Aero-Mic'd: The ambiguous world of Wayne Smith

Who hasn't fantasized about playing in a band or recording in a studio, wearing headphones and emoting into the microphone? Visual artists have often made this dream a reality. Perhaps artists' daily practice of economically non-viable activities gives them greater license to venture off the beaten track. Arnold Schoenberg, the Talking Heads, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Romeo Void, Pink Section, Basquiat, Sonic Youth, Brian Eno, David Bowie, John Cage, Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart, and Erik Satie are just a few who have moved between visual art and music. I've played flute and guitar, was forced to take piano lessons, but now just love playing bass in my living room to tapes and CDs. I'm still looking for that perfect band collaboration. What has inspired the latest wave of San Francisco artists to produce CDs and what are they like? To begin my inquiry into this phenomenon, I looked at the work of Wayne Smith.

Smith's visual artwork, recently on view in an engaging solo show at Gallery 16, makes hay with the scanner, creating large, lush Iris prints so textured you wouldn't believe they are actually flat. The colors are warm – very Fall season. Yet the subtle references to fashion and design paradoxically add depth to the interest Smith seems to find in taking on painting as a calling inherited from our abstract expressionist forebears. Of course, Smith's new iris prints are all digital, painted without a brush or a tube of paint.

Smith's new recording project, Aero-Mic'd, fuses turntable aesthetics and musique concrete with the studio tradition of ambient music. In terms of process, Smith's eponymously named CD is a product of the studio, like the visual art he makes. He likes recording ambient sound, often capturing action on his street or while travelling, then layering it to reflect real life experience rather than carefully crafted performance. Smith seems for the moment to prefer the populist realm of music to the elitism of visual art. He points out that anyone can go down to Aquarius and pick up a CD. His observation led me to mentally contrast this cultural form with the exclusive nature of art ownership. How many people can afford to own artworks? In San Francisco, how many can afford to make them? Does this create a barrier between artist and audience? Smith and other visual artists are freeing themselves of art market baggage to work directly in other disciplines to explore some of the same issues, but in a new medium. But while visual art doesn't seem particularly exciting to Smith at the moment, the music world is. Lots of his friends are working with music, and everyone seems to be working on CDs. This confluence of energy and cultural absorption leads to more work, better work, and more fun in general.

Smith's day job as a graphic designer has given him a sensitive approach to representing the recordings through the packaging. His CD cover evokes perfectly the transience of moment and lightness of touch embodied in the recording itself, resembling his visual art only insofar as it approaches the work in a way that is not obvious. Smith seldom goes for the direct approach.

In listening to the first track, Deadbeat Dads, I first wonder — is my CD player humming? Unidentifiable background white noise seems to be the major component throughout much of this work rather than musically apprehensible and commercially viable track rotations packaged by the mainstream music industry. Sequenced drums (reminiscent of the band Ministry) hammer like machine guns, but are muffled by white noise and a sound like the static of a malfunctioning CD player.

In the track entitled Justice Inhaler, filtered drums & bass alternate with the sound of someone trying to tune a short wave radio. Fun, playful elements collide with deep, real life-type scenarios; a woman's concerned voice discussing her suffering from asthma and a later mention of rat poison highlight an imperative to live in the moment rather than mock it. A Flat Tax is a cover version of a familiar tune from my high school years done in sweet, synthesized strings that make it altogether new. What is that tune? In Broken Nosegay the energetic strumming of an acoustic guitar binds charming and punk together and somehow references the tradition of a player who plays first and learns later.

Blue on Beltane consists of space static, Wagnerian in its proportions, and a fragment of dialog. Whose familiar voice is speaking? "Red chiffon dress, her name was Cybill Shepard"… as in Remembrance of Things Past, mid-life Proustian elements coalesce…the sound of cards shuffling – or is it a cable being shifted at the input plug?

On Cold Dust, sleigh bells and temple bells become cymbals drummed fast with soft mallets, then suddenly: quietude. Are we in the country or in a suburb? Real sounds, indistinct and unidentifiable: a radio in the distance? A distant bell tolls. Lapping waves? Dust in the Wind on the radio, and the sound of traffic on a far off ribbon of road?

The inarticulate, suggestible associations that drive Smith's sound create similar sensations to those we have when looking at any good work of visual art. Leaving most unsaid, we are allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions . No pandering to didacticism here. Live with ambiguity. With Aero-Mic'd, Wayne Smith does.

    Cheryl Meeker is a member of the Stretcher Crew.