Having just blown through town on X’s 30th anniversary tour, Exene Cervenka has left a solo exhibit of collage and spray-paint/stencil pieces in her wake. The exhibit, Sleep In Spite of Thunder, runs until July 18 at DCKT Contemporary. It provides a window into Cervenka’s creative muse that’s only hinted at in the music she’s most widely recognized for. It’s important to remember that Cervenka never considered herself a musician to begin with. It’s quite plausible that she landed the job at least partly on the impression her poetry made on her bandmate, John Doe.
Since then, Cervenka has remained simultaneously active as a visual artist, demonstrating the same individual flair she brought to singing as an unabashedly un-trained musician. Fittingly enough, her collages, which get a formal presentation at the exhibit and are also collected in her 2006 book, Magical Meteorite Songwriting Device, originated in her journals. For Cervenka, the collage format holds a special appeal.
“It’s perfect for me,” she explains, “because it’s a mix of the past and the present. Everything Americana that I can find that I like, I can make art out of. The possibilities are endless. The mixture of coincidence and intent is just genius. I think the medium itself has got its own genius in it. Because there’s all this coincidence. You just find something off the street and you incorporate it in your art and it becomes this running theme. And then you have this whole new place to go.”
An avid found-art enthusiast for years, Cervenka is also drawn to objects of antiquity. As Kristine McKenna suggests in the preface to Magical Meteorite, the merging of coincidence and the past work together in Cervenka’s work as a lament for aspects of American life that have all but disappeared.
“When I started touring in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Cervenka recalls. “It almost looked like the ’20s in some places! You’d still go through towns that were these neon paradises, with neon signs of people hammering nails that would move and art deco buildings. Small-town America before Wal-Marts and MTV, that’s all gone. Now, you go to Alabama, it looks like Missouri; you go to Missouri, it looks like Kentucky; you go to Kentucky, it looks like New England. Not every part of it is gone, but there’s housing developments on all our farmland. That’s disappearing.”
After nursing what she calls a “love-hate relationship” with L.A.—her home for nearly 30 years—Cervenka finally got away and moved to Missouri, which is much more her speed.
“I’m very creative in Missouri,” she says, “because there’s lots of auctions and old things and memorabilia—what they call “ephemera” in the art world—that I can work with. It’s still a place that has its history to some extent. It still has the old way of life. It still has farms. And I like it.”
Given her affinity for bygone times, it makes sense that Cervenka’s creative gaze is perpetually pointed backward.
“I’ve just always been a big fan of the past,” she says. “I dress in old clothes, I wear old jewelry, I read old books, I listen to old records. My house is old. Everything I do is a re-creation for me of different eras.”
Still, her work is not without contemporary resonance. The spray-paint pieces all deal with militarism and patriotism through the funnel of the universal hero archetype. And her collages evoke more than mere nostalgic longing.
“I’m telling a story,” Cervenka says. “With collages, you’re still telling a story, it’s just not a very long story sometimes like a movie. It’s a short, little story. Like, an image of a young girl with a flower in it can be an entire collage, but if you do it right you’re telling a story about the girl or the flower. There’s content there.”
Sleep in Spite of Thunder through July 18, DCKT Contemporary, 195 Bowery, 212-741-9955.
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