New York

Banks Violette

In a single, melancholic afternoon, I recently saw Gus Van Sant’s latest film Last Days, and the Robert Smithson and Banks Violette exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though unplanned, the itinerary made sense: Each presentation was haunted by the theme of early death, a fate that has long been a trigger for cultish devotion. As Shelley wrote after Keats died at twenty-five: “He is secure, and now can never mourn / A heart grown cold, a head grown grey in vain.” Or, in the words of Neil Young, quoted memorably by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”

Burning out, in grand, theatrical fashion, is (both literally and figuratively) the overarching subject of Violette’s first and much-anticipated commission from a museum. Sparkling like moonlit snow, the fragmented skeleton of a torched gothic church cast in salt stands on a glossy black, knee-high platform, almost filling a black-painted room. Untitled, 2005, is, according to the lengthy wall text, underpinned by a range of art-historical allusions including Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic sublime and Smithson’s stoner musings on crystals and entropy. (Perhaps surprisingly, Sol LeWitt’s “Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes” (1974), also comes to mind—each rough-looking white beam was cast from a single original mold, evoking LeWitt’s interest in seriality.) Despite the broad selection of aesthetic references, the installation’s true north seems to be its commentary on black metal, a neogothic subgenre of heavy metal that has flourished in Norway.

Characterized by its theatrical morbidity, the sensibility of black metal mirrors Violette’s own grim preoccupations. A crucial component of the work is its sound track, which was commissioned from Snorre Ruch, a black metal pioneer who served time for his part in the “ritual” murder of a musician in a rival band in 1995. More Steve Reich than Mayhem, it is an ambient drone constructed from sampled sounds ranging from grinding feedback to a pleasant jingling that evokes buoys bobbing on water. The anarchic, criminal side of black metal is emphasized not only by Ruch’s contribution but also by the work’s allusion to a series of church burnings in Norway pinned on overzealous fans. Given these parameters, it is easy to imagine the sculpture ending up on an album cover, and it’s worth noting that, according to curator Shamim M. Momin’s catalogue essay, the inspiration for the whole work was a “passage of distortion between two anthemic tracks on the Slayer album South of Heaven [1983].”

Alongside contemporaries such as David Altmejd and Sue de Beer, Violette has built a reputation on working with subjects and styles derived from pop culture’s aestheticization of death. While easily dismissed as adolescent or superficial, the sources they mine have nonetheless been a factor in real crimes of violence and destruction. That these acts are habitually filed under “inexplicable behavior of young white males” does not make the territory from which they spring any less rich, as Van Sant and others have demonstrated. But Violette exploits the tendency purely for its doomy glamour, conjuring visually seductive tableaux that leave the psychological implications of their inspiration frustratingly unexplored. And while a certain clinical remoteness is clearly inherent to his project, the layering of backstory and quotation feels more cluttered than clever.

Claire Barliant