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Monday, August 20, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.
'The Record' goes beyond vinyl and turntables
By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer
There's something incredibly tactile about a vinyl LP.
I'm not talking about the packaging that encases a 12-inch record, but the black, grooved material of the disc itself.
I remember feeling so connected with those grooves as a teenager that, while waiting to get a new purchase home, I'd sometimes slip it out of its protective sleeves and imagine how, with a slight technical alteration of my fingernail, I might be able to channel the music directly into my mind without any need of a stylus.
"The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl," the new group show at the Henry Art Gallery, grapples directly and diversely with that physical sense of what a vinyl record is.
Vintage album art gets a nod with David Byrne's 90-by-90-inch Polaroid collage of Talking Heads, used as the cover for the band's 1978 LP, "More Songs about Buildings and Food." The collage's artful, vibrant, herky-jerky dislocations are the perfect counterpart to the music on the album.
But true engagement with the essence of vinyl comes with works such as Laurie Anderson's "Viophonograph" (1977), which blends violin and record player into a single instrument, or Dutch artist Jeroen Diepenmaat's fanciful "Pour des dents d'un blanc éclatant et saines" (2005), in which taxidermied birds lean down to play bird-song records with their beaks.
"The Record" is curated by Trevor Schoonmaker of Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art. In his charming introduction to the show's catalog, Schoonmaker writes, "The aesthetics of record packaging, and the richness of information conveyed in the format, is unparalleled — in cover, sleeves, gatefolds, liner notes, and even posters — but it remains a largely impractical medium. The 12-inch disc is big and cumbersome; the vinyl is easily scratched; the music storage capacity is limited; the album must be flipped over to be enjoyed in its entirety; and the record requires a heavy, immobile turntable in order to be played."
It's those very limitations of vinyl, seemingly, that tap into artists' deepest feelings about the medium. Video artist Christian Marclay nails it in "Looking for Love" (2008), a 32-minute loop in which a rogue needle (controlled by the artist off-camera) skips from track to track, atomizing the melodies and lyrics of R&B ballads, yet allowing the essence of the songs to come through amid the hisses, skips and scratches. (Marclay's earlier "Record Players"  takes a different tack, video-recording a roomful of people eliciting every sound you can get from a vinyl LP without actually putting it on a record player.)
The list-making obsessiveness of collectors is also integral to record appreciation, and it's perfectly caught by Dave Muller in two acrylics-on-paper depicting personal Top 10 LPs viewed from the spine. These records — painted with photorealist precision — have been played so many times their cardboard jackets are falling apart, with some of their titles and artists barely legible. Muller's remarkably meticulous rendering of that wear-and-tear feels like an obsession within an obsession.
Obsessiveness of a different stripe is evident in the work of outsider artist Mingering Mike, who for years has made covers for albums and 45s that exist only in his head. The compass of his inner world is best summed up in "I'm Superman b/w Blind in One Eye," a reminder of how polar opposites can sit in witty back-to-back tension on a 7-inch disc. (Remember: The flip side of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" was "Baby, You're a Rich Man.")
Dario Robleto, another album-art maker for nonexistent records, gives his song titles a more absurd spin. Two examples: "An Amnesiac Realizes His Gift" and "Not All Dying Words Are True."
Absurdity shades into the surreal with videos by two Japanese artists. Lyota Yagi highlights the perishable nature of recordings by casting a 45 rpm disc of "Clair de Lune" in ice rather than vinyl. The friction of the needle on the surface naturally heats up the ice. Result: The needle gets stuck on three notes of the Debussy tune, which gradually fade to mere rhythmic surface noise.
Taiyo Kimura takes things to an even crazier level in "Haunted by You" where, at one point, he becomes the turntable, frantically circling around on all fours with the record on his back.
There's plenty more in "The Record," reflecting vinyl recordings' impact and inspiration in Africa, South America and Europe, as well as North America. Ranging from playful to political in character, the exhibit encompasses photography, sound installations, sculpture and more. Not all the entries hit the mark. But you're bound, literally, to find your groove with a number of them.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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