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"MashUp'' exhibit brings smash hits to art museum


you would probably not expect to see the names Gustav Metzger and Wendy O. Williams in the same sentence. • Metzger is the 80-something leader of a movement in the 1960s called auto-destructive art. It's a nihilist approach, antithetical to the generally held belief that art is created to be preserved. He created art using materials that would quickly destroy it — acid, for example, painted on nylon sheets. • Williams, who committed suicide in 1998, was the singer in the Plasmatics, considered by many the most controversial, certainly the raunchiest, rock band of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was famous for performing topless and creating mayhem and violence onstage. Chainsawing a guitar in half was her signature riff but she also rode vehicles into walls of explosives, jumping off just before impact. Her voice wasn't bad, either. • Then there's Pete Townshend and the Who. • And John Cage.

I do not digress with obscure references. "MashUp," an art exhibition at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, links these individuals (in Williams' case literally, in Metzger, Cage and Townshend's cases philosophically) to contemporary artists whose work is in the show. • The unifying themes are music and destruction. The central metaphor is the familiar practice in rock concerts of destroying one's instruments at the end of a performance. ''MashUp'' curator Jade Dellinger believes that most younger musicians have no idea that their aping, for crowd effect, is a gesture that began with Pete Townshend as performance art, influenced by the ideas of Metzger.

But the artists in this exhibition get that connection and build on it in unique ways.

Pedro Reyes' New Group Therapies (Instant Rock Star) consists of a small stage decorated with painted wood silhouettes of guitars along with shards from broken ones. The stage is bracketed by two television monitors showing people who were filmed "performing" (using karaoke) with the guitars, then, as instructed, smashing them. (They're the pieces left on the stage.) Reyes originally created this work in his native Mexico, setting up an impromptu stage and soliciting disaffected young goths and punkers to participate. The work recreated at the museum is more contrived, but it seems to make a larger statement: use a gesture first intended as art (channeling Pete Townshend), that has been reduced to mass-culture entertainment, and return it to an artistic context (a museum). Using people as performers who probably are clueless about their participation in an artistic statement. It's both simple and layered; in other words, most interesting.

Ted Riederer has similar ideas going in The Resurrectionists. He creates a band and films the members performing with, then destroying, their guitars and drum kit. Then he pieces the instruments together using clamps and tape and reunites the musicians to record a soundtrack using the damaged instruments. You see and hear the blended results on a screen behind the compromised instruments.

Which brings us to John Cage, the great avant-garde composer who died in 1992. A proponent of "chance music," he challenged traditional definitions of music by altering the way it is performed and perceived and by questioning assumptions about what it should sound like. A generation of musicians and artists have used his work as a foundation for theirs.

Two examples in this exhibition are Milan Knizak and Christian Marclay. Both use vinyl records as physical conveyances and theoretical symbols of music. And both use "interventions," which Cage was famous for, to alter their sound.

Marclay's Footsteps was first a 1989 installation in which he covered the floor of a gallery with records. Visitors walked all over them, leaving scratches, dents, grit and prints. Thus each became a uniquely new and original work, as it looked and as it sounded. In this show, we see a photograph of the installation and examples of those records, which were sold individually after the show.

Knizak is more strenuous in his interventions, often plastering records with tape and paint, even breaking them apart and using the fragments on large, hand-drawn scores as notations. Broken record, indeed.

A display of Plasmatics memorabilia, along with a video mix of their performances, might cause surprise since its value seems more historical than aesthetic. The graphicness of much of it will shock some. But the collection isn't included for titillating effect. The Plasmatics were formed by a radical young artist named Rod Swenson who had an MFA degree from Yale University, focusing on performance art with a dada sensibility. So sawing the guitar in half (and continuing to play on it) was much like Cage inserting plates between piano strings to change the sound.

At this point you may think the show is rather heavy-going.

Well, yes and no.

I'm overanalyzing everything so you don't have to when you visit. And it's viscerally, immediately engaging if you choose not to delve deeply.

Besides, you will also see several works by the duo known as the Art Guys. They're serious, I know, but still, they make me laugh. How can you not love a score written with a hole puncher and titled Holy Music?

Plea for the earth

Also at the Contemporary Art Museum is "Torolab: One Degree Celsius." Torolab is a Mexican-based collective of artists, architects and designers who create site-specific installations relating to environmental issues. For its USF project, organized by curator Izabel Galliera, the group reimagined areas on the campus and in downtown Tampa as oases of creative greening. They employed maps, drawings, interviews with local experts and a giant gardening table sprouting real specimens, recycling pumps and grow lamps as part of the conceptual work.

The group proposes a Billboard Garden, spelling out messages using native plants (a real example is presented using liriope and mondo grass). A Downtown Parking Lot Garden using vertical and overhead plantings to simulate a vast garden room. A Mobil Lab that would provide first aid for plants, along with a Mobil Garden for inspiration. There are large doses of whimsy and irony at play, but you think, "Why not?"

"One Degree Celsius" is more transparent in its objectives than "MashUp" and doesn't need as much cerebration into background ideas.

Which doesn't mean it's any less compelling.

Underpinning the sweet drawings, earnest opinions and clever design is a steely caution from which the exhibition's title is drawn, that the earth could be one degree Celsius from catastrophe if humans don't put the brakes on global warming.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293 or


MashUp and Torolab: One Degree Celsius

The exhibitions are at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa, through Oct. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Free, but $4 parking permit required. (813) 972-2849 or

"MashUp'' exhibit brings smash hits to art museum 09/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 20, 2008 4:30am]
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