Under Review: The Art of the Guitar

beth.kramer and beth.kramer

Fans roar when Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde plays the opening chords to “Crazy Train.” Typically, Wylde’s guitar is just an instrument he uses to entertain. Now, fans can quietly examine the Wylde guitar from every angle as it stands silent in a museum exhibit, letting its visual beauty make all the noise.

“The Art of the Guitar” exhibit at the DeVos Art Museum on NMU’s campus displays guitars as works of art. The Gibson history guitar, for example, has dozens of hand painted images covering its entire surface area. The Simpsons peer out in vivid yellow next to Mount Rushmore, while Godzilla scales the Empire State Building. This piece is a colorful mural painted on a guitar to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Gibson. The sheer artistry that went into creating and detailing each piece is almost enough to overpower the exhibit’s weak presentation.

“This is more of a fine art approach to the guitar. There’s a kind of a movement that’s going back to appreciating these instruments as high quality, hand-crafted instruments,” said DeVos Art Museum Director Melissa Matuscak. “Now you can get a cheap guitar at any music store — there’s a huge business of mass production of guitars and this show is really looking at the real fine craftsmanship that goes into making these guitars.”

One mandolin and 23 guitars from all over the United States fill the exhibition room. Tribute guitars immortalizing guitar greats like Elvis Presley and B.B. King exemplify the artistry in decorating guitars. Portraits of each guitarist designate the pieces as tributes. The Elvis guitar is studded in rhinestones and covered with the letters TCB as homage to his personal slogan “taking care of business.” His entire guitar is shiny, glittery and almost over the top, just like The King was.

The exhibit holds 10 electric guitars, including one played by Wylde, featuring browns, greens and tans mottle together in camouflage. Displayed a few guitars down stands a jet black double neck guitar made of flamed redwood. Across the room, an ebony white electric guitar with gold hardware stands next to a deep blue electric guitar.

At a glance, the acoustics appear plain but closer inspection reveals unique shapes worked into their design. Even the backs are worth examining, as many contain further paintings or highlight beautiful wood.

The collection assembled represents a variety, not only in appearance and style, but also of makers. Independent luthiers, or guitar makers, are featured alongside guitar giants like Gibson and the Santa Cruz Guitar Company.

The owner of the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, Richard Hoover, loaned the company’s Nouveau guitar to the exhibit. Earlier this year, it debuted as the company’s 10,000th guitar. This instrument is special for a few reasons, Hoover said. The image on the front is a detailed image depicting a nature scene: a tree elegantly towers above a pond while a woman in yellow stands amidst floating water lilies. The flower inlays covering the guitar’s neck are made of the ivory of a Siberian mastadon. Four artisans spent two years creating the Nouveau.

“The contributions are done by artists and we use the guitar as a medium to display that.it really is a piece of art and a really nice sounding guitar,” Hoover said.

There’s no doubting the stun-factor that each instrument brings to the exhibit. However, the huge space and white walls swallow up the pieces, making them appear small and insignificant upon entering the museum. While the spacing (a few feet apart) is good, the arrangement is only fair. The Elvis guitar is prominently placed towards the front and most of the tribute guitars are pulled into center displays, but not all the tributaries are grouped together. Yet the acoustics line the same wall and the unique pieces — the mandolin and the double header guitar — are planted roughly opposite each other.

The arrangement is not the only weakness in the exhibit’s presentation. White placards provide detailed information about each piece, but they are hung up on a white wall. They are hard to see and easy to miss. And with an exhibit all about the guitar, a museum attendee should hear something other than the sound of their own footsteps and breathing. Mood music would go a long way to help fill the display room. As it is, the white walls and high ceilings with smaller pieces on display aren’t exactly inviting.

Even so, Andrew Ealey, a senior photography major, found his way in. He said while he found the layout easy to follow, he had difficulty getting a close look at several pieces. The backs were poorly illuminated and could have used backlighting, he said. Despite the viewing problems, he said he loved the exhibit and recommends it to others

“I would say as quality of work goes, this is probably the exhibit to me that exudes perfection and from what I’ve witnessed from the past couple of years, it sets a standard for sure,” Ealey said.

Art professors Rob LaLonde and Dennis Staffne pitched the exhibit idea to former museum director Wayne Francis several months ago. When he gave permission to proceed, they spent eight months serving as the exhibit curators.

LaLonde said he drew inspiration for the exhibit after visiting a luthier friend in Rhode Island who happened to have a guitar on display at a local museum.

“I think it will probably be our highest visited show. It’s a testament to the instrument itself as an icon of America and how people identify with it on different levels.” LaLonde said.

The exhibit runs through Sunday, Oct. 14. Professional guitarist and instructor Steven Jones is giving a presentation about the history of guitars and the global development of guitar music at 4 p.m. tomorrow in DeVos. Both the presentation and reception have free admission.