[ visual art ]
Two men lean against a doorway. The one on the left, his shoulder-length, greasy brown hair swooping down across one eye, lips puckered beneath a patchy biker 'stache, leans on the shoulder of his companion. Sporting a knit cap and John Lennon shades, the man in front grins with a leer that would make Jack Nicholson uneasy.
These two are not the types to inspire immortalization on canvas — if anything, they'd be the subject of a composite sketch hanging in your local post office. But their image so captivated Malcolm McLaren he transformed it into one of the "musical portraits" comprising his new work, Shallow 1-21.
"I think of them as the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the trailer park," McLaren laughs.
A few seconds clipped from an obscure, nameless sex film, the moment that encapsulates Shallow 10 is a brief zoom out, revealing a gun tucked into the jeans of the leering man. McLaren slows the image and reverses it, back and forth, repeated again and again over the course of three or four minutes. Just enough time to cover the length of a pop song, or, in this case, a collage of pop songs, mashed together over a hypnotic beat.
Each of Shallow's 21 pieces works in much the same way — a seemingly random, though oddly compelling, image or series of images repeated trance-inducingly over a soundtrack of familiar fragments of rock history. The clips may simply be someone eating a grape in close-up, an endless pan over three bored ladies smoking on a floral-print couch, or a nearly nude woman descending a staircase in a very non-Duchampian manner; in every case, very little happens, but much lurks underneath.
"It seems to me to be a work that evokes ideas about desire in a very poetic manner," says Julien Robson, curator of contemporary art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The Shallow 1-21 screening at PAFA, which will run continuously in the Morris Gallery through the end of the year, will be the first time the 86-minute video will be shown in its entirety in the States.
The work was initiated when McLaren was asked to contribute to a group show titled "Shallow" at a New York gallery in 2007. And no wonder: McLaren's career has been a continual negotiation between the shallow and the deep, a collision of high and low cultures.
A product of London art school in the late '60s, McLaren teamed with designer Vivienne Westwood to open SEX, the shop that would come to define the look of punk rock, not coincidentally through McLaren's role as founder and manager of the Sex Pistols. Over the ensuing decades, McLaren has been a musician, a film producer, even worked as a development executive for Steven Spielberg. But he's recently come full circle, returning to the world of visual art.
Shallow began with the music — hundreds of CDs culled through for just the right moments, then composited over electronic grooves. "Love Will Keep Us Together" collides with "Love Will Tear Us Apart"; "I Want To Be Loved By You" rubs up against "I Just Want To Make Love To You."
"Ultimately I was trying to re-create a whole history of pop culture within the basis of 20 or 30 tracks," McLaren claims. "I thought that by cutting things up, you wouldn't immediately receive something that would sound like a cliché. You might have heard a bit of it before, but you couldn't quite figure out what it's doing with this other bit. ... That was kind of a cool way of grabbing the ruins of a culture and throwing them together and giving them some basic architecture."
The music tracks were then overlaid, as randomly as possible, with visuals culled from '60s sex films. He combed back-alley shops, flea markets and private collections for these forgotten productions. While banality was the overriding criterion, any number of things caught his eye: odd details or mannerisms, strange expressions, even the deterioration of the film itself. But he was most interested in the actionless moments immediately preceding the actual sex acts.
"Those are the moments you always remember in a pop song," he says. "It gives you some sort of sexual urge which you inevitably never get satisfied. So that seemed to me a logical and personal way of creating something that I could share with others."
Oct. 24-Jan. 3, 2010, free, Morris Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St., 215-972-7600, pafa.org.