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."

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."

Things got slightly better for Suicide in the late '70s, when they played support on tours by the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Cars. Audiences still hurled abuse and dangerous objects, but the crowds were much bigger, and at least Vega and Rev were getting paid. Some say Suicide were the ultimate punks, because even the punks hated them. In another sense, they were the first postpunk band, jettisoning the sonic trappings of trad rock'n'roll and paving the way for guitar-free synthpop outfits like Soft Cell. But the '80s and most of the '90s were wilderness years for Vega. Splitting from Suicide, he scored a hit in France with the Elvis-flavored "Jukebox Baby" and signed with Elektra, but the anticipated solo stardom never quite happened. Right now, though, Suicide are enjoying one of their cyclical resurgences. They are cited as a source for the highly touted New York band A.R.E. Weapons. An old Suicide outtake from 1975 is appearing in a European commercial for Tia Maria. And Rev and Vega are currently finishing their first studio album in a decade, due for release this fall. Suicide will also perform free February 22 at Deitch's massive 18 Wooster Street space.

Vega's art career had pretty much fallen by the wayside, however, until Jeffrey Deitch remade their acquaintance. "I'd met him just the once, in 1975, at Max's Kansas City," recalls Vega. There was talk of a low-key exhibition at a new Deitch space in Williamsburg, but when that closed, the plan switched to the Grand Street gallery. For Vega, it's a bittersweet thing, having a show only a few blocks away from where the Mercer Art Center used to be. "For the longest while, when I had to pass through Soho, it used to make me cry," he says. "I had a whole life down here, 1970 to '76. We used to hang out on the stoop, jam all night—nobody cared about the noise. It's the same old story—artists move into an area, make it nice. Suddenly people start giving you looks like you don't belong there. You know it's time to move on."

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