100 RecordsApril 21, 2010
I had to stop reading 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Màrquez because I couldn’t keep track of all the characters. The names and the families and the relationships all overlapped until I was so confused I felt like a failure. I almost had the same response to Sonny Smith’s “100 Records,” currently on view at Gallery 16, but I persevered. I’m glad I did.
Similar to Marquez’s novel, a classic of magical realism, Smith’s project mixes the real with the imaginary until the two are all but indistinguishable. A musician and writer, Smith invited nearly 100 visual artists to create album covers for an invented collection of bands and singers, each with a detailed biography and backstory. He then recorded albums as these characters, writing and performing two songs for each cover. The exhibition consists of the album art, the musicians’ biographies, and a working jukebox of songs by the made-up musicians, channeled through Smith. While the album covers, created by the likes of William T. Wiley, Chris Johanson, Alika Cooper, Jovi Schnell, and others, are the most visible aspect of the exhibition, they are not the most important.
Instead, the characters and their stories drive the exhibition, imparting meaning to the images on view. It is worth learning their names and their histories, hanging beside each album cover. We have the melancholy soloist Hazel Shepp, an elusive and psychiatrically troubled songwriter who composed most of his recorded material during a stint in a mental hospital. We have the rock band the Loud Fast Fools, live-fast-die-young types, full of promise but burned-out before reaching 21. We have the poppy Sonny and the Sunsets and their offshoot, Sonny and the Sunbeams; Little Antoine & the Sparrows, an R&B band headed by a mute lead singer; and the Wayward Youth, whose recording studio was destroyed in a hurricane, causing the band members to retreat to Alaska; and more.
The biographies are a mixture of musician archetypes (the troubled visionary, the eccentric prodigy, the African American blues singer whose songs were popularized by a white band) and musician’s worst nightmare. Some of the biographies nearly have the tone of obituaries. Fame was almost attained by some, but was out of reach for most. All achievements are in the past; the musicians are now beyond obscure, having never been famous to begin with.
What happens to musicians who don’t play music anymore? Smith asks this question again and again. Maybe they end up like Shepp, last seen in an underground documentary wearing mud on his face and feathers in his hair. It is a sobering prospect.
Once acquainted with the various musicians, the album covers take on greater meaning. Yellow lightning bolts zig-zag across a pink background on the cover for a Loud Fast Fools album, perfectly capturing the aesthetic of bargain-bin LPs. Scott Hewicker’s cover art for Adelard Grassley, an eccentric prodigy, conveys New Age sentimentality in a sunset of blues and pinks. Some artists, such as Ray Halliday, were more experimental. Halliday chose to make a diorama as an album cover for Bobbie Hawkins, a former auto worker blinded in one eye during an accident.
“100 Records” contains work by a host of well-known artists with recognizable styles. It’s interesting to see how such artists change or don’t change their aesthetic when interpreting someone else’s vision. Chris Duncan’s Hazel Shepp album cover is a tactile starburst pattern sewn with iridescent thread, reminiscent of his circular multicolored geometric paintings, though on a much smaller scale. Tucker Nichols’ cover of “Broom and Dust Pan,” by Adelard Grassley, is a spare blue record with the words “Broom and Dust Pan” written on it in Nichols’ trademark script. As much of her work does, Esther Pearl Watson’s cover for Hank Champion’s album reads like a still from a graphic novel. It depicts Hank carrying a red gas can as he walks against a chalky blue background. Pieces of a rubber tire are on the ground behind him and a 7/11 sign can be seen over his shoulder. We are all rooting for him.
Halfway through my second trip to “100 Records,” I remembered some advice I received when I was struggling through 100 Years of Solitude. “You’re supposed to get lost in the characters,” someone told me. “Just let them wash over you, don’t try to keep track.” The same advice can be applied to Smith’s broad and intricate project. If you get overwhelmed, I recommend the jukebox. Try The Hypnotist, a lovely ballad by Hazel Shepp. I think it’s C3. Just turn it on and let it wash over you.
A limited edition compilation includes musicians’ bios and corresponding album artwork as well as a CD of 12 original songs written and recorded by Sonny Smith. Artists in the edition include William T. Wiley, Tucker Nichols, Chris Johanson, Jo Jackson, Alice Shaw, Alika Cooper, Chris Duncan, Kyle Field, Ester Pearl Watson, Reed Anderson, Jovi Schnell and Paul Wackers.