Tones on Tail

Tom Kotik: Tone
Lesley Heller Workspace
Through November 27, 2011

Nothing says "Rock and Roll" louder than the Marshall Stack, the amplification system developed in the 1960s that continues to define the stage appearance of bands as diverse as Slayer, U2, and The Who. A full stack consists of one head, containing the actual amplifier, on top of two stacked 4x12s -- loudspeaker cabinets containing four twelve-inch speakers. Walls of up to sixty stacks have become the background for most metal bands, with the volume of the music connoted by the large number of stacks. In fact, some bands use the empty cases as props, to create the impression of a large sound, much like the on-stage swigs taken from a bottle of Jack Daniels that in fact are refreshing sips of iced tea. Tom Kotik, in his exhibition Tone, begins with something of the same premise in his sculptures of silent guitars and amps.

Kotik’s early pieces included soundtracks of his own creation, though rendered mute by being played in soundproofed boxes. Like Robert Morris’s "Box with the Sound of its Own Making" (1961), the idea of sound was conferred through the knowledge that the sound existed, though not heard, like the Zen koan “If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, technically, it vibrates the air molecules, so, yeah, it kinda does. But we are not here to bandy such philosophical niceties. Kotik wrote, “I trap my own aggressive music in soundproofed boxes, or transform loud music into low-frequency, high-amplitude signals. Both are small pathways into silence.... The unassuming boxes seethe with repressed sound.”

Kotik has maintained some of the same Minimalist/Phenomenological approach in these new works. "Prelude" (2010) lays out a plywood stage with faux guitar and amp. Both are constructed from laminated plywood, yet no wiring connects the instrument to the loudspeaker. We make the connection in our heads, the sculpture implying the music. A series of stacks hangs from the wall, "Ampeg" (2011) [shown above], "Marshall Bass Head" (2011), "Gibson High" (2011), and "Marlboro Soundworks" (2011). Comprised of felt and MDF, these simulated stacks call to mind Donald Judd's sculptures of similarly hung rectangular pieces -- the works that he called “specific objects.” Judd's work occupied a terrain where an art object was not necessarily an aesthetic object, nor was it a useful object. It was meant to be apprehended as it was: a thing on the wall in relation to/among other things on a wall. Kotik gives us familiar objects that, though painted a bright orange color, seem as ready to burst forth with noise as those same-looking objects we see behind Slash or Pete Townshend. The sense of impending sound is thwarted somewhat by their hanging in a gallery -- we don’t quite expect them to “bring da noise” -- but they convey their point quite articulately. 

Less successful are the drawings, schematics, and a series of photo prints of guitars. Guitar Portraits (my collection) (2011) speaks more to a style of art that is the terrain of Mike Kelley, fanboy picture collections, and such. Although they lack the intellectual noodlings of the superior stack sculptures, they do not detract terribly from the latter's impact. They are more like backup singers in the show. Pretty, but unnecessary. We ultimately come away from the show having received the message that Kotik has put forth with clarity and precision: silence is sexy. - Bradley Rubenstein

Lesley Heller Workspace is at 54 Orchard St. in New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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