This artist finds meaning in the obsolete
The rooms of Christian Marclay's new show at the Hammer Museum are chock a block with pop culture from the baby-boom generation. There are carefully stamped and framed Beatles "White Album" covers, wadded-up vinyl records, artfully strewn old telephone receivers, and two videos that feature film clips pasted together from a century of movies.
This is clearly a show designed to induce nostalgic smiles as well as outright laughs. It's hard to look at an old Michael Jackson album cover that has his head and shoulders reassembled with the body of a white woman and not get the joke.
But the show also goes beyond humor. It is the first comprehensive survey of an artist whom the Hammer's chief curator, Russell Ferguson calls, "an artist's artist."
Familiar to the art world in Europe and the US, Mr. Ferguson says Marclay is not merely an assemblage artist with a knack for the nostalgic or the glib visual trick, as some critics have suggested. Rather, he is a pioneer in bringing the music and visual worlds together in a fine-art context and plumbing the deeper meanings of that intersection.
"Marclay's work references the interplay between high and low art in our culture," says Mr. Ferguson, who adds that the artist is particularly interested in the transitory nature of experience.
Ferguson points to Marclay's interest in both materials and mediums that have become obsolete: the album cover, the vinyl record, the old-fashioned phone.
One of the hallmarks of Marclay's work is both the wit and familiarity of many of the materials, Ferguson adds. "But nobody should assume that because it has wit, that it is not serious," he says.
The artist himself says his interest in both music and art was as much a function of survival as philosophy.
After graduating from art school in the 1980s, he says, the music scene kept him alive. He found it easier to support himself as a deejay in dance clubs than show his art work. The sort of sampling that is a staple of the dance and music scene dovetailed with his desire to bring the two worlds together.
"I've always tried to blur the lines between my everyday life and art," says Marclay. "Why should they be different?"
He began turning vinyl records into pieces of art because they were easy to get. This was true of many of his materials.
"I started using these things because I could get them cheap in the thrift store," he says.
For that very reason, these objects suggest a social commentary on the nature of popular culture. "We live in a throwaway culture," says Marclay. "My art deals with fighting time."
He points to one of the larger works as an example. "Tape Fall," depicts a reel-to-reel tape player unspooling from the top of a tall ladder into a mound of tape on the floor.
"Christian is one of a growing number of artists working between different parts of the art world today," says Wendy Brandow, director of the Margo Leavin Gallery in Los Angeles. He is at the leading edge of those "who are making the aural visual and vice versa."
She points to the concluding work in the Hammer show, called "Video Quartet."
This work exists in a black curtained room in which four screens have been set up side by side.
A seven-minute streaming collage of sound and images from more than 75 years of cinema flows across the screen. The visual and musical tracks progress into a crescendo of both onscreen and harmonic meaning that Brandow calls, "stunningly beautiful visual work that remains solidly in the musical world."
Hammer curator Ferguson says a survey is a good way to see the development of certain themes over the career of an artist.
"Quartet," created in 2002, is a good illustration of this. It is in the final room of the show, and it offers a masterful and mature treatment of themes that Marclay has explored throughout his career.
It's "a deeper melancholic strain about all the things that are passing away," Ferguson says, "not in an overtly sentimental way, but more distanced, more mature."