Notes on the Culture

1220978073Every Tuesday, Matthew Reed Baker will offer his thoughts on the arts and culture scene. This week: Robert Maloney and Sean Thomas present different interpretations of urban landscapes; Plus: David Byrne is performing the songs he wrote with Brian Eno and our writer wants to hear the score from The Catherine Wheel. What?

I must admit I have a certain aesthetic itch that I always want to scratch, which means I’m regularly drawn to industrial and post-industrial landscapes. This attraction probably has everything to do with growing up in New Haven, Connecticut in the ’70s and ’80s, when nothing was spit-polished, but rather rusting out, tattered, and flapping in the salty air.

I used to ride my bike down by the New Haven Terminal, one of the largest oil ports on the East Coast, and I’d circle around the huge tanks and heaps of corroding scrap—that was a good Saturday afternoon. So was experiencing art that explored this milieu, from David Lynch‘s Eraserhead to the sturm und klang of Einstürzende Neubauten to the metallic forms of Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer.

Of course, such scenes have gotten harder and harder to find as cities rediscover and refurbish their waterfronts and industrial zones, while bleak urban expressionism has long become passé. This is mostly the opposite of a bad thing, of course, but still it intensifies that inchoate longing for both industrial zones and the art inspired by them.

That’s what drew me to “On The Grid,” the new exhibit at the Copley Society of Art. This joint exhibit features two CoSo members, Robert Maloney and Sean Thomas, the two combining to portray indelible visions of haunted urbanity.

A teacher at MassArt, Maloney works with a complex array of mixed media: inked outlines of archival photos, faded poster typography, wood constructions, and even rivets to recreate the look and feel of aged I-beams. Maloney says in his bio that he sees his work as an “archeological dig,” and indeed each piece is packed with visual information that recedes into layers of lost language.

The end result is that you can almost see the Fort Point Channel warehouse blocks of yore, where generations of businesses and advertisements have come and gone. All these elements come together best in the mammoth Drydock, which is given the vaunted rear wall of the gallery.

Providence-based Sean Thomas takes a starkly different approach, with “stark” being the key word. His paintings are largely wide expanses of gray, off-white, or sepia, with only the most minimal shapes of structures, cars, or port containers hovering in the haze. In his bio, Thomas says that he explores light as he seeks to portray architecture and the line between the natural and artificial.

Indeed, the effect of his empty but dreamlike paintings captures that liminal reality of an overexposed, unfocused photo. The effect is eerily beautiful, rendering these forms as foreign, however deeply they are lodged in our urban psyches. I particularly liked his huge Car Culture paintings, with only small pairs of cars dwarfed by massive amounts of white, and naturally, the low hulks in his Port of Providence made me think of those bike rides long ago.

Both artists have an engrossing style, but pairing Maloney’s dense works with Thomas’s spare ones is particularly invigorating. Apparently it was invigorating enough for CoSo too, as they are using their rear room (usually reserved for small solo exhibits) as an extension for “On the Grid.”

And if you feel you can’t spend $5,000 on Drydock or $2,500 on Car Culture #7, the artists have teamed up on a very limited set of tiles that reproduce two of their works each. You can get one tile for $50, but you might as well get the complete set of four for $175—that way you can recreate the vital contrast of the two artists and the stunning cumulative effect of this exhibit.

“On the Grid” is on display at the Copley Society of Art until October 18. An artist talk is scheduled at the gallery for this Saturday, September 13, at 2 p.m.

Byrne, baby, Byrne: So tickets just went on sale for David Byrne‘s show at the Wang Theatre on October 31. Timed to promote his downloadable new album made with sonic genius Brian Eno, Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, this tour promises to play music that comes from their years of collaboration.

Byrne’s website says the show will include tunes from Everything (surely the most rapturous art-pop album of the year), their influential tape-loop world music on 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the three landmark Talking Heads albums that Eno produced (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light).

Byrne neglects to mention another album of his that Eno had a large hand in, and may perhaps be the best of the lot: his 1981 score for Twyla Tharp’s ballet The Catherine Wheel. The ballet itself was a critical and commercial flop, mostly thanks to its jerky choreography and muddled imagery that combines St. Catherine of Siena, the Bomb, and really big pineapples. After years of curiosity, I finally saw the 1983 PBS presentation of the ballet, and while visually striking at times, it’s more of an amusingly awkward time capsule than anything.

So forget the ballet—the music is more than cinematic enough to stand by itself. It’s a 70 minute, mostly instrumental suite of electronic funk that combines African, Asian, and minimalist traditions. At turns menacing, blissful, sad, and joyous, this has been my favorite headphone album for the past 25 years, and it would blow my mind to see any of it performed live.

So while others may chant for “Free Bird” or, say, “Burning Down the House,” I’ll raise a holler for The Catherine Wheel and hope he changes up the set list.