Los Angeles

Stephen Vitiello


An acoustic aviary of electronic squawks, chirps, and beating wings. A choir of insects signaling polyphonically in the dark. The clicking of frogs. Suction slaps. Aerosol sprays. Sustained static drones periodically spliced by jarring pops. These sounds circulated in and among the three collaborative works in Stephen Vitiello’s exhibition “Duets.” Charged with the conversational dynamics of exchange, each “duet” pairs Vitiello’s multichannel sonic creations with a visual artist’s work. Crazy Wall Thing, 2005, for example, is a playful, if expendable, collaboration with Tony Oursler in which twenty-five circular speakers, measuring three inches across and customized with finger-painted faces, peppered a small portion of one wall. Each speaker has wires dropping down—like string from a balloon—many of them connected to audio equipment playing a continuous loop of whizzing tones, gentle feedback, and rippling chords produced on an analog synthesizer and sweetened with choral samples.

Four Color Sound, 2008, a son et lumière collaboration with lighting designer Jeremy Choate, is an enveloping environment inviting phenomenological reflection. A slow-drift haze fills the room, slightly thickening the air into an atmospheric approximation of glaucoma’s granular blurriness. Diffused in the gaseous matter, ten LED light boxes lining the floor’s perimeter emit broad glows and depthless halos of colored light in four six-minute cycles: leaf green followed by piercing violet blue, blood red, and butter yellow. Fluctuating in brightness and programmed in cycles of flickering and sustained illumination, the light passes through each color, transitioning in gradient hues.

A twenty-four-minute looping sound track of synthesized digital tones and field recordings immerses the viewer in an electronic jungle landscape that only gradually takes shape. Vitiello fluently moves in and out of referential and abstract sound. He maneuvers sonic figuration—evoking specific real-world images such as falling rain or buzzing insects—into thrilling proximity with abstract tonality, activating instinctive emotive responses and a sense of stereo depth in surround sound.

Saving the best for last, the show offered the greatest rewards in the back gallery, in Untitled #2, 2007, a collaboration with Julie Mehretu. Here, Vitiello takes his experiments with the auditory beyond meditative ambience and trippy disorientation, locating a disarming and revelatory potency at the mute intersection of sound and vision. Mehretu contributes a mural-size painting made up of frenzied balletic strokes in inky blacks. Virtuosic arabesques and short hatch marks build up to a cyclonic whirlwind, a storm-swept landscape appearing ethereal as surging gusts of wind and craggy as a cavernous mountain ravine. Out of six speakers at ceiling height come digitized and real-world sounds that together form a hushed sound track similar in tone and feel to that of Four Color Sound and suggestive of the painting’s tempestuous imagery.

As though extruding one of Mehretu’s particularly lyrical and gestural lines into three dimensions, Vitiello suspends twelve black conical speakers in an arc running the length of the gallery; facing various directions, the speakers emit an inaudibly low frequency. The elastic membranes of their concave faces pulse silently in hypnotic unison, transitioning from slow, soft bulging to quick, shallow popping in and out, like the rhythmic contractions of a diaphragm. In their muteness, the speakers’ uncanny pulsations achieve something powerfully unsettling and disquieting. Full of voiceless desire, these are animated machines in an erogenous bodily sense, inexplicably obscene. They quiver and throb and gape like open mouths or other dark corporeal cavities; they breathe and convulse, without sonic justification. Their viscerally embodied soundlessness stands in relief against (and could do without) both the painting and the disembodied sounds piped in from above. In this show about sound, the power of these speakers lies in their silence.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer