Suicide Watch

Alan Vega, Multimedia Artist

Alan Suicide leans over and tweaks a detail in one of his light sculptures, almost imperceptibly shifting the jut of a plastic dinosaur. Strewn across the floor or dangling from the ceiling as often as they're hung on the walls, the glowing sculptures suggest ready-made shrines from some J.G. Ballard post-cataclysmic city of the near future—cargo cult-like accretions of 20th-century glitz and grunge. Densely tangled garlands of lightbulbs in all different colors and shapes, the pieces are festooned with pop jetsam: toy guns and monsters, porno cards, kitschy religious trinkets, and photos of movie stars snipped from glossy mags.

Although some of the work currently on display at Deitch Projects (76 Grand Street, through February 23) is recent, most of the pieces in "Collision Drive"—Suicide's first show in almost 20 years—are reconstructions from the 1970s. "I don't know, man, they looked more trashy when I first made them," frets the artist, who is better known as Alan Vega, frontman of New York's legendary electro-punk duo Suicide. "They looked dirty, like they'd been dragged in off the street. The quality of the light's changed somehow. They had this real New York aura, now they look almost West Coast. Or maybe it's the sockets I'm using—they used to come in this ugly brown, nowadays they make 'em white." Even Vega looks like a subtly cleaned-up version of his earlier self. Sporting sunglasses and a blue street-fighter beret complete with an original Black Panther pin, he could have stepped out of a Suicide photo shoot from 1975. Except he looks close-shaven and well-groomed where the younger Vega looked swarthy, seedy, a real street punk.

Patti Smith said, art plus electricity equals rock'n'roll. It's somehow appropriate that the singer of the electronic group that caused riots by jettisoning rock'n'roll's guitar/bass/drums in favor of synthesizer and drum machine should himself dispense with oil paint or clay and embrace the quintessential 20th-century materials: electric light and plastic. "Light's always been an obsession with me," he says. "As a kid I was into astronomy, always building telescopes. Later I did some work with my father, who was a diamond setter, and I loved the glinting light of the gems." Vega reckons the religiosity of the pieces, which suggests a trash counterpart to stained glass, comes from being raised half Catholic. All his pieces feature crosses, either as a dominant crucifix motif or as a small detail. "That's something I really got into the last time I had a show in New York, at Barbara Gladstone in 1983. And when the crosses got really recognizable, that's when I started to sell a lot of stuff."

Switched on: Vega lights up Deitch projects.
photo: Robin Holland
Switched on: Vega lights up Deitch projects.

Making a living has been a constant issue for Vega. "People always give advice to someone who talks about wanting to be an artist, they say, 'Go to college, get a real job, then you can support your art.' That's what I did—I got into music to support my art. Suicide is my regular job!" For most of the '70s, though, both careers were equally unprofitable. "We had no money, me and Marty [Rev, Suicide's synth player]. I used to eat one Blimpie tuna sandwich a day. People always complain about limitations, but that's bullshit—you can do anything you want, if you really want to. Suicide started out with, like, 10 bucks."

Having studied the odd but strangely appropriate combination of physics and fine art at Brooklyn College, by 1969 Vega was involved in the Art Workers Coalition, a socialist group that lobbied museums and once even barricaded MOMA. Out of the ferment of endless meetings emerged the Project of Living Artists, a workshop/performance space on Waverly and Broadway funded by the New York State Council of the Arts. At the Project, Vega worked on his art, experimented with electronic music, and even lived there for a while, illegally. The Project was also where Suicide formed, rehearsed, and played their first show.

The second gig took place at the Soho gallery OK Harris, where Vega also held his first show. "On the gig flyers, we announced it as a Punk Music Mass. We didn't invent the word—I probably got it from an article on the Stooges by Lester Bangs—but I think we were the first band to describe our music as punk." Other early Suicide performances took place at the Mercer Arts Center, an Off-Broadway theater that had started booking rock'n'roll bands like the New York Dolls. "Because of the Dolls, it became the place to party. Suddenly a whole scene started there."

Like the Dolls, Suicide were very much part of a post-Warhol, post-Velvets milieu. Both Vega's artwork and Suicide's songs have a pop art influence: the use of mass-cultural iconography. Suicide's name itself was inspired by "Satan Suicide," an issue of Vega's favorite comic book, Ghost Rider.

Suicide are now so firmly installed in the rock canon, it's hard to remember the scorn they once provoked. Prior to the release of their debut album in 1977, Suicide played barely half a dozen shows over as many years, and most of those performances resulted in riots owing to Vega's confrontational stage persona. "Back then, people went to shows to forget their everyday life for a few hours. With Suicide, they came off the street, and I gave them the street right back." Seeing Iggy Pop's auto-destructive theatrics at a Stooges show in 1970 was a revelation, Vega says. "It showed me you didn't have to do static artworks, you could create situations, do something environmental. That's what got me moving more intensely in the direction of doing music. Compared with Iggy, whatever I was doing as an artist felt insignificant."

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