The title of Charles Stankievech’s sparse solo exhibition “Horror Vacui” refers to the fear of empty spaces associated with Outsider art and psychedelic imagery. For an audio-based show, it is remarkably, even ominously, quiet and near-void.
The artwork’s looped and deteriorating musical fragments—emitted from headphones attached to an iPod near the gallery entrance—sound hazily familiar. Nearby, antique bell jars sit on tastefully appointed shelves outfitted with grey-felted wool squares mounted on plywood. Next to these, felt record sleeves serve as backdrops for 12-inch vinyls that contain recordings of the pieces playing on the iPod. These single-edition records, one of those contradictory species of multiples that are also unique objects, are cut on transparent vinyl that glitters delicately. The bell jars are key tools in the creation of the exhibition’s soundtrack and are displayed as evidence of Stankievech’s process, giving the viewer an intriguing puzzle to work out: what is the methodology of the work?
To create his soundtracks, the artist placed a microphone inside each glass cloche, then recorded the reverberating sound of passages of pop songs played outside: The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” and the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours.” This recording was then played back and re-recorded from within the cloche until the audio decayed to a point where its source can hardly be recognized.
In the gallery, David Bowie chants “Don’t you wonder sometimes ’bout sound and vision,” Brian Wilson plods out “Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her” and Moe Tucker sings “If you close the door, the night could last forever. Keep the sunshine out and say hello to never.” Before long, “Good Vibrations” becomes a jangly cloud, “Sound and Vision” a tinny abstract anthem. Eventually all conclude as piercing shrieks, not unlike a looped, amplified and tweaked sample of breaking glass. Hence the headphones.
The cleverly selected songs describe an attitude toward ontology and lay out cues for Stankievech’s methodology. Bowie’s lyric provides the provocation for Stankievech’s inquiry, Wilson’s aspiration is a perfect mantra for “Horror Vacui”’s re-recordings of sound waves and the Velvets’ nocturnal isolation chamber is a hypothesis for the show’s results—an echoing, pretty terrifying void. The playlist reflects the values of another era: the Beach Boys’ brand of bushy-tailed idealism and strident purity, for example, would be hard pressed to retain its integrity today. Stankievech mines a glimmering historical moment balanced between Wilson’s hopeless optimism and Lou Reed’s faith in the liberation of substance use.
Stankievech’s tidy and sparing exploration of repetition and decay seems a respectful—but not reverential—response to his mentor, the composer Alvin Lucier. Felted grey wool is historically loaded thanks to the shadow of Joseph Beuys, but it works here as not just a formal conceit, but a functional element in the execution of the work’s soundtrack. The show could have been a mordant one-liner, but it’s in fact a mercurial and subtle confrontation of the void.