Self-pity. Failed romance. Bad decisions. Heartfelt regrets. If it isn’t the Clinton White House we’re talking about, then it must be country music.
It’s a world where loss and remorse are as plentiful as missteps in a line dance, a universe captured best in a Hank Williams tune that distilled the C&W ethos down to a potent shot of booze: “There’s a Tear in My Beer.”
For artist/performer Larry Krone, a New York City urban cowboy raised on the high plains of University City, perhaps a more fitting rhyme might be “There’s a Pain in My Mane.”
Salvaging pieces of his own disappearing hairline, Krone manipulates the strands into words, using hair spray, tape, nails and wax paper to create bizarre pieces of calligraphic art.
And the words? The majority are the lyrics to country tunes, those carefully crafted odes to heartbreak, loss, sorrow, suffering . . . well, you know how the melody goes.
In Krone’s “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before,” on exhibit at the Forum for Contemporary Art, visitors can sing along as the artist’s fallen follicles lead the way through tales of longing.
As Patsy Cline once sang: “Crazy.”
For Krone, that would be crazy like a fox. His humor is sly and self-deprecating, his intentions simultaneously upright and uproarious. This is a guy whose past pieces have included dolls fashioned from human teeth.
A skilled musician willing to cross-dress and belt out a version of Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Krone is nothing if not predictably unpredictable.
And if he has one nightmare, it is this: Encountering an audience afraid to laugh.
Krone himself chuckles frequently during conversations, a giddy cackle that fringes on the slightly maniacal. He seems to look for, and find, the humor in most any topic.
But don’t fail to take Larry Krone seriously. His exhibits and accompanying performances work on many levels, moving well beyond their initial goal of poking fun. As Forum curator Mel Watkin notes, Krone “deconstructs the country and Western music scene, its culture, its language, and its power structures.”
“But that is only partly true,” Watkin adds. “You cannot stand back and coolly tear down something when you are a true believer — and Larry believes.”
That he does. At the same time, he knows that people may see his flirtations with country music as a put-on, his cowboy hat as a mere prop, his off-center artwork as nothing more than a hair-brained scheme. They’ll label him a kitsch-monger, a city slicker poking fun at a musical religion that recognizes Haggard and Husky as lauded saints.
True believers, they’ll argue, would never dabble in conceptual art — would they? Apparently they do, for Krone really believes in the music that fuels his art. He rarely listens to anything else, he says — his devotion is sincere.
A few weeks ago, Krone and a group of family and friends performed “Love Can Build A Bridge” at the Forum. Part performance art piece, part old-fashioned hootenanny, the musical revue took country standards and tweaked them a bit, pushing them into new contexts and occasionally pulling them apart at the seams.
Krone’s hand-stitched gaudy costumes adorned the players, his hand-crafted program greeted the crowded house. Surrounding all were the follicle phrases so intricately laid out by the artist.
Krone did a little gender-bending, calling into the question the strengths and weaknesses of both femininity and masculinity. He sang. He played. He told stories.
He had fun.
What he also did was tap into a country music tradition of farce and showmanship that dates to the music’s earliest days. In his new book “Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity,” sociologist Richard Peterson makes a good argument that there really is no such thing as “authentic” country music ( A point certain to rile more than a few pious critics and performers.)
In fact, Peterson shows that vaudeville-style hokum may be truer to the genre than an “ideal” such as the rustic fiddle player. Krone’s performance then, for all its peculiarities and post-modern affectations, is as much about the recognition of country music history as it is its deconstruction.
Think of Krone in a lineage that includes Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, Stringbean and Junior Samples. Add a dose of non-cynical irony, and sud denly his skewed take on country music seems as right as rhinestones on a Porter Wagoner suit.
But what to make of Krone’s visual art? It’s a long way from Dolly Parton’s hairpieces to the ones on display at the Forum.
To Krone, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” isn’t such a far-out concept at all. He notes that on its most basic level, it celebrates the time-honored tradition of handiwork. And while not quite folk art, it does hearken to that genre’s sense of craft and celebration of eccentricity.
The pieces also fit into a tradition of highlighting textual elements as a dominant graphic element. From early illuminated manuscripts, to the scribblings of Cy Twombly, to the politically charged statements of contemporary artists Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, words have been exploited for both meaning and appearance.
Krone works in similar territory. By using his hair as a medium, he forces us to think of all of its definitions and connotations: It’s something very close to us, yet easily discarded; it’s a symbol of both growth and – for the thinning among us – loss; it’s a body part that enchants us when attached, yet often repulses us when found as a stray. Like love itself (and the loss of it), hair can either give us confidence or deliver us into a funk.
Visually, Krone’s twirling and looping letters remind the viewer of a symbol often associated with the Western prong of C&W culture: the lariat. Intentional or not, the rope-like lyrics recall the numerous album covers and film posters that have adopted the twirling lasso as an official font style.
So maybe Krone’s work isn’t quite so crazy after all – perhaps it’s about nothing much more than making connections, of recognizing tradition.
He knows that subject well. Last month, he returned for a four-week stay that included time teaching University City school district students as part of the city’s Returning Artist program.
Like the protagonist of a weepy Tom T. Hall number, a local boy came home to re-establish his roots and give something back to the community.
And best of all, not once during his visit did Krone have a bad hair day.
© 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Copyright 1998 by Jeff Daniel