Go ahead. Grab a Sony Walkman.
Listening to a 90-minute mixtape of 1990s music — using 1990s technology, no less — may seem at first just an amusing addendum to “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s,” a traveling exhibit now at the Blanton Museum of Art.
But the soundtracks actually serve as an excellent entrée to this eclectic and sometimes rangy show.
For one thing, the exhibit, which is organized by New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, takes its name from the Kurt Cobain-written grunge rock hit recorded by Nirvana in 1992.
Cobain’s “Come As You Are” became an anthem for the alternative, identity-searching and DIY subculture that emerged in the 1990s — a pop subculture that remains largely intact today.
Though we like to believe we are on some brilliantly radical cutting edge today, much of our current cultural narrative is rooted in the cultural narrative of the 1990s.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the Tiananmen Square protests erupted in Beijing, events that launched the social, political, economic and cultural globalization we take for granted today.
The first public version of the Web launched in 1991, the beginning of the greatest transformation of information and knowledge since the invention of the printing press. And the Internet forever altered art-making, too. Suddenly, artists had art-making — and art-distributing — tools like never before.
Today’s self-absorbed YouTube confessional video style is foreshadowed in Alex Bag’s “Untitled (Fall ’95),” the artist’s wonderfully ironic pseudo-autobiography that presciently prefigures reality televison as well. And pre-Photoshop digital collages — displayed in the exhibit as inkjet prints of old screengrabs — look charmingly clumsy.
Racial, cultural and sexual identity shapeshifted, too, during the 1990s. And the Blanton makes several contributions to “Come As You Are” in this arena, with several pieces that were plucked from its permanent collection for inclusion in the exhibit.
Byron Kim’s “Synecdoche,” for example, is a grid of 20 painted panels, each a monochrome painting replicating the skin color of individuals Kim randomly encountered at the University of Texas during a 1998 visit. The majority of the panels in “Synecdoche” are beige.
In fact, the museum does an excellent job adding to the traveling exhibit, fleshing out key areas to provide a more robust understanding of the 1990s. In particular, the Austin iteration of the show begins with an entire room dedicated to art addressing the AIDS crisis, something the original version of the exhibit hopscotched around.
Thousands of individually wrapped candies in silver cellophane cover the gallery floor in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Placebo)” from 1991. Visitors may take a piece of candy — or not, either action a metaphor in its own way for the loss of life in the early years of HIV and AIDS when government was slow to make medications available to patients.
Nearby is “Riot,” a mural by artist collective Gran Fury, also a reaction to the nonreaction of health officials.
The Blanton likewise amped up “Come As You Are” with its screening of Matthew Barney’s seven-hour, five-film epic “The Cremaster Cycle,” arguably one of the signature works of American art to emerge from the 1990s.
If “Come As You Are” at first look doesn’t seem groundbreaking or fresh, it might be the myopia of the new millennium. We too easily like to think the digital world, the global geopolitics and marketplace, the fluid and evolving definitions of personal identity, are all manifestations of the 21st century.
They aren’t, though. The 1990s got us here first.
“Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s”
When: Through May 15
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Tickets: $5-$9 (Thursdays are free)
Information: 512-471-7324, blantonmuseum.org
“Art of the 1990s” mixtapes
What’s an exhibit celebrating the 1990s without a nod to the decade’s music, right?
The Blanton’s got that covered.
Visitors to “Come As You Are” can check out an actual Sony Walkman cassette player for free, select a mixtape of 1990s music and wander the exhibit.
The museum gathered its growing collection of mixtapes by soliciting artists, its staff, invited guests and the general public. And the eclectic lists go far beyond the stereotypical Seattle grunge rock — a signal of the depth and breadth of the decade’s musical output.
Cheryl Donegan, one of the most influential video artists to emerge in the 1990s — and whose work is featured in the exhibit — drafted up a mixtape with music by singer-songwriter Matthew Sweet, who emerged from the burgeoning Athens, Georgia, music scene; the raw-sounding band Lemonheads; and alt hip-hop group Arrested Development.
Blanton curator Jeongho Park put together the American songs he listened to as teenager growing up in South Korea in the 1990s. And museum director Simone Wicha, who was raised in Mexico City, assembled three playlists of Spanish-languge 1990s music she loved, including Colombian singer Shakira, merengue master Elvis Crespo, neo-folk pop stylists Jarabe de Palo from Spain and the late Tejano crossover star Selena.
And, yes, the museum wants your 90-minute mixtape, too. Presuming you can actually find a cassette tape, you can make a mixtape the old-fashioned way and bring it to the Blanton for free admission. Or you can put one together online with Spotify, Mixcloud, Soundcloud or Deezer, and the museum staff will transfer it to cassette.
Information and listenable mixtapes: blantonmixtapes.tumblr.com
Listen to pop culture writer Joe Gross’ 1990s playlist.
Matthew Barney’s “The Cremaster Cycle”
Perhaps no other work of art proved as epic, divisive and ultimately so completely 1990s as Matthew Barney’s five-film epic “The Cremaster Cycle.”
Seven hours long, the films — created between 1994 and 2002 — are simultaneously brilliant and beguiling, artistically self-indulgent and creatively vigorous. Barney created a bizarre brew of alt fantasy-horror movies and meditative art films, Busby Berkeley musical numbers and Wagnerian opera, slapstick routine and Freudian drama.
“Cremaster” stars Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini, sculptor Richard Serra as the biblical architect Hiram Abiff, Ursula Andress as the Queen of Chain and Barney himself in myriad roles, including murderer Gary Gilmore and a tap-dancing goat boy.
What’s it about? Everything and nothing, and also mostly about the protean nature of male identity. For all its extravagance and its artistic loopiness, each scene of “Cremaster” is nevertheless a brilliant visual composition saturated with potent artistic ambiguity.
Barney didn’t make his art-movie epic in numeric order, and it’s the 180-minute “Cremaster 3” — the last film produced — that is largely considered the standout. Barney’s own allegorical tale of the creation of New York’s Chrysler Building, “Cremaster 3” features a beguiling sequence of automotive choreography in which five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials circle and destroy a 1938 Chrysler Imperial New Yorker.
The Blanton is screening Barney’s “Cremaster” series in rolling repertoire all week beginning Tuesday. On Thursday, there is a free marathon of all five “Cremaster” films screened in numeric order from noon to 7 p.m.
All screenings start at noon Tuesday through Saturday and are held in the museum’s auditorium. The Blanton advises that the films contain mature images and are intended for adult audiences.
Admission is included with general museum admission ($5-$9). Thursdays, admission is free.