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Screw Dance, Let's Art!

Sadly, after this picture was taken, the beaded squid monster slithered off the platter and devoured Grant Hart's head
Sean Smuda

Too bad there are no fireflies in Elliot Park, I think as I look up at the night sky. Nothing short of a spontaneous Kundalini awakening caps off a memorable night like those little fools and their tactful luminescence. If only I could find a way to get mosquitoes to carry little flashlights. It's just like I was saying an hour ago...

Wait. It can't possibly be an hour later already. I'm standing alone in the parking lot outside Outsiders and Others gallery, where local musicians have gathered to display their paintings, sculptures, and fashions for an exhibit called "The Art of Rock." Just a few minutes ago, Grant Hart finished his most flawless impromptu rendition of Al Jolson's 1935 hit "Latin from Manhattan" with only my frenzied wet-fish hand drumming as accompaniment. I was trying to figure out what was missing from Hart's performance when I suddenly lost track of time.

Time and space seem preternaturally elastic when you're hanging out with Hart. The former Hüsker Dü drummer turned singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist's lyrics sometimes lead him all the way back to the last days of Pompeii with Wernher von Braun in tow. Offstage, it's even harder to follow him around: The man can make a phone booth seem like the labyrinth of Minos and yesterday seem like the year 1066. That sense of disorientation tends to rub off on me, too, which is why this story starts at the end of the night. Still, the laws of linearity can only be trampled so much. Let us press "restart" and slide back into the beginning while we still can.

 

The sun is just beginning to set as Grant Hart paces around the secluded side of Outsiders and Others' wraparound terrace. Wearing a red and black Chinese silk shirt and a black suede overblouse, his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, he's the perfect picture of bohemian opulence this evening. "I can't remember a time when I haven't been both a musician and a visual artist," he says.

He's not alone. Inside, the gallery holds a variety of locally based, musician-generated art, much of which we haven't seen yet because Hart has been busy playing the raconteur. As we venture indoors, he's already covered the Catholic Church's ambivalence toward homosexuality, the differences between Beat, punk, and hippie interviewing styles, various secrets of the Knights Templar, and the story of how Eddie Rickenbacker came to be a flying ace.

Hart claims that he's a spiritual descendant of Groucho Marx, but I think he may be closer kin to Superman's transdimensional nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk, who always vanishes and reappears at will. "I'll be right back," he says as I approach a pen-and-ink diptych by All the Pretty Horses frontperson Venus. The transgendered singer is best known for playing the glam/Goth god(dess) to the spread-eagled hilt, mixing femme swish and stripper swagger with a decidedly butch vocal style that recalls Jim Morrison and Ian Astbury. To paraphrase Prince, s(he) is neither woman nor man, but a self-created entity that transcends understanding--at least for the middle-aged fellow in a blue button-down who ambles up alongside me while I study Venus's Two Figures with Octopus. In the two underwater scenes, near-identical androgynes appear with octopi on their heads.

"Do you have any idea of what this means?" my business-casual compatriot asks. "I'm afraid it leaves me completely bewildered."

Slapping on my best makeshift mortarboard, I explain that, like the rest of Venus's output, the drawing is best experienced first and understood later. "It's definitely autobiographical," I add. "Notice that both figures have boobs and weenies?"

Unfortunately, my interrogator wanders off just as Hart pops back in from the universe next door. "I see a heavy death and rebirth thing," he notes of Two Figures, which, like the rest of Venus's drawings, seems to partake of influences ranging from the late 19th-century Symbolist movement to contemporary Marvel comics. "The drawings themselves are cut into coffin shapes, but arranged like butterfly wings." Hart turns to exhibition curator Yuri Arajs, who is passing by in the midst of the evening's hustle. "Wouldn't you say these drawings are just one manifestation of Venus, Inc.?" Hart asks the goateed gallery owner.

"Absolutely!" Arajs replies, raising an eyebrow.

"I'll be right back," Grant says again. As he disappears, you can almost see a puff of lavender smoke billowing around him.

When I find him again, he's by the building's front entrance, serenading the just-arrived subject of our conversation with a perfect rendition of Frankie Avalon's "Venus." It's not easy to make a busty androgyne in a black corset and garters blush, but by the time Hart croons the final "Oh Veeee-nus, make my dreams come true," (s)he is doing just that. The rosy color coordinates perfectly with her mauve-makeup raccoon mask.  

When Hart is finished singing, I'm the one who disappears. Venturing back inside, I search for Eric Lunde's work. An old-school noise baron with a neo-Dada streak as wide as I-94, he's far more likely to make rock music with actual rocks than with guitars. Lunde's visual art portrays a single object simply, almost childishly, rendered in house paint on paper with a brief caption that adds both tension and mystery. "Go ahead and make up a reason," says the text on Chapter 3: Gun. While the titles of his paintings, all of which begin with "Chapter," imply a broader (and unmanifest) narrative, each is a story in itself. "I could spend a lot of time with this work," comments Hart, who has suddenly reappeared next to me. I think about buying one of Lunde's paintings to use as a Hart magnet.

My exhibit guide has different feelings about Saira Huff's "Total Crap" line, which is conveniently located in the gallery's center. Huff, an ex-member of Detestation, Resolved, and Faggot, designs dresses that combine '50s chiffon-draped glamour with agro, chicken-shack punk, but her fashions were meant for a model even more svelte and exhibitionistic than Venus. There's no way Hart could fit into them. Plus, he doesn't look good in wire mesh, which makes up the bulk of Total Crap III, where six thick strips of it are held in place by a few synthetic fabric straps with silver rings. "These dresses are great," Hart offers, "but I think they'd be better served by live models. The mannequins don't do them justice."

Before he can dematerialize again, I grab Hart by the ponytail and lead him to Ten Extra Pounds drummer David Witt's silkscreens. Witt's mixed-media and ink-on-paper originals combine punk panache with an illustrator's careful sense of composition, and his posters represent the art of rock at its most utilitarian: They're all show-specific. "This is advertising art," Hart observes of a large Guided by Voices poster. "I've done plenty of it in my day, but I've usually taken the easy way out, using found images. This definitely merits the signing and numbering."

Witt may be the odd man out in this exhibition: With the exception of Jon Sweere's sole piece, Jon's Bass, which Hart and I don't get a chance to comment on because Sweere is playing it, Witt's work offers the only direct references to music. But, as Hart explains, the rock/art interface often works in more subtle ways. "You noticed how Venus's drawings were on notebook paper and were almost obsessively detailed?" he asks as we stroll toward Hart's own found-art pieces. "I'm guessing that he did them all on the road, like I did with these assemblages when I was in Nova Mob. Touring gives you a lot of time for making art, but you have to work with whatever's close at hand. Anywhere you hang your hat is your studio."

Hart picks up one of his creations, Berry Ring, a long, many-tiered strand of rusty nuts strung on bass strings; it resembles a primitive ritual fetish object, complete with a gold-paint-slathered artificial holly and dinky red fruits. "[Nova Mob bassist] Tommy Merkl broke a lot of strings, and after a while I found myself naturally spotting discarded hardware," he says. "Plus, every now and then, I'd happen upon a layer of discarded auto parts and really make a killing."

Hart's work is definitely the most media-varied in "The Art of Rock." In addition to his three-dimensional work, he's represented by an action-style, spray-paint-and-water portrait of his old friend William Burroughs, as well as a trio of collages. We sidle up to a piece called Stones that juxtaposes rows of semiprecious minerals with carefully laid transparencies that show human anatomy, primarily viscera and muscle. "I used to buy multiple copies of old World Book encyclopedias at thrift shops," Hart says. "Invariably, different years would have the same illustrations, but in different sizes."

Then Hart switches back to Houdini mode. "Let's go outside and smoke."

Maybe that's how I end up out here in the parking lot, right back where I started. As the night's time-loop progression creeps up on me, I find myself thinking that Hart's constructions and collages exemplify his fractalized perception of space and time. Yesterday's rusty nuts, gems, and innards from long-discarded tomes become the tentacles of today. No matter what medium Hart is working in, he makes a habit of dragging the past into the present and presenting it in new ways. Frankie Avalon could never have sung "Venus" to a lanky androgyne--at least not in public. And Al Jolson never could have imagined that an exotically attired punk veteran might break into a near-perfect version of "Latin from Manhattan" nearly 70 years after he made it a hit.  

Suddenly, the question I first pondered while wishing for fireflies comes back to me. I know what Hart omitted from "Manhattan": its final three syllables. I flatter myself by imagining that this realization is a reward for my hand-drumming performance, and I could be right. Though Hart never needs a straight man, he's always grateful for a second banana. And the talkative artist himself would tell you that the last word--any last word--is a rare gift indeed. So even though everyone else is out of earshot, I take my cue. Softly, I shout, "Velveeta!" All around me, the mosquitoes start glowing.


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