Guitars from Club Muse: Roger Sweet

When I'm working on exhibits, I try to pick subjects that appeal to both our public and to our Education department. After all, with the increasing emphasis on visitor experience in museum settings, it would be foolhardy to ignore the programming side of our mission. In the case of a show like Seeing Cats and Dogs, which was on view in Spring River Gallery earlier this year, I picked a theme to which many of our visitors can relate, in this case our society’s love of pets. For other shows, I consider the actual class schedule itself, and think about shows that can speak directly to our own programming. In the case of our latest exhibit, Guitars from Club Muse: Roger Sweet, I was able to accomplish both in one fell swoop. 

When it comes to musical instruments, the guitar is arguably one of the most cherished in our culture today, accompanying genres as diverse as folk music, stadium rock, and classical. Think about it, how many people have you seen playing guitar on the street corner or tackling open mic at the local coffee shop? Try to recall of all the songs you've heard that explicitly mention guitars in their lyrics: "Johnny B. Goode," "Jukebox Hero," "Ziggy Stardust," the list goes on. There's even an indie, post-apocalyptic, rockabilly movie called Six-String Samurai, with the main protagonist being a Buddy Holly type boasting formidable musical and martial-arts skills (seriously, I'm not making this up).  And don't try to pretend that you've never heard of Guitar Hero.

The guitar has also been engaging the visual arts for centuries. You'll find their ancestors in medieval religious paintings, for instance, played by angels serenading the Madonna and Child. You can also see them in seventeenth-century genre paintings, usually as music students pursue their lessons or lovers endeavor to woo their paramours. Most famously perhaps, they are regular players in the Cubist explorations of Pablo Picasso. In short, the guitar is no stranger to the visual arts.

Trinity Site
For artist Roger Sweet, however, the guitar not only inspires art, but becomes the art itself. Based in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, Sweet has spent over three decades creating sculptures out of guitars, resulting in a distinct body of work that uses this instrument’s enduring popularity to explore different ideas.

Sweet typically begins his process by sealing the sound hole shut and then drilling a smaller hole into the instrument capable of accommodating the spout of a can of expandable foam. He next fills the guitar’s hollow cavity with foam, turning the instrument into a solid object that can more readily be cut apart and shaped into new forms. Using paint, found objects, and other materials, Sweet then transforms his guitars into dancing figures, furniture, and other compositions.

Nude Descending a Staircase

The topics that Sweet addresses are as diverse as the guitar’s musical repertoire. Many of his pieces concern the history of art itself, placing his work in a dialogue with the vast legacy of human creative expression. Among the most direct examples is Nude Descending a Staircase, which pays homage to Marcel Duchamp’s seminal 1912 painting of the same name. Rather than show the nude in a static pose, Duchamp strove to depict motion itself by painting several consecutive moments flowing together in a continuous movement. Similarly, Sweet’s Nude Descending a Staircase suggests motion through its very structure, with its reassembled parts flowing downward in a series of angles and lines. The sculpture both commemorates its artistic precedent and creates a new one, with each part acknowledging the guitar’s original form and its subsequent transformation.

It's All Rock and Roll
Other works explore more overtly political or historical issues and events. Among the most prevalent social concerns in Sweet’s oeuvre are the anxieties surrounding the Cold War, which are explored in It’s All Rock and Roll. Initially, this chair appears to celebrate mid-twentieth-century aesthetics, with its title and incorporation of the guitar honoring the energetic musical genre associated with this era. The work also features period linoleum stamped with swirling patterns suggestive of abstracted galaxies and nebulae, evoking the futuristic optimism frequently associated with midcentury modern design. Yet beneath the seat cushion on this work, Sweet has surreptitiously included the front page of a newspaper found in the same house where the linoleum was actually recovered. Dating from 1945, the paper features an article describing the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Sweet’s work cleverly encapsulates Cold War contradictions, visually conveying the dual potential for total annihilation and technological advancement represented by the development of atomic power.

Compelling as these works may be individually, however, together Sweet’s guitars also form a narrative chronicling this artist’s life journey. Each piece addresses a different historical, artistic, or personal subject, forming chapters within a larger narrative that chronicles Sweet’s ongoing efforts to reconcile humanity’s complex and often violent history with its positive creativity. 

It is only appropriate, then, that the culminating chapter in this visual narrative is The Three Muses, completed in 2014. Sculpturally, it is the most complex work, with its three dancing figures, but more than a display of technical prowess, it is a paean to creativity. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Muses were goddesses representing literature, science, and the arts, and throughout the history of Western art, these female figures recur as visual metaphors for inspiration. Simultaneously referencing visual art, music, and dance, The Three Muses embodies the arts as the crux of cultural vitality, and celebrates what all of these sculptures represent: the guitar as a vehicle for creativity.