Here's what you think of when you think of Jimi Hendrix: Jimi with his afro bursting from a bright, silky headband. Jimi with his eyes closed, guitar tilted up as he holds one badass note mid-solo. Jimi with the billowing shirt and flared pants in a spotlight of psychedelic colors singing sassily, "You know you're a cute little heartbreaker."
These are images stored in the collective consciousness—not of James Marshall Hendrix, the man, but Jimi the rock god who helped define the 1960s and early 1970s in the same way the peace sign or acid or Kent State did.
Benjamin Love's new solo exhibit, JMH Is My Spirit Guide, which opened last week at FrontierSpace, explores the archetypal personality of Jimi Hendrix through various media including digital video, sound art, sculpture and installation. For instance, in the piece "The Transfiguration of JMH," a video loop demonstrates how Hendrix is trapped forever in that transfiguration of guitar god, just as he is in that collective consciousness. Even though he's long been dead, he still maintains a living image within our culture.
"We see and can mentally conjure an image of Jimi Hendrix in our mind, as well as hear his guitar without actually hearing it, which is due in large part to the proliferation of his image and music in dominant culture," says Love. "This gets to the whole name part of the show: Jimi was born James Marshall Hendrix. Fame enveloped his identity in artifice, and eternally trapped James as Jimi."
Contrary to the evidence at hand, Love isn't particularly obsessed with Jimi Hendrix—just the idea behind him. In JMH is My Spirit Guide, Hendrix serves as placeholder for a certain type of archetypal personality, Love says. He's what myths are made of.
"Orpheus is essentially the same archetype, enacted in an older myth," Love says. "The counter culture of the '60s has always intrigued me, and it seems that Jimi best embodies the role of poet, prophet and musician from that time. One of the myths associated with Orpheus is that at his death his head is severed from his body, yet it continues to sing. In a way it's parallel to the way Jimi and other celebrity identities become fixed, and continue to perform."
Love grew up in Mountain Home, Idaho, and studied art at Boise State University, the Art Institute of Chicago's Ox-Bow Summer Program, and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in Skowhegan, Maine. His mother, a painter, always had a studio with plenty of supplies available when he was growing up and Love says she encouraged him to explore different ideas and different materials. Not being too tied to one medium or one idea means Love's art is always shape-shifting from exhibit to exhibit, including in recent shows in Germany, Japan and Philadelphia.
The exhibit in Missoula isn't just focused on the Jimi Hendrix archetypal hero. Some of it seems like a mystical experiment, as with the sound piece, "Ultra Depth Past Life Regression," which allows listeners to relax and reflect on past life experiences to gain insight into how those experiences affect their current lives. The exhibit is also an exploration of several elements of pop culture: There's a sculpture made of mass produced objects, for instance, as well as other cultural elements like screen-print T-shirts and the Ram Dass counterculture classic, Be Here Now. For Love, incorporating subject matter from the dominant culture addresses larger questions about authenticity.
"The world around us is saturated with affectation," says Love. "I'm interested in the way affectation functions in art, as it is generally used in art to call the viewers attention to a certain part of the work, saying—or yelling—'Look here! This is important!' In dominant culture affect is used for the selling of ideas, and then objects. For me, the place where it becomes interesting is that in art we can examine the way affect functions in dominant culture."
In the case of Hendrix, as with any celebrity of his caliber, dominant culture has had destructive and consumptive impacts. The cult of personality that keeps Hendrix a continuing part of pop culture has its destructive powers, too.
"As a culture we consume celebrity," says Love. "It is interesting that the same creative force that enables a person to emerge into fame is also many times the same force that drives them to self destruction."
For this exhibition, Hendrix serves as a symbol for larger concepts about celebrity worship and myth. Love's ties to Hendrix, however, are rooted in personal experience listening to his music and playing guitar as a high school kid.
"Jimi Hendrix and his music embodied a certain rebellious social sensibility that resonated with me at the time," says Love. "I don't listen to Jimi Hendrix anymore, but I can still hear it."
An opening reception for Benjamin Love's JMH Is My Spirit Guide kicks off at FrontierSpace Friday, February 4, from 6 to 9 PM. Free.