Rich Tarbell, "Surrender"
In this age of iTunes and Spotify, when people are as likely to listen to music on their phones as to slip in a CD, something has been lost: rock’s visual component. While over-40 audiophiles spent countless hours contemplating album covers while vinyl discs spun on the turntable, the next generation emblazoned video images on their brains during the days before MTV went Jersey Shore. Rock icons and visual icons were once inextricably linked.
Examining this intertwined relationship, Piedmont Virginia Community College’s “It’s Only Rock and Roll” finds that while Elvis may be the king of rock and roll, graphic designer Matt Thomas is arguably the king of negative space. One of three artists featured in the exhibition, he offers promotional band posters showcasing his virtuosity at integrating inked and un-inked areas to create memorable images that go beyond providing information about dates and venues.
In “Wilco Chicago Skyline,” a line of sans-serif text on the left leads/reads across the horizon to a photograph of Chicago in monochromatic steel blue, the thin spit of the Navy Pier shifting to skyscrapers and heavily inked apartment buildings on the right, with abstract mirror images reflected below in Lake Michigan. Thomas lets negative space define the sky, the water, and the buildings’ windows, as well as the white line of Lake Shore Drive, which not only separates land from lake but also continues the horizontal trajectory of the text. The resulting image of the city subtly suggests a map of digital sound waves.
Rich Tarbell also effectively analyzes what makes a rock image memorable by re-staging iconic album covers from his youth. His photographs playfully bend gender by casting female models in the roles of testosterone-laden rockers like Iggy Pop, AC/DC, and Jim Morrison. Tarbell doesn’t try to replicate his source material perfectly, but rather prods viewers’ memories with iconic elements.
Tarbell’s album re-creations appear again in his strongest piece, the oversized “Surrender,” shot on a life-sized physical set, à la Gregory Crewdson. Here, two boys sit on a twin bed in a wood-paneled room surrounded by the re-worked trappings of 1970s adolescence in the moment just before albums shifted to CDs.
Matt Leech also taps into adolescence in his cartoon-like illustrations that offer a Matt-Groening-collides-with-R.-Crumb-esque style. But it’s Thomas and Tarbell who push “start” on viewers’ mental soundtracks. Rock on.
The exhibition, “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” featuring work by Matt Thomas, Rich Tarbell, and Matt Leech, runs through October 26 in the South Gallery of the V. Earl Dickinson Building at Piedmont Virginia Community College. 961-5362.