- "The Burn" (detail), by Michael Dee, still frame from the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night.
On the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, Ringo Starr sang about how he got by with a little help from his friends. That was 1967, and the news must have seemed like the understatement of the century: Ringo was perceived by many as the less talented band member who sweated profusely in the back while John, Paul, and George did the heavy musical lifting.
According to Michael Dee, a 26-year-old artist currently finishing up a master of fine arts in sculpture at Kent State, this perception might not be so wise after all. In his current exhibit, called Acquiesce, at the Brett Mitchell Shaheen Gallery, he focuses on the Fab Four drummer (to the exclusion of the rest of the group) and thus creates Ringo anew. This kind of spotlighting qualifies as image rehabilitation. Be careful, though, because these efforts on Ringo's behalf have a disturbing undercurrent. That's because the makeover Dee performs on Ringo reminds us just how malleable any celebrity's image can be, once it's been subjected to skillful manipulation. Madison Avenue types have advised presidential candidates and coached them on what to project. Dee does the same to Ringo, except he's not coaching the flesh-and-blood person, but images of an already constructed Ringo seen in vintage Beatles films and press footage. Do you see the complexity? Dee is reconstructing an image that already has been reconstructed (Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr, and Ringo Starr became Billy Shears, both transformations taking place long before Dee spoke his piece in the current show).
Unfortunately, despite the solid premise (the media make phonies of us all), the work in Acquiesce rarely jells. Dee rides the wave of media culture, but it's difficult to escape the suspicion that it's hardly novel to acknowledge, as he does, that video and film can obfuscate as well as enlighten. Too, the exhibit smacks of the trendy notion that being independent-minded merely requires one to take some bit of contemporary culture and proceed to say that no one has understood it yet. That way, new inquiry on the subject -- whether it be a book, an art exhibit, or a poem -- is invested with urgency. It makes the artist look like a pathbreaker because it purports to set the record straight.
In fact, the "new" Ringo in this show is like the "new" Richard Nixon in the 1968 election: scripted so that everything will play well in Peoria. Revisionism is in, and the more explosive the better. If Abraham Lincoln was a racist who delighted in black minstrel shows and "darky" jokes (as a new biography contends), then is it so much of a stretch to reimagine that Ringo's "underlying eroticism was the very thing which brought about mass hysteria in sexually awakening teens during the era of Beatlemania?" The strategy has become all too familiar: Tell the people that everything they know is wrong. That'll get their attention.
This is the approach in a 1999 work called "The Rhythm." It's a 45-second VHS video loop showing Ringo pounding away at his drum kit. Dee has slowed everything down, though. What, in real time, would suggest the drummer's role as the keeper of the beat is, in slow motion, strange. Ringo bobs his head enthusiastically, but if you look a little closer, he also appears to be in extreme pain. Drummers aren't supposed to work the snares and cymbals in slow motion, but Dee, the artist, has decided that Ringo, in these slo-mo death throes, might better convince us of his "underlying eroticism." The point is made even more obvious when Dee juxtaposes this silent video clip with a nearby recording of a drum track played at the speed you'd expect. We switch our attention back and forth between the visuals and this audio component, and the effect is to cast doubt on the stereotypical audio evidence (drummers produce this sound all the time) and direct our attention, instead, to the idiosyncratic visual clip. For Dee, drumming is less a matter of setting a rock-solid tempo for the band and more about the idea of rhythm as a mysterious force in nature that can be intoxicating. The slo-mo Ringo is in tune with this force in a way that the anonymous drummer who supplied the audio track is not.
According to the artist, Ringo was far more important to the Beatles' success than the public was led to believe. But the viewer is not necessarily convinced that he's serious. Dee also seems to be saying that, if the use of video can connect hapless Ringo to these primal forces, just think what the procedure could do for Lennon or McCartney. This inquiry is at the heart of Dee's approach. By taking Ringo as his subject, he's demonstrating that media manipulation can work wonders on anyone. It can elevate reputations or create reputations where none had even existed. Dee is asking us to fill in the blanks and think about other possible applications of these ideas. Although Dee acknowledges that the public can make up its own mind whether it accepts this "new" Ringo or the old one (or any one of a number of other "Ringos"), he seems to be saying that, as a culture, we tend to acquiesce to the mass media's messages (hence the title of the show). This is not a novel proposition (Warhol mined similar territory to fine effect in the '60s), and the revisionist elements of the work diminish its effectiveness.
Along similar lines is "The Drag," a recent work that consists of a four-second VHS video loop of Ringo taking a puff on a cigarette. He looks straight out at us, and a photographer snaps away (a flashbulb goes off just as Ringo releases the cigarette to exhale). The Zapruder film bears repeating because the assassination of the president is important news. Seeing Ringo take a drag on a cigarette over and over again is yawn-inducing. Sure, he's a Beatle, and smoking is an activity that even non-celebrities can relate to, but why make a loop of this particular scene? Maybe Dee is laughing at the photographer who thought his magazine's readers might enjoy a picture of Ringo about to exhale. You see the flash going off and think of what the photographer might have been saying to himself. Perhaps the following: "See the most famous drummer in the world doing something you see people do every day." That seems to be the message here: The media can immortalize trivial moments.
At its best, this inquiry into Ringo raises questions not merely about him, but about the mechanics that are here used to repackage him. For example, a work called "The Burn" is the most successful piece in the show; the one where the artist has been able to address both Ringo and the mass media without resorting to glib revisionism. It consists of four panels, each consisting of the same image: a frame from the Beatles' 1964 film A Hard Day's Night. In that film, for which British director Richard Lester concocted a mixture of slapstick comedy, music, and bare-bones storyline that capitalized on the Beatles' happy-go-lucky image, there is a moment when Ringo checks his appearance in a mirror. Dee lifts the moment from its original context with unexpected results.
Ringo was probably not snorting a line of cocaine in this image, but Dee alters expectations by suggesting that it might be so. The idea in a work like this is to ask why the artist chose this particular moment. The assumption is that Dee found something of particular interest in this shot. Is it the banana that Ringo holds in one hand (a reference perhaps to the "underlying eroticism" explored in "The Rhythm")? Or is it the mirror image that calls attention to the theme of artifice? The two Ringos here recall Dee's distinction throughout the exhibit between the reconstructed Ringo and the "zany moptop" of legend. Finally, it might be the references to time (the clock at the base of the mirror and the watch that Ringo wears). Dee elongated time in works such as "The Rhythm" and "The Drag." Here, he goes further and freezes this moment from A Hard Day's Night. If you look at this work up close, you will notice that the grid lines from the video image are visible when the image has been thus magnified. It's another way of stressing that this work (and others in the show) are about reconstructing reality.
All this clever cross-referencing is a good sign. It demonstrates that Dee is able to think of the big picture without losing sight of details. Though some of the work in this show doesn't reward scrutiny, it touches upon some important issues. In "The Burn," Dee ties the disparate threads of his work together, and the result is impressive. Ringo here becomes complex, and Dee succeeds -- if only for a moment -- in liberating him from his moptop image.