Art and music are both creative pursuits, so it comes as no real surprise that some talented individuals can do both. Before she became an artist, Rebecca Shanahan was a drummer in a post-punk band. She spoke to Ronnie van Hout, Darren Sylvester and Caroline Kennedy-McCracken, three other Aussie artists who also like to make some noise.
There are artists who become musicians, musicians who become artists and artists who are also musicians. Joni Mitchell describes herself as painter first, musician second. Photographer Gregory Crewdson had a brief run in 1980s new wave band the Speedies before his art career boomed; their minor hit, ‘Let Me Take Your Foto,’ was revived for a 2005 TV advertisement. Kim Gordon of the celebrated art rock band Sonic Youth exhibits and contributes to Artforum magazine.
Has the availability of digital music recording, mixing and production tools created new crossover opportunities? Three Melbourne-based artists who make both music and visual art have individual approaches to their dual practices. Ronnie van Hout takes on punk’s DIY philosophy in a decades-long music collaboration. Darren Sylvester has transferred his distinctive studio methodology to writing, performing and producing highly crafted, knowingly referential pop albums. And Caroline Kennedy-McCracken has stepped back from a successful pop career to release low-fi works that refuse the commercial art and music worlds.
Ronnie van Hout is well known as an artist in both Australia and his native New Zealand. In the 1980s the parochial city of Christchurch was exactly the dour kind of backwater where you’d expect to find a small, vital independent music scene. Van Hout remembers identifying future friends and fellow artists in the street before he ever met them. Like him, they stuck out. His band Into The Void are that reliable perennial, the art school band. Van Hout synthesized his love of the Cramps, the Stooges and heavy metal with an interest he describes as “inhabiting the space of the text.” This led him to oppose the rock-god trope by deconstructing lead-singer conventions and flattening the hierarchical relationship between audience and performers. (One band member joined Into The Void after attending their gigs. In Margaret Gordon’s 2014 documentary film about the band he complains that he misses being in the audience.) Compensating for their initial lack of musicality with lighting and other stage effects, consciously putting on a show, the band enjoys to this day a fun-based esprit de corps, a Donna Tartt-like schedule of public appearances and an utter lack of professional aspiration.
Many artists, both visual and musical, begin as fans of other artists, and in both van Hout’s role as singer in Into The Void and his gallery practice we see the performance of identities and direct references to the oeuvres of others. Early on, van Hout’s double-clutched microphone stance and fixed stare evoke Ian Curtis, while at one point his bleached hair echoed mid-1970s Lou Reed. Masking, body casts, doppelgangers and multiple roles abound in van Hout’s sculptural, film, photographic and installation works. In his fan-fiction video piece Mother, 2013,van Hout performs every role in a key scene from Ridley Scott’s film ‘Alien’.
At the other end of the popular music spectrum from Ronnie van Hout’s art-noise collaborations lie the lush, richly produced albums of Darren Sylvester. Sylvester’s music also depends on the artist-as-fan performing multiple roles, but with different intent. “I bought a cheap synthesiser from Allen’s Music and Logic Express for my Mac,” he says, “and got home and in a few hours learned how to record a bass line and keyboard and thought, ‘I can make an album.’” Playing all his instruments as well as producing, Sylvester meticulously sculpts songs in his studio, layer by layer, until they have the sound and the feel of his favourite albums. More homage than pastiche, sophisticated rather than sophomoric, the slightly uncanny results sometimes sound as though David Bowie produced a Roxy Music album in LA with John Lennon guesting, then warehoused it for 35 years. This is not likely to surprise anyone following Sylvester’s art practice, given that his reputation was made with expertly produced, also slightly uncanny photographs that meticulously stage scenes of anxiety and anomie amid commercially glossy surfaces paired with emotionally explicit titles. Writing is one thread that links all Sylvester’s creative pursuits. Sylvester’s description of his album development process as “writing, recording, production, artwork” mirrors his art-making process: each photograph is generated from a short story he has written.
As well as the pop albums he creates (so far, ‘Darren Sylvester’ and ‘Off By Heart’), Sylvester’s gallery practice increasingly references the broader field of music culture with You Should Let Go of a Dying Relationship, 2006; his silent re-performing of David Bowie and Kate Bush music videos; and his dance floor installation For You, 2014. His elegiac video, I Was the Last in the Carpenters Garden, 2008, recreated Karen Carpenter’s Los Angeles garden as a set inhabited by the artist. Sylvester’s recently published documentary photography book Compass Point, 2012, which depicts the legendary Bahamas recording studio, reflects his interest in production for making meaning. Such as how a particular room or mixing desk comes to be fetishized, or how celebrated producers are sought out by musicians for a certain sound. More magic than engineering, production values like these are responsible for the look, the sound and the accumulated meanings of Darren Sylvester’s work.
Production and distribution are also conceptual tools in Caroline Kennedy-McCracken’s recorded work. Her album ‘No Language’, released under her stage name Caroline No, was recorded with one microphone on a phone and released as a hand-decorated cassette tape. With minimal, intimate instrumentation and a considered use of space and interval, the tracks are also melodic and beautifully structured: just what you’d expect from a pop star who has sung and written hits for her own bands (Deadstar, the Plums, the Tulips) and for others. But, having been signed young to a music contract (abandoning her early art and cultural theory studies to tour internationally and record) Kennedy-McCracken isn’t interested in being a pop star any more. Her low-fi approach emerges directly from her PhD research examining post-capitalist art and music making. “I wanted to disengage from capitalist pathways and methodologies,” she says. Kennedy-McCracken didn’t enjoy being part of that system and doesn’t identify with the commercial art and music worlds. As she explains, “My values are to do with love, intimacy, unknowable elements of everyday experience, humility, humbleness.”
Kennedy-McCracken believes it’s important to maintain the languages of music and art as crucial alternatives to written language, privileged by systems of power and oppression. She trades her artworks (mostly paintings and drawings and some sculpture) with others, shares her works on Facebook and exhibits in unconventional spaces. Like many people who see the market-dependent cultural system as unworkable, she advocates for a perspective shift: to work with a modest means and to feel okay about working outside that system.
It’s no longer relevant to speak of crossover. Occupying a ‘slashie’ world of multiple professional identities, contemporary hybrid artist/musos like Ronnie van Hout, Darren Sylvester and Caroline Kennedy-McCracken don’t distinguish between media. They may not be stadium events, but they are gigs worth catching.