Art show gets dirty

By Paul Durdan

DeKALB | A piece of coral stands illuminated in heavenly white light next to an album display case with KCRW’s Rare on Air 2. On the cover are several glass test tubes filled with seahorses: one of many haunting images designed by Vaughan Oliver and his studio v23. The stark contrast of the dark artwork with the bleached white coral is just one of the eye-catching pieces of “Dirt and Glitter,” an exhibit featuring Oliver’s work.

Over the next three weeks, DeKalb residents have an opportunity to see Oliver’s album artwork for bands like Pixies, This Mortal Coil and Lush accentuated with not only coral, but colorful light displays, taxidermic birds and toy dinosaurs by visiting the NIU Art Museum in Altgeld Hall.

Peter Olson, assistant director of the NIU Art Museum, who is responsible for installing the exhibit, said he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to try something different.

“I wanted to go beyond my usual strategy for museum presentation, where I strive to provide a neutral environment for the artwork,” Olson said.

Olson said he saw the peculiarity of Oliver and v23’s work and gave it a unique environment that creates, in some pieces, a mystical aura, in others, a simple display that will drag your attention to the finer details of the artwork, and in others still, a haunting presence.

Olson said that a particularly striking example is found in the album cover for the first Pixies single, Gigantic, which features a manipulated photograph of a baby.

“It looks very nightmarish, although the reality of the photo shoot was this cuddly little pink fellow, like all babies,” Olson said. “The artistic manipulation after the fact is what lends this image a veil of darkness. To me, the designs are bold enough to exist in this environment without being overwhelmed by it.”

Olson has his own personal favorite piece in the gallery: a seven-inch single by the now-defunct alt-rock band Belly for their song “Now They’ll Sleep.”

“The sleeve overlays a slightly blurry, color-saturated image of a flower with a filigree of interlocking playing card symbols,” Olson said. “I see an image of intense but fleeting beauty blocked by a foil of human-imposed elements of chance and luck.”

Dirt and Glitter provides a unique experience of Oliver’s work, but it is Olson’s choice of display that, in some pieces, steals the thunder from the very subject it chooses to homage. Oliver and v23’s artwork posess “a style that is very provocative and inspirational…very seductive,” Olson said.

But in truth these same qualities are found in the presentation itself. For that reason, this is one exhibit that should not be missed.