The piano terrifies and tantalizes almost every musician. Does any other instrument present so many obvious, immediate possibilities? Eighty-eight keys dare two hands to fuse melody, harmony, and rhythm. With supple movements and a precise touch, the piano can roar, sing, and purr.
Stripped of those familiar black-and-white notes, the piano reverts to a mute husk, or, to the astute eyes and ears of Mexican artist Hugo Solis, a sculpture. His installation Metaphors for Dead Pianos reincarnates the piano's opulent possibilities inside two ugly, gutted instruments.
Never mind the cracked soundboard or the dirt-coated surfaces deckled with cracks, dents, rumples, and other residues of neglect. By placing sensors and solenoids against the strings, Solis makes the instruments sing anew. Like little flies, resin-glopped motors buzz, flit, bounce, and quiver at different rates, sometimes chattering as a mechanized dulcimer would, or whining like an almost-melodic lawnmower heard down the street on a spring day.
A traditional pianist speaks to the instrument with a vocabulary defined by pressing keys. The pianos of Metaphors (the regrettably BFA-esque title renders better in the original Spanish, Metáforas para Pianos Muertos) converse with each other by stridulation and vascular resonance. The strings not only vibrate, but the wood does too; a cracked soundboard—the first thing to be wary of when buying a used piano—filigrees everything you hear with bristling atoms of distortion.
Solis exalts these exhumed hulks by suspending them from the ceiling in a diptych. You sit on the floor and see the guts, the crippled silhouette of two distinct pianos. Fans of the late, great spectralist composer Horatiu Radulescu (1942–2008) will spot one as a sound icon—a piano resting on its side—while its mate hovers higher as a harp nailed against a warped plane of wood. Radulescu placed his icons to radiate sound laterally; here, the sound orbits.
Above, you see gleaming, silk-thin orange strands of naked copper wire floating between the two pianos, a neural tracery connecting the instruments in conversation. It is exhilarating to experience technology so seamlessly congruent with the work. Metaphors almost makes up for all of those galleries I visit where exposed audio cables, blatantly name-brand video monitors, and erroneously anachronistic gear nestle within ostensibly period-specific pieces (as in South African artist Candice Breitz's otherwise brilliant Diorama at the Henry in 2004).
Amid the glorious vision of Metaphors, Solis administers a sly coup de grâce. The absence of piano benches confirms the pianos as truly dead, beyond the ken of any pianist, and reborn.
Metaphors for Dead Pianos, Jack Straw New Media Gallery, 4261 Roosevelt Way NE, Mon–Fri 9 am–5 pm, but call ahead, 634-0919. Through April 2.