I love art and I love music but I have come to dread art exhibitions about music. Rarely do they offer anything approaching their trans-disciplinary promise. Homage, illustration and cod-sociology are standard fare. With each show announced, you can hear the chatter and clatter of curator and rolodex: ‘I want that Christian Marclay video with the guitar tied to the truck and anything you can find with a picture of Ian Curtis on it, pronto! And don’t worry about any women artists – rock ‘n’ roll is a man’s game!’ And when was the last time you saw a major art institution stage a music-related exhibition that addressed the significance of Latin, African, Caribbean and Asian musical forms rather than a familiar parade of snow-white-tanned mythopoeic Rock icons?
How refreshing, then, it was to see ‘If Everybody Had An Ocean: Brian Wilson, An Art Exhibition’, curated by Alex Farquharson. If it fails to address any of the above points, it is because this show about a musician is, oddly, not really about music at all. The exhibition (which tours to CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux) is equal parts idiosyncratic history of West Coast Minimal and Conceptual Art, paean to the vernacular and sensitive evocation of the painful squaring of creative idealism with personal tragedy. Its titular subject – the Beach Boys’ maverick genius Brian Wilson – is here a refracting lens rather than an object of celebration, a prism parsing art into a kaleidoscope of ideas around experimental and commercial pop cultures, personal and public creativity, surf, sun and fun, fun, fun.
Featuring 32 artists (of whom, disappointingly, only seven are women), ‘If Everybody …’ is arranged into four rooms entitled ‘Surf City’, ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, ‘It’s So Sad to Watch a Sweet Thing Die’ and ‘You’re Like the Lonely Sea’, along with Pae White’s Song of the Daybirds (2007), an 18-metre panoramic installation outside the gallery. Each room loosely follows a narrative arc that parallels Wilson’s career from icon of Californian surf culture, through the innovations of Pet Sounds (1966) and SMiLE (1966–2004), to mental breakdown and a vast, oceanic loneliness.
‘Surf City’ sets the scene, with artists such as Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, Billy Al Bengston and John McCracken representing Californian Pop and Minimalism in all its sun-kissed laid-backness: McCracken’s sculptures, reminiscent of the forms and immaculate surfaces of surfboards; Ruscha’s taxonomies of Los Angeles’ landscape such as Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966); Goode’s deadpan 1969 Calendar: LA Artists in Their Cars. This is the Beach Boys of ‘California Girls’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’, chart hits responsible for creating what Farquharson describes in the show’s catalogue as California’s ‘mythical status around the world […] surf, custom cars and high school romance under an endless sun’. (A paradise in stark contrast to the grey seas and biting winds of Tate St Ives’ Cornish location.)
The largely abstract selections in ‘The Warmth of the Sun’ echo a little of the gorgeous polyphonic arrangements and emotive character of Wilson’s music; Jennifer West’s abstract films, reminiscent of Stan Brakhage, glow with the fuzzy warmth of a song such as ‘Roll Plymouth Rock’, Bridget Riley’s Within (1981) visually pulsates with the stately tempo of ‘God Only Knows’ and a group of Sister Corita Kent serigraphs are as life-affirming as 'Wouldn't it Be Nice'.
With ‘It’s So Sad to Watch a Sweet Thing Die’, the mood darkens. Al Ruppersberg’s photographic work Where’s Al? (1972) hints, in the artist's own absence from the images, at Wilson’s reclusiveness as his mental condition worsened; Fred Tomaselli’s Organism (2005) depicts a figure falling through space, crystalline and fractal-patterned as if about to burst into a million irrecoverable pieces at any moment, whilst Rodney Graham’s video of his sleeping pill induced Halcyon Sleep (1994) exudes a mood of torpor – self-sedation out of fear of what demons the conscious mind might perceive to exist. The show's final, sepulchrally-lit room – ‘You’re Like the Lonely Sea’ – is dislocated and hypnagogic. Thomas Demand’s video Recorder (2002) plays a looped fragment from SMiLE as the reels of a cardboard tape machine spin, the image hovering between convincing veracity and chimeric insubstantiality. Kaye Donachie’s paintings Cease to resist, Come an’ say you love me and Never learn not to love (both 2003) conjure the spectre of Charles Manson and the waking nightmare of an imploding 1960s counterculture (Manson wrote the song ‘Cease to Exist’, recorded by the Beach Boys in 1969 as ‘Never Learn Not to Love’). Isa Genzken’s steel and concrete ‘Weltempfanger’ (World Receivers, 1987–92) neither send nor receive the transmissions their radio-like shapes imply them capable of. The world won’t listen anymore.
Farquharson’s fond respect for Wilson’s work is evident, yet the achievement of ‘If Everybody …’ is the associative echo chamber it creates for art and music to play in, rather than merely illustrate one another. Good vibrations indeed.