mike had discarded, and he made Mingering Mike an actual art star. Projecting his fantasy made it come true.
The only work of art that couldn't make it to Seattle was Jasper Johns's 1965 ink-on-frosted-Mylar print of a Scott Fagan record, and in the catalog it looks stainy and rainy and sentimental—not the usual Johns. Two paintings by Ed Ruscha are classic cool pop. Unidentified Hit Record, 1977, depicts a single vinyl record hovering in a stormy sky; you can almost hear the theremin.
There's so much more to describe—Laurie Anderson's Viophonograph, a violin outfitted with a record player she bows. The mega Polaroid montage David Byrne made in order to create the cover for 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food. Yukio Fujimoto's five sadly sanded-down and degrooved naked records called Delete. Mark Soo's double vision (requiring 3-D glasses) of Elvis at Sun Studio. Octopuses on turntables and record players buried in the earth and Public Enemy and Malian teenagers and Elliott Smith's producer. If you aren't already a vinyl fan, you may very well be converted. Why resist?