Magical Wax: The Playable Art of Wax Mage Records
“I do everything with the same conviction, whether I’m taking photographs or performing or painting or writing. I’m the same person.” – Patti Smith
I doubt it’s very surprising that a musical artist would dabble in other art forms. The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was also a well-known painter who showed his work alongside Franz Marc, Wassily Kandinsky, and other members of the expressionist Blue Rider Group. More recent examples of musician/artists include Patti Smith, Miles Davis, John Mellencamp, David Bowie, Kim Gordon, Bob Dylan, David Byrne, etc.. This summer at the Transformer Station, you can see the work of several musicians who are also contemporary photographers, perhaps the most musically famous of which are Melissa Auf der Maur from the bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, and Nick Zinner, the guitarist of the band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Other photographer-musicians include New York-based Tim Davis, whose solo show Transit Byzantium was at Transformer Station in 2014, and who released an album of songs and videos called It’s OK to Hate Yourself; Brooklyn (NY)-based Joseph Desler Costa, whose solo show Particle Paradise was at Foley Gallery in New York this year, and who is a principal songwriter for the Chicago-based indie band L’Altra; Jacob Koestler, an adjunct instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and co-founder of the prolific artist collective My Idea of Fun, whose photography has appeared at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, the Corcoran Gallery (Washington, DC) and locally in a solo show at Forum ArtSpace, and who creates music and video performances under the name Rural Carrier; and Darin Mickey, whose side hustle is being an electric guitarist (in the New York band Soft Gang), and whose photo book Death Takes a Holiday documents independent record stores of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In addition to photographs, Them! Photographers / Musicians will include music, videos, and ephemera made by the artists, as well as a selection of hand-poured, hand-pressed vinyl records made right here in Cleveland at Gotta Groove Records.
The records in question are one-of-a-kind, playable works of art, the creation of musician/artists Heath Gmucs and Sarah Barker, who go by the moniker “Wax Mage Records.” Their story begins in 2009, when Vince Slusarz and Dan Greathouse opened Gotta Groove Records in the Tyler Elevator Factory in midtown–one of the first new pressing plants to open in the U.S. in decades. Riding the wave of a huge resurgence in vinyl, this nationally-known outfit caters to legions of famous artists who want to make the highest quality vinyl record possible from both a sonic and aesthetic perspective. This personal-touch approach naturally led to customization of the vinyl itself, starting with simple splatters and color blocks, but these days the Wax Mage team can do so much more. Each of their incredibly complex, stunning designs is unique, as each individual disc is hand-poured with great skill and care.
Heath Gmucs was a member of the Cleveland art-punk band Hot Cha Cha, and currently plays in local group Goldmines (you can see them live at “Roar on the Shore” in August, an annual floating party on the Goodtime III). A skilled bass player, Gmucs explains that being a musician definitely influences what they create: “It’s really important for me to listen to the music before I make the records. I’m trying to express the feeling and emotion I experience through the band’s music and also compliment the other artists involved in the record making process. It’s not just the band, there’s an engineer to record and mix, a person to master the music for vinyl, a person to cut the lacquers, a person to plate the stampers, another artist to create the jacket and label art and then there’s Sarah and I, taking all of this input from so many different skilled tradesmen and artists into consideration.” The end goal is to be visually stimulated by the entire experience of handling as well as listening to these records.
A good example is the vinyl they created for local hardcore/metal/punk band “All Dinosaurs” which features a sleeve by Cleveland artists John G. and Jake Kelly. The dystopian, crumbling landscape on the cover calls to mind the band’s loud, abrasive, driving sound. Their energy carries over to the recording thanks to the talents of the engineer etc., which then is interpreted by the Wax Mage team in the final record design: bright colors trickle and smear like sanguine waves crashing across the clear surface, and this chaotic undulating effect increases when the record begins to spin on the turntable. It is a complete package, and this collaboration of artists from the band to the one-of-a-kind vinyl makes the experience of listening extremely fulfilling.
To accomplish their designs, Gmucs and Barker rely heavily on their musical knowledge and technical skill, but there is still a bit of mystery involved in creating each record. As Barker explains, “even when I have a pretty good idea of how the materials will react together, I’m still excited by what comes off the press. That element of the unknown and anticipation makes trying new materials and techniques very fun, and an inspiration by itself.” The element of chance has traditionally played a role in the creation of art from the Dada artists to Jackson Pollock, but in this case they are working within a highly controlled, mechanized system.
Gmucs explains, “The press does the same thing every time it presses a record. It takes a 260 degree, 4″ diameter, 170 gram PVC puck and smashes it at 1500 PSI. It transforms the vinyl from a puck into a 12″ playable record in less than 40 seconds. The only thing I have control over is heating and cooling, and how I’m manipulating colors and parts on the plates. I can usually say ‘Yes that will work’ or ‘No, there’s no way in hell that’s gonna work’. Chance is how I taught myself how to do this. I’ll try anything. I pressed a hunk of spam once.” Experimentation also plays a key role in their process – from including fishnet tights, processed meat, even a tarantula inside the vinyl, Gmucs and Barker are always willing to try something new.
You can see these treasures firsthand at the Transformer Station along with a few unexpected vinyl “sculptures”, and according to curator Laura Bidwell, visitors will be invited to touch and actually handle the records. “I see the Transformer Station as a place where people come and really spend some time.” This will be encouraged by having sofas in the gallery, headphones, and public playlists so visitors can not only listen to music, but stick around for awhile. Who knows, you may see a famous musician lounging around if you’re lucky.
May 19 – August 13, 2017 at the Transformer Station
Opening Reception: May 19
Members Preview: 5 – 7 pm, Public Opening: 7 – 9 pm
Music by FreshProduce: DJ Red-I and Playne Jayne