The half-century chronology covered by the Portland Museum of Art's latest exhibition, "Backstage Pass," reveals in photographic portraiture a story of music that is a euphemism for the ultimate creative act. Like sex, rock-and-roll is about surrender to the present moment
When walking into the museum, however, the visages of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan staring out into the distance assure you that this show is not concerned with the present moment, but the photographer's stolen one. For an exhibit by a museum positioning itself to appeal to a 21st-century audience, "Backstage Pass" has the (most likely unintentional) attraction of abiding nostalgia. The PMA wants to get the attention of its future audience, but it's their parents who will line up at the doors.
The exhibition is deeply curated with the loving obsessiveness of a groupie. The accompanying catalog is likely to be sitting on Portland coffee tables for the next full year and intersperses images with essays that dutifully justify the show's existence at our museum. The contributors discuss the unifying themes of the collection — photos of the stars (ostensibly) caught out of their element of performance and stagecraft, each subject at the prime of their life, and most often making eye contact with the camera. Around 300 photographs are hung salon-style, leading the viewer through a timeline of iconic characters whose reputations are built on both their talent for song and propensity for non-conformity. Still, while you joyously brush past a heroic Coltrane, a dapper Jagger, and an unhinged Cobain, there seems to be the faint melody of a dirge in the distance.
Does canonizing these figures and lobbing them into the white cube for our perusal kill what they stood for? That kind of sinister appropriation is more the territory of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" as soundtrack to a Ford Taurus commercial and, besides, the musicians' own industry already went to great lengths to canonize them in their time.
Instead, the engaging quality of the photographs and the unified trajectory of the show raise questions rather than take a cheap shot. The audience is walked through a confluence of technology, production, and media forever altering the social and cultural landscape of the baby boom generation. Although there are a few instances of featured musicians recurring in later life (the most heart-wrenching is a drug-addled Chet Baker), the focus on youth keeps the story of innovation at the forefront. It's hard to sound off about selling out when you see how quickly rock music reinvented itself as New Wave and Punk when everyone was sure the Arena Rock era had destroyed all that was sacrosanct from the previous decade. The kids will always be alright.
People keep tolling a death knell for the Modern Art movement as well, but its core principles keep surviving no matter how many "post"s we attach to the front of it. In that context, "Backstage Pass" is nothing new for the museum. Ultimately, this is a photography exhibit where the photographers and subjects both take a back seat to the museum's need (and by association, our need) to make sense of a Modern-era cultural movement that keeps changing a little too fast for anyone's comfort. There will always be more musicians breaking old forms and changing the mode of the music so the walls of the city shake — until we build a museum around those old walls.
Ian Paige can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
"BACKSTAGE PASS: ROCK & ROLL PHOTOGRAPHY" | January 22-March 22 | at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | 207.775.6148