Dispensing with beats, hooks, choruses—all the standardized elements of the popular song-form—the music of Sunn O))) takes Parrino’s “stark kind of minimalism” and its attendant “blackness” to an extreme. What’s left is the low-end thrum of vaguely mutating chord progressions played at a snail’s pace on detuned guitars. Even when a voice or synthesizer is introduced to the mix, it is at the same low pitch as the core instruments, making for a consistent block of sound that is nevertheless densely packed and full of incident. The same logic can be applied to the white or black monochromes, which likewise bespeak not only reduction, but also accumulation and concentration, massing. The painting that is “all of one thing,” in the language of Donald Judd, compels a highly focused sort of looking that will tend to blur around the edges, becoming susceptible to hallucinatory projection. And just as one “hears things” in the monotone, so does one “see things” in the monochrome.

The Melvins, Sludge Glamorous, From the Nursery, 2010. Cover by Steven Parrino.

The Melvins, Sludge Glamorous, From the Nursery, 2010. Cover by Steven Parrino.

Between the black and the white, we are left to ponder a host of dichotomies: affirmation and negation, presence and absence, excess and lack. That said, the white and black albums of Sunn O))) feature a more or less uniform sonic palette, suggesting that our ability to distinguish between what has been emptied out and filled up is entirely relative. Cage had come to a similar conclusion, in the early fifties, when he began to experiment with very small and big sounds. Following his often-repeated experience with sensory deprivation in the anechoic chamber—alongside Rauschenberg’s white paintings, a crucial source for 4’33”—Cage turned to the possibilities of extreme amplification. For his part, Parrino linked the two by way of a “shifter,” a metallic grey paint, the color of fenders. White paint radiates light, black paint absorbs it, and grey can do either depending on the angle of illumination and of one’s vision. And the more reflective the paint, the more it will include of its context—the room in which it hangs, the surrounding works, and the viewers passing before it.

The shiny black panels that have long been a staple element of the work of Banks Violette, a self-acknowledged heir to Parrino’s legacy, demonstrate the inherent adaptability of the reflective monochrome to areas outside painting proper. Interchangeably mounted to the wall or laid out on the floor, these reenact the slippage between the virtual and the actual dimensions of the “specific object,” as Judd theorized it, and in particular the leaning plank works of John McCracken. Violette’s flats may likewise be seen as “not-painting” and “not-sculpture,” or a hybrid form comprising characteristic elements of both mediums, but the chain of associations does not end there. The surfaces of these things are buffed to a super-slick, watery finish that darkly mirrors a whole other order of “specific objects,” for the most part the material fall-out from the deep mythological structure of the culture of rock, placed before or atop them. The effect is emphatically set up: every component part of his exhibitions is staged upon or against the monochrome, which accordingly becomes the literal ground of an imaginary production. For instance, the trashed drum-set of Untitled (Model for a Future Disaster), from 2003, appears as the forensic remainder of an increasingly ritualized performance of ecstatic transcendence, basically a prop of rock show theatrics. “I’m interested in a visual language that’s overdetermined, exhausted, or just over-burdened by meaning,” Violette declares in a 2008 interview, and the statement applies to both his fine and popular art sources.10 However, here as well, we reach that point of confusion between a repetition that nullifies its object and one that reaffirms it. Above all, Violette is interested “in how those visual codes can somehow be reanimated.” And then, sounding very much like Parrino, he adds, “All those images are like zombies—they’re stripped of vitality, yet sometimes they get life back in them…and, like zombies, usually something goes wrong when they wake up again.”11

Banks Violette, Untitled (model for a future disaster), 2003. Steel, drum hardware, polystyrene, polyurethane, tinted epoxy; 33 × 48 × 48 inches.

Banks Violette, Untitled (model for a future disaster), 2003. Steel, drum hardware, polystyrene, polyurethane, tinted epoxy; 33 × 48 × 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Team Gallery, New York.

For his 2006 show at Maureen Paley Gallery, in London, Violette reproduced Sunn O)))’s entire touring arsenal of guitars, amps, and speakers in cast resin and salt, displaying these ghost objects on white panels. In this way, the artist “reanimates” the high culture of a deceased Minimalism by relating it to a lower culture—a subculture—that thrives on death and destruction. When rock-and-roll paraphernalia is reflected in the slick monochrome, both undergo a form of transubstantiation that nevertheless leaves them “wrong.” Accordingly, the figure of the zombie, trapped in a limbo of purposeless self-perpetuation, becomes a negative rejoinder to the “purposiveness” of autonomous art. Within this formulation, the monochrome becomes a cursed object, something that is communicated like

Footnotes

  1. Banks Violette interviewed by Francesca Gavin, “The Art of Fear,” Dazed & Confused 2.66 (October 2008), 157.
  2. Ibid.
Further Reading