What is this thing called Melvins?
Every three to five years there seems to be one band that artists, intellectuals, and cultural critics gravitate toward as symptomatic of the moment and, on a higher level, as a symbiotically beneficial organism. A few years ago it was the expansive fucked-upness of the Butthole Surfers that entered/altered art-world consciousness; and now it's Melvins. Nearly ten years after escaping the redneck logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, and spawning the so-called Seattle sound of Mudhoney, Nirvana, et al.--the current "loser's revolution"--Melvins seem to have arrived, and right on time. The heaviest band in the world? The fathers of grunge rock? No, it's not enough to label Melvins, or to acknowledge their influence. Where Pearl Jam is simply a band, Melvins are more like natural phenomena with mass and volume, something tangible and awesome at the same time. If they're rock, they're the Grand Canyon seen from a black hole in deep space. They are the undisputed masters of the massive grinding stomp. It's with that sound--particularly in the songs they cover, most recently Kiss' "Going Blind" and the Germs' "Lexicon Devil" (they anticipated the current renewal of interest in both bands)--that Melvins have melded the polar ends of the '70s, cartoonlike hard rock and hardcore punk. As reigning heirs to The Glory That Is Rock, Melvins have created a kind of vast musical index, absorbing everyone from Alice Cooper to ZZ Top, from Black Sabbath to Black Flag, from Iron Maiden to the MC5, into their pores. What seeps out is totally Melvins; there is no mistaking their sound for anyone else's. Melvins carve out space with sound: when they perform, one almost sees an object take shape--a wall, or a giant block or cube. This can give way to a sense of place: a sheer cliff, or a deep cavern. And they do this with the most basic of formats, most of them contemporary, made from the original negatives under the supervision of Manuel J. Borja-Villel, director of the Fundacio Tapies and curator of the exhibition, and the watchful eye of Gilberte Brassai, the photographer's widow. Many of Brassai's works were originally produced primarily with book or magazine reproduction in mind, and some of these took on new life as full-size exhibition prints. The "Sculptures involontaires," ca. 1932, for example, glowed with Surreal intensity. Their new scale and heightened contrast amplified the disjuncture of isolating everyday objects (a rolled-up Metro ticket, a blob of toothpaste) in space, and they seemed more "sculptural" than on the pages of Minotaure, more "involuntary" when torn from the magazine's layout. Again, as reprinted for the retrospective, La toilette dans un hotel de passe. Rue Quincampoix. Paris, ca. 1932, unveiled a clear reflection of the photographer, trademark cigarette in hand, in the mirror at the image's upper left-hand corner. Reproducing this photograph in Le Paris secret, Brassai had neatly dodged himself out of it in the darkroom, presumably for fear of breaking the illusion of an intact underworld.
Hungarian by birth, Brassai caught something quintessential about '30s Paris. Looking at his depiction of a fringe bohemian culture, you wouldn't know that Europe was on the brink of war. Turning his back on the political tensions of the day, Brassai translated into imagery his friend Pierre Mac Orlan's notion of the "social fantastic," a vision of urban nightlife in which the music hall is "a direct extension of the street."
Fille de joie au billard russe.
Boulevard du Rochechouart, Montmarte. Paris, ca. 1932, confronts us with a round face, round eyes, round, bulbous breasts, round billiard balls on the table. The prostitute stands resolutely, blankly, before Brassai's unflinching eye. A man is reflected in profile in the mirror behind her; in a distortion of spatial relationships characteristic of mirrors when photographed, he seems to be eyeing her impatiently. The composition may refer to Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1881, another richly enigmatic image, and an icon of the fading era Brassai was intent on preserving.
With Un costume pour deux, bal du Magic-City, Paris, ca. 1931, Brassai provides a provocative glimpse of gay Paris: one suit, two men. One wears the jacket (and nothing else), the other wears the pants (and nothing else). Side by side, they look like a peculiar cabaret act. A split figure, they are a cadavre exquis brought to life.
Romantic stills clipped from the cinematic flow of city existence, these images call to mind the recent debate over Robert Doisneau's endlessly reproduced Kiss at the Hotel de Ville, 1950. Like Brassai, Doisneau caught charged moments of stereotypical Frenchness and, it turns out, frequently staged them. But Brassai offers an edgier, more threatening, and ultimately a sharper vision. Other images at the Fundacio Tapies--such as Troglodyte, ca. 1930, a cave interior with two ocular openings that places viewers in the skull of the eponymous creature; Ciel postiche (False sky, ca. 1932-34), a sly double image of a torso front and back; and the 12 exquisite cliche-verre prints of abstracted nudes--further inform our reading of Brassai's night photographs as carefully conceived and executed fictions. They reveal the experimental side of an artist full of invention, open to the vicissitudes of chance, a Surrealist despite himself.
Michael Sand is managing editor for Aperture magazine and Aperture books. He writes frequently on photography.