Fine art inspired by music often feels like a geeky kid brother trying to tag along with a older sibling and his or her cool friends. Joe Wardwell of Boston (thumbs up to the MFA for including locals) makes it work by imitating the look of rock album covers. Can You Help Me (2007) floats lyrics from Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven — "There's a feeling/I get/When I/Look to the West" — atop an Alfred Bierstadt– esque creek running through a brown forest. Wardwell's sense of typographic design is hit-or-miss, but when his recipe works, the combo of Manifest Destiny American landscapes and bad-ass rock is, uh, more than a feeling.
After Michael Jackson's death on June 25, Panopticon Gallery quickly assembled a show of Joshua Touster's photos of Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour. The Watertown photographer focuses on the fans and the commerce surrounding Jackson, then at the peak of his success after his 1982 album Thriller. The most memorable of the 10 photos here shows two boys in Jacksonville wearing matching sunglasses, studded wristbands, Jackson gloves, and T-shirts saying, "Michaelized in Jacksonville." It's their expressions, their postures: defiant, laid-back, cool. Other photos show a guy in a wheelchair wearing a Thriller hat and shirt, a New Yorker wearing a denim jacket custom-painted with a vision of Jackson, a banner advertising the tour hung on a New York skyscraper, someone opening a wallet to buy a knockoff Jackson glove. These images are more about documenting the phenomenon — the tribe of shared taste, the cult around show-biz idols — than they are great art in and of themselves.
Touster includes just two concert photos, both shot at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in December 1984. One taken from about halfway back in the crowd depicts Jackson and his brothers as specks amid the stage's megawatt glow. The other shows Jackson flanked by two brothers on the front of the stage. His magnetic confidence makes his siblings look like dorks. He's dressed in a rhinestone cowboy shirt and dark narrow pants with high hems that show off his light socks. He twists his chest toward us, leans his head into the mic in his right hand, cocks his left arm back with the fingers spread wide. He snaps his skinny, slightly bent legs into profile. The spotlights are his halo.
It's a good (not great) shot, poignant because it marks a pivotal point between his success and his failure. Already his nose seems to be thinning. He would have another hit album in 1987's Bad, but soon came child-abuse allegations, the mutating face and skin tone, odd marriages, disconcerting parenting. His death allows us to leapfrog over his man-child, black-white, sordid freak show to this moment when we still could love him unconditionally.
Records are a path to memory in Luxembourg-raised, Berlin-based Su-Mei Tse's Floating Memories installation at the Gardner Museum. A wood platform framing a gold silk rug from China stands raised slightly off the floor. The wood is etched on two sides of the rug and filled with shiny green resin in a peacock and floral wallpaper pattern. Projected on the wall above is video of a record endlessly spinning as we hear the crackle and pop of the needle stuck at the end of the album.