Art? You want me to write about art? I can write about music with some confidence and a sense of context. I could probably make a go at writing about literature and sports as well, and maybe even about an ugly squabble between a trustee and an ombudsman at a Zoning Board meeting, if it came to that. But the visual arts are my secret black pit of cultural illiteracy and shame. When I see art that moves me, which is often, I yell, “It feels good in my eye!” and just stand there while everyone else clears out. How it was made, how to analyze it, how to compare it and situate it within various traditions: These are as mysterious to me as the stars pinned on the cape of the night.
Good thing, then, that the Welsh artist Pete Fowler seems mostly to draw and paint synthesizers these days. A collection of his cartoonish, synthcentric art, “Just Tweaking,” opens at Team Love RavenHouse Gallery in New Paltz this Saturday. Just as Team Love and RavenHouse represent a marriage of a record label and management group with an art/performance space, throughout his career, Fowler’s art is tightly associated with music. He is perhaps best-known for his design collaborations with the vibrant, twinkling Welsh space-pop band Super Furry Animals. And he is a maker himself: one-half of a prolific electronic duo called Seahawks.
In “Just Tweaking,” Fowler seems to be documenting a cultural obsession – not just a personal one – with analog. Vacuum tubes and analog synthesizers are the bone flutes and log drums of electronic music: the tools of the original sonic cosmonauts and the Columbia University white-shirts who were as bewildered by their own discoveries as Albert Hoffman was by his, and in much the same way.
Fowler’s obsession is specifically with modular synthesizers: the original synths if you discount the Theremin and the ondes Martenot. In modular synthesis, programmers designed sound by manually connecting banks of electronic modules – oscillators, filters, amps, envelopes and LFOs, control voltage keyboards – with patch cables.
It was tactile, organic and sonically dangerous in a way that synthesis has long since ceased to be. Revered and fetishized for their instability, their pre-digital, physics-based warmth and drift and the unrepeatability of their programming, modular synthesizers seem to dominate Fowler’s imagination. His are not historically accurate synths (though one does bear a conspicuous resemblance to the half-modular Korg MS-20), but extravagantly knobby, sweeping dream synths.
Synths are only half the story of “Just Tweaking.” A variety of super furry humanoid operators comprises the other half, tweaking away in a psychedelic Sea of Holes environment. Fowler’s hirsute hipsters may remind you at times of the Freak Brothers after a visit to a Peter Max salon. They seem to be moving from human through hippie toward faun and satyr, giving the sense of an electronic activation of an older mythic mind. It feels good in my eye.
Pete Fowler’s “Just Tweaking” opening reception, Saturday, September 28, 5-7 p.m., through November 1, Team Love RavenHouse Gallery, 11 Church Street, New Paltz; www.tl-rh.com, https://monsterism.net.