From September 23rd to 29th, a former tattoo parlor in NYC’s historic Hotel Chelsea has been transformed into a gallery show celebrating 40 years since the formation of the seminal punk/new wave/power pop group Blondie. The exhibition is also timed to coincide with the release of Blondie guitarist and songwriter Chris Stein’s new photo book Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk, which was released this week via Rizzoli.
The cultural and sonic impact of Blondie on the late-Seventies and early-Eighties cannot be understated. The band traversed genres with ease, embracing rap at it’s earliest iteration with “Rapture,” power pop with their cover of the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone,” and achieving a major chart success with the disco classic “Heart of Glass.”
Always at the center of Blondie was Debbie Harry, the peroxide-bleached-blonde bombshell. Style icon, sex symbol and fierce vocal talent, Harry is the quintessential poster child of the New Wave era. And Stein was always behind her. The power of the duo’s artistic and romantic relationship at the time propelled the band to superstardom. Although Blondie went through many lineup changes during its heyday, the ever-present Clem Burke its backbone with his exceptional drumming.
This current exhibit focuses solely on the visual aspects of the band, and what that means is that it’s a series of pictures featuring Debbie Harry, Debbie Harry, a little bit of the other band members… and more Debbie Harry.
Many noted rock photographers of the era are represented, including the hyper-saturated and lush work of Mick Rock, transforming Harry into a chrome-plated commodity preserved as icon forever. On the other side of the visual spectrum is the work of CBGB house photographer Roberta Bailey, whose black and white and subtle color photos have an un-doctored and more authentic feel to them. Also apropos is a series of four beautiful and effective greyscale portraits of Harry by longtime Hotel Chelsea resident Robert Mapplethorpe.
Of course, Chris Stein’s own photographic work is represented healthily. It’s through his lense that one can really see the affection for Harry and her many facets as singer, artist, and muse. Stein has always been both a visual and auditory thinker, and it’s nice to see his work on display in this fashion.
When one enters the exhibition, he or she is greeted with two long walls of photos to browse; all are for sale, if you can afford their high prices. Above the photos hang various t-shirts, some tour shirts — perhaps worn by Harry herself. (I say perhaps because there’s no real explanation as to where the shirts come from and who they belong to, something that I would have appreciated.)
Shooting down the middle of the room are display cases filled with both fan and personal memorabilia, including old fan club magazines, autographed band pictures, trade ads, and some of Harry’s personal passes to fashion-related events. At the back of the gallery is silent video footage of the band playing, mostly from television appearances during the height of its popularity. There’s also some early CBGB-era footage as well.
Finally, around a corner is a section of the exhibition devoted to fan art that can only be described as completely weird, the centerpiece of which is a painted portrait of Harry in the late Eighties holding a puppy, an astrological chart haloing her head with flying saucers and Egyptian runes in the background. Why this painting is in the exhibit, I have no idea and could find no explanation.
Obtuse fan art and quixotic t-shirts aside, the exhibit is fairly effective in showcasing the versatility of Blondie and Debbie Harry as sheer forces of imagery. Lacking are pictures of the rest of the band members, which is a shame. Although Harry always took center stage, of course, the rest of Blondie were always impeccably dressed, either in sharp, skinny-tied mod suits or in large-collared disco wear. Other than a single sweaty, sexy Roberta Bailey shot of a post-show Clem Burke reclining and drinking a Pepsi, one is hard pressed to find pictures of the rest of the band in their New Wave finest.
Other than the aforementioned lack of explanation for certain elements of the exhibition, my biggest quibble with the whole endeavor is the divorcing of the music from the imagery. Personally, Blondie has always stuck out as unique because of the delicate balance the band had between its considerable musical chops and Harry’s visual omnipresence. To seemingly intentionally have a celebratory 40-year retrospective exhibition that is devoid of any way to listen to any of the songs that made Blondie so sonically cool is very strange to me and left me feeling unfulfilled. Maybe some sort of setup with headphones with music around the photographs could have remedied this. As it is, the lack of music is surprising and disappointing.
However, if you want to gaze upon the visual splendor that is Debbie Harry, the place is Hotel Chelsea and the time is now.
(All photos by Louie Pearlman.)