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Criticism

From "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop": The Rolling Stones "Exhibitionism" Review

A. D. Coleman

"Exhibitionism -- The Rolling Stones," the internationally touring show of Stones memorabilia, has just opened the U.S. leg of its itinerary in New York City. "Delivered by DHL," staged at what the press release refers to as "the iconic Industria in the West Village," with "the U.S. dates proudly sponsored by Jackson" (Jackson National Life Insurance, a leading provider of retirement products), this extravaganza represents yet another item in the Stones' extensive product line. Moreover, it is in itself both a product -- with tickets priced at $37 -- and a marketing mechanism, accompanied as it is by a store selling Stones merchandise at a wide range of price points. Thus it charts the Stones' trajectory from "Exile on Main Street" to "Exit Through Gift Shop."

The promo describes the show as an "interactive & immersive music exhibition." That's not the impression it made on me. This show has very little to say about the music and music-making of the Rolling Stones: their songwriting, vocal and instrumental techniques, differences between live and studio performance, the evolution of their music over time. In a brief video near the outset, the present-day Stones pay tribute to the black music they appropriated for their early success, and honor some of the musicians who made it. There's a gallery full of guitars and amps, and a recreation of one of their early recording studios, both of which I think will interest no one save musicians. The simulation of a scruffy, nondescript "green room" has a certain poignancy, until one remembers that the Stones have enjoyed much more lavish backstage digs for most of the past half-century. There are handwritten set lists by Keith Richards and Ron Wood, fanzines and fan mail, the sleeves of 45s, a miniature drum kit in a suitcase that Charlie Watts used for hotel-room rehearsals, and more. But none of it illuminates in any way the creative process from which the music emerges.

On the other hand, the show excels at tracing the band's move from club rock to stadium rock, and the corollary transition from pure music-making to image-making to spectacle. Indeed, there's a case to be made -- implicit in the evidence this show provides -- that the Stones' genius for the spectacular, and not their ability to produce new and urgent music, has kept alive and thriving a group that otherwise relies for its drawing power on its repertoire of golden oldies.

Granted, it's a spectacle (and an image) that has music at its center, as one wall label insists. But the show quickly dispenses with its musical component in order to concentrate on the trappings that have come to surround it: the creation of the Stones' instantly iconic logo (those fleshy lips and broad tongue), the images of the Stones themselves as constructed through photographs for album covers and tour posters (overseen mostly by Jagger and Watts), the garb they wore in live performance and videos (dozens of costumes on mannikins), the various films about them (excerpted in a separate screening room, with narration by Martin Scorsese, who made one of those films himself), and the ever more elaborate structures and accoutrements they subsidized for their indoor and outdoor stage sets.

And this is where the show becomes of particular interest to those of us concerned in one way or another with photography. By 1960, photographers had been making pictures of musicians of all stripes for well over a century, first portraits and staged moments where they pretended to play, then in actual performance. And the music industry had used those images in various ways to promote the musicians and the music. Yet, with the notable exception of some images of jazz musicians in clubs and recording studios, these images themselves did not become grafted onto their audiences' perceptions of these artists.

That changed, starting in the early 1960s, and the musicians most responsible for that shift -- the ones who assertively involved themselves in the construction of their visual identities -- were the young Turks of rock & roll. And none of those performers could have done it without the willing cooperation (and often the prodding) of a cohort of photographers, many of them also young, eager to push the envelope with unusual images -- not to mention a generation or two of consumers prepared to accept such imagery as consistent with, and a visual extension of, the music they loved.

The Stones weren't alone in this, of course, but they were in the vanguard. The care that the Stones have taken from their beginning till now in crafting their individual and collective images becomes immediately evident in the costume galleries -- where we see them quickly abandon the matching hound's-tooth jackets in which manager Andrew Loog Oldham outfitted them in favor of silk scarves, gold lamé jackets, edwardian tunics, and other colorful, flamboyant, idiosyncratic options. We see this also in the section devoted to album covers. Perhaps more than any other musicians of that era, the Stones not only constructed their own unique fashion "looks" (with Mick's gender-fluid wardrobe and persona surely the edgiest and most influential) but collaborated actively from the outset with photographers, cinematographers, and eventually videographers to embed their bad-boy personae in the public consciousness. Toward that end, they worked with picture-makers as diverse as Cecil Beaton, David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol (who designed the notorious zipper cover for Sticky Fingers) and photographer-filmmaker Robert Frank, whose gritty feature-length film Cocksucker Blues they would end up censoring.

More than any band before them, and arguably better than any band since, the Stones understood and profited from carefully calculated strategies of branding. Surely it's no accident that Jagger studied business as an undergraduate at the London School of Economics, and, though he never got his degree, became one of its most successful alumni, having managed the Stones himself since 1971. In that regard, the show has much to teach contemporary artists in any medium, along with professionals and aspirants in arts management, product design, marketing, rights licensing, and related fields. I see those as making up the show's true constituency; were I overseeing this project, I'd concentrate some of my outreach there.

There are countless collections of rock photographs, of course, anthologies and monographs by individual photographers. But this project serves as an object lesson in how one enormously successful group of performing artists structured their visual self-presentation to the public over the course of half a century. Surely there's something here for photographers to learn from.

The show will run Nov. 12 - Mar. 12 at Industria, 775 Washington St. You can reserve tickets online at the "Exhibitionism" website, www.stonesexhibitionism.com. If you can't get to the show, there's a comprehensive catalog.

All text and photos © Copyright 2016 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.