Fans beware: The darkness of the auditorium hasn’t protected you from the critical eye of Kim Gordon. Gordon, the vocalist, bassist, and guitarist for the indie rock band Sonic Youth, who also has a solid reputation as a visual artist, has been watching those watching her. What she sees when looking at her audience while performing is the basis for her hardcover multimedia artist’s book, Performing/Guzzling. The volume presents a portfolio of her painting and photos offering visions of her experience onstage, punctuated by her writing and lyrics, as well as by short essays by the artist, musician, and critic Jutta Koether and the New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als. The first 3,000 copies even include a signed print by Gordon.
Gordon, a frequent musical collaborator with the Conceptual artist Dan Graham, is deeply involved with both acoustic and visual mediums. In fact, it was when she was investigating the rock band as a site of male bonding for an art project that she got caught up in the music. Gordon graduated from the Otis Art Institute, in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in Europe, Japan, and the U.S. at such venues as the Gothenburg Biennial, in Sweden; Kenny Schachters Contemporary Gallery, in New York; and the mu, in the Netherlands. She has also curated exhibitions, including one with Mike Kelley at the White Columns gallery, in New York.
Among the randomly organized watercolors, larger paintings, and photographs in Performing/Guzzling are five prints of her word paintings — black acrylic scrawls on white canvases spelling out such phrases as the names of the former bands Pussy Galore and Noise Nomads — many of which were recently exhibited and sold as part of the Rodarte exhibition at the Paris boutique Colette. A number of the haunting, ethereal watercolors are from Gordon’s 2008 exhibition "Come Across," at the ks Art gallery, in New York. With washes of color on rice paper, she creates dreamscapes of repeated images, often using strokes of metallic paint to emphasize the light hitting abstracted faces of people in a crowd. "Looking out into the audience, light comes from the projector at the back of the hall," she writes. "[T]hey appear as a collective mood. . . . I wish I had a camera to record like it looks like."
The seeming solecism of the repeated like here is intentional, expressing Gordon’s view that no artistic image can ever exactly capture a person or moment. Similarly, the haziness of the watercolors reflects what Gordon sees as the blurred relationship between audience and performer, between what each fantasizes and what actually happens. Listeners imagine a singer speaking directly to them, while the singer imagines she is the absolute center of attention. In reality, Gordon once caught someone looking bored and was dismayed.
The theme of the dichotomy between image/fantasy and reality is further elaborated in the mixed-media paintings that combine newspapers with watercolor. Gordon uses headlines like "The Mind of One — Woman of Multitudes" and "Accusations, Depositions Just More Fodder for Art" to comic effect but also to show how the media shape the opinions of the people whose faces she depicts, as well as her own. Throughout the volume, photographs that bear seemingly accidental strokes of watercolor ask readers to consider the reality of the photo and the altered reality created by her addition.
Koether’s essay "Harsh Pastoral" explains Gordon’s art as a response to how she sees herself through others’ eyes. Framing her discussion with observations on art by the philosophers Jean Luc-Nancy and Guy Debord, the writer suggests that in depicting those observing her, Gordon exerts power over how she is perceived. The artist’s images "form formless conjunctions, puddles between articulations, displays of passion, gaze and nongaze," Koe- ther writes. "The female idol multiplied, casual, misplaced. Defiance re-articulated over and over again by those non-eyes."
The volume ends abruptly with a departure from visual art. In its place are five sets of lyrics or poems centered on the page, offering Gordon’s final direct, narrative response to the question guiding her visual explorations: What is the nature of performance? As she writes in her final poem, "Billboard": "Look who’s wearing the pants."
"Kim Gordon: 'Performing/Guzzling'" originally appeared in the March issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' March 2010 Table of Contents.