Tom Sachs’ ‘Boombox Retrospective’ celebrates sight and sound


‘Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective, 1999-2015’

When: Through April 19

Where: Contemporary Austin (700 Congress Ave.) and Laguna Gloria (3809 W. 35th St.)

Cost: $3-$5 (Tuesdays free)

Information: 512-453-5312, www.thecontemporaryaustin.org

Also on view

“J. J. Peet: Brain to Heart to Object.”

When: Through April 19

Where: Gatehouse Gallery at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.

A master ceramicist, J.J. Peet served as a mentor to Tom Sachs, helping him craft fully operable boomboxes from porcelain. For a small solo exhibit in the Contemporary’s Gatehouse Gallery, Peet presents a collection of small-scale sculpture, hybrid porcelain objects that are imagined devices for seeing, much like cameras or viewfinders. Peet’s whimsical combination of found objects and a deliberately handmade aesthetic are more mischievous than they might seem at first glance.

Also on view

“J. J. Peet: Brain to Heart to Object.”

When: Through April 19

Where: Gatehouse Gallery at Laguna Gloria, 3809 W. 35th St.

A master ceramicist, J.J. Peet served as a mentor to Tom Sachs, helping him craft fully operable boomboxes from porcelain. For a small solo exhibit in the Contemporary’s Gatehouse Gallery, Peet presents a collection of small-scale sculpture, hybrid porcelain objects that are imagined devices for seeing, much like cameras or viewfinders. Peet’s whimsical combination of found objects and a deliberately handmade aesthetic are more mischievous than they might seem at first glance.

Tom Sachs is a showman.

A few hours before the opening party for his exhibit, at the Contemporary Austin, Sachs mounted a ladder and climbed to the awning that fronts the museum’s building on Congress Avenue and Seventh Street.

Then — attracting plenty of attention from passers-by on a busy Friday afternoon — the New York-based artist spray-painted the title of his exhibit on the museum’s facade: “Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective, 1999-2015.”

The following day, arriving to give a talk at the Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria site, where several of his large-scale sculpture have joined the Marcus Sculpture Garden, Sachs pulled into the verdant gardens driving a decommissioned 1980s police car and defiantly parked on the manicured lawn right in front of the elegant, historic 1916 Driscoll Villa.

Such opening weekend folderol may have passed. But the party that Sachs’ art celebrates starts the moment you step in to the Contemporary’s downtown Jones Center.

There, filling street-level picture windows, is a giant multi-speaker painted plywood boombox.

Standing 8 feet tall and stretching 12 feet long and dubbed “Toyan’s” (it’s named after a Jamaican reggae disc jockey), it’s the largest of Sachs’ 15 handmade sound systems on display.

Like the others, “Toyan’s” is fully functional, its white wood sides bearing the scuff marks of its well-traveled existence over the past decade since Sachs crafted it. (Most of the boomboxes were made for specific happenings and events.)

And yes, “Toyan’s” is a boombox that booms: The well-connected Sachs enlisted celebrity friends including Kanye West and Frank Ocean to create playlists, and the boomboxes on exhibit at the Contemporary are jointly connected to the same music feed.

Wherever you wander in “Boombox Retrospective,” a soundtrack follows you.

Sachs is an irrepressible tinkerer. And though he’s made claims he knows nothing about it, a pirate radio channel broadcasts the exhibit’s soundtrack.

It’s no mistake that the museum timed Sachs’ exhibit to dovetail with the biggest show on Austin’s fest-scape: South By Southwest. (Sachs will be back in town for yet-to-be-announced SXSW events at the museum.)

Electronics-store-geek tinkering is at the heart of Sachs’ boomboxes and much of the artistic output that makes up his two-decade, celebrated career.

Sachs refers to his creative strategy as bricolage — using whatever available quotidian materials are at hand. And he marshals outdated technological gadgets (cassette tapes, turntables, analog dials) to cobble together his charmingly dorky boomboxes with glue and solder and duct tape.

There’s nothing sloppy or haphazard in the manufacture of these idiosyncratic sound systems. They are meticulously crafted no matter how worn or outdated or modest the materials.

Two of the boomboxes on display were created just this past year in Austin, when Sachs spent a few weeks working in the ceramics studio at the Contemporary’s community art school. Fashioning workable structures out of porcelain proved challenging. Sachs built nearly a dozen, only two of which survived the high-temperature firing process.

Together, stretched out over two floors and augmented by a few other quirky pieces of equipment, including a mobile DJ turntable, Sachs’ orchestra of handmade boomboxes function as a valentine to 1980s urban music culture, a love letter to a very a specific kind of technology that shaped the way we listened to music.

Sachs takes his boombox geekiness to a unique level with his bodega installation — a version of the type of modest convenience stores that once dotted New York. At the Contemporary, Sachs’ bodega is wired with speakers like a boombox, but it is also staffed and fully stocked — and selling — an oddball selection of wares from wire and electrical supplies to popcorn and cat food.

For all Sachs’ geeky fanboy homage to the boombox, a few of his others works in the exhibit reveal the rather self-conscious impertinence and coy provocation that’s part of his artistic ethos.

Sachs fashioned a certain bad boy profile for himself early in his career with his irreverent co-opting of consumer culture icons. Among other ersatz products, he made a 21-foot-tall “Hello Kitty” bronze sculpture and crafted a Chanel chainsaw out of cardboard.

At the Contemporary’s Jones Center, there’s a couple of Sachs’ Miffy sculptures made of foamcore, riffs on the popular storybook character. At Laguna Gloria, there’s a bronze Miffy fountain, water spurting out of its eyes. It’s a little glib.

There’s more sincerity — and sheer fun — to the boomboxes. With them, Sachs puts on quite a show.



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