Banks Violette: Black Metal Dreams

Text by Franklin Melendez

Like the rumblings of black metal, the work of Banks Violette resonates with the darker dreams of rock and roll. His sculptures of musical paraphernalia – drum sets, speakers, scaffolding – reverberate like a wall of sound: austere, impassive, nearly abstract. Yet a dark romanticism runs throughout; almost subsonic, it emerges in intricate graphite drawings of assorted rock imagery. Ranging from band logos to portraits, these pieces evoke not only the nihilism of black metal, but the blind devotion of fans who lovingly appropriate its icons as so many insignias of allegiance. This tenuous and oftentimes volatile relationship has preoccupied the Brooklyn-based Columbia graduate since his much-lauded splash into the art scene. Violette – like many of his contemporaries (Sue de Beer, Hanna Liden) – continues art’s obsession with the listless angst of adolescent subcultures, the mannered idioms and careful markers that define these private, often inscrutable worlds. But Violette plumbs more sinister registers: disenchantment, aggression, violence – undercurrents that oftentimes move beyond representation to make very real marks in the world.

Case in point: his 2002 exhibition for New York’s Team Gallery entitled “Arroyo Grande, 7.22.95” was based on the murder of a young female student by three teenage boys who sought to seal the notoriety of their metal band Hatred. The show traces the various, disparate strands of the gruesome event, presenting renderings of death metal iconography (often cited during the trial), pencil drawings of the crime scene, and details of the girl’s own dream world (unicorns, rainbows, etc.) which contrast starkly with the boys’ own mixture of aggression and burgeoning sexuality. The centerpiece – a large-scale oil painting named after the three culprits – incorporates the Slayer logo into a heraldic crest of sorts that confronts the viewer in mute impassivity. Not quite a memorial, the deliberately scattered installation prompts an intimate engagement with these remnants, but hesitates to attribute blame. Faced with partial links and an unclear causality, we are left only with signs that are both over-leaden and insufficient: is it the result of Slayer lyrics, troubled lives, or some unfortunate combination? Or perhaps more frightening, is it something in excess of these singular possibilities, but still somehow embedded in them? In the end, we can only revisit quasi-causes that never add up to that central act.

But therein lies Violette’s fascination, in the power of images to exceed themselves, “to be activated by their audience in a manner that precludes distance; fiction can somehow be rendered real.” Something of this structures his contribution to the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where Violette was received as an up-and-coming art star. The installation presents familiar markers of rock and roll: a destroyed drum set, a glossy black stage, sketches of galloping horses and Kurt Cobain. Rendered obscure in their glossy stands or in the X-ray­–like drawings, these icons aren’t monuments for those who “live fast and die young”; they are an attempt to unravel their mystery and an acknowledgement of their opacity. For ultimately, this work reveals neither an infatuation with rock culture, nor a critique of misguided youth, but a meditation on our investment in social signs. Violette has been criticized for being all surface, but perhaps that’s precisely the point: to explore the uncanny ability of surface details to move us. Here, Violette converges with the work of his most immediate predecessor Robert Longo, who explored similar terrain in the ’80s. In this context, trivial objects (drums, speakers, logos, etc.) take on a larger import, connecting to complex social dynamics.

This is perhaps most evident in his 2005 solo debut at the Whitney Museum. The commissioned piece involves the skeletal remains of a burnt-out church made of luminous cast salt and set on a stage of his now-signature glossy, black epoxy. In a darkened room, the whole structure rings to a droning soundtrack by Snorre Ruch, a Norwegian musician sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in a murder. The multimedia piece is an arresting visual and aural experience that immediately evokes the ghostly landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. But an extensive wall notice sobers up this impression, informing the reader that the piece is based on an album cover and on several church burnings in Norway linked to its militant death metal scene. In light of these cold facts, the spectral apparition flutters, and its delicate tendrils crystallize into weighty traces of history, violence and fear. In its austere beauty, this piece broadens the scope of the work, expanding his practice beyond marginalized, hermetic subcultures. For, as a few drawings of the American flag suggest, Violette inadvertently speaks to a broader social field, to the many icons and signs that inexplicably move us in ardent fervor.


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