Last Friday night, a quartet of college-aged art fans wandered into the tiny rear room of Gallery 801 in downtown Hot Springs and beheld a work titled “Atlas Songs.” The graphite-and-watercolor piece depicts seven children linked arm-in-arm-on-shoulder-on-ribs and — as do the other 10 images in the new “Riceboy Sleeps” exhibition, on display through Sept. 7 — the work evokes a muted, dark nostalgia for childhood.
“I don't go to galleries and s*** because they're pretentious snobs,” said the tallest of the group, a lanky kid with a lilt and a can of Red Dog in his hand. “I just like this one, because it's sentimental.”
If the young man finds the gallery scene in Hot Springs too stuffy, he might suffocate in lower Manhattan or South Beach. “Riceboy Sleeps,” a collaboration between Sigur Rós frontman Jón “Jónsi” Birgisson and his boyfriend, musician Alex Somers of Parachutes, likely could have shown in either of those locales. Instead, its single U.S. show — before heading to Melbourne, Australia, and then back to the artists' home of Iceland, perhaps by way of London — is in the Valley of the Vapors.
The opening proved a significant night of firsts for art and music. By Friday, Birgisson and Somers had been in Arkansas for five days, arranging and preparing the show. With a jazz trio playing nearby and patrons milling about with child-sized cups of wine, Birgisson remarked first upon the region's oppressive summer heat, then noted that the “rotten eggs” smell of the spring water reminded him of his geologically active island homeland.
There, the similarities between Hot Springs and Reykjavík ended.
“I like the cup people have here,” Birgisson said. “The Big Gulp.”
He pantomimed a huge sip from the convenience store soda pitcher.
“Yeah, that's so cool.”
The lack of affectation on the part of this international music star doubtless helped 19-year-old gallery owner Josh Varnedore bring the show to Hot Springs. Varnedore first saw mention of “Riceboy Sleeps” while browsing a Turkish art magazine. He e-mailed the artists, hoping for a reply from a manager. Instead, Somers wrote back. Varnedore convinced the two artists that Hot Springs was worthy of hosting the exhibition but when they priced shipping the old windows that frame the original 14 “Riceboy Sleeps” works, the cost was prohibitive.
Undaunted, Varnedore took a drive down Arkansas Highway 7 toward Arkadelphia. Along the way, he noticed a caved-in old building — a schoolhouse, he guesses — where he rescued 11 old windows and frames that were piled outside.
“I only had to replace two panes out of all those windows,” Varnedore said at the opening. “It was amazing, since they were buried under soil and moss and stuff.”
Birgisson and Somers loved the frames. The artists prepared the 11 pieces in the exhibition to fit the old windows — building their images out of watercolor, graphite, old book pages, photos scrounged from junk shops and original photographs.
“I don't think we would have come if it had just been any frames,” Somers said.
(Born in Baltimore, Somers said he met Birgisson in Boston when the latter called for Somers' brother and Somers picked up the phone. “We just met up,” Somers said. “I'm so happy. I think things just take care of themselves. If you do good things, things happen.”)
In preparing the frames, the men cleaned the panes' interiors to avoid damaging the artwork inside, but left the exteriors as found. The result is a collection that feels as much recovered as created. The murky corners of the panes further obscure the edges of photographs and drawings already nearing the point of abstraction. Aging house paint was chipping off most of the frames and at least two panes bore the desiccated bodies of small spiders.
The works invite touching.
After a few hours, Birgisson and Somers adjourned to a Mexican restaurant for dinner while people sluiced through the gallery. Shortly after 10 p.m., the pair made their way four blocks north to The Gallery@404B, also known as Chuck Dodson's apartment. A recovering Christian rocker turned-poet/turned-filmmaker, Dodson was instrumental in arranging the after-party, which, for those into music, can be the more profound cultural moment of the night: Nashville-based post-rock duo Hammock played its first-ever live performance after two years of acclaimed studio work.
When Varnedore told Dodson he was hosting “Riceboy Sleeps,” Dodson informed his old friend Marc Byrd, who, along with Andrew Thompson, makes up Hammock. Not realizing the art was made by one of his own musical muses, Byrd sent a complimentary message via the “Riceboy Sleeps” MySpace page.
Imagine his astonished delight when Birgisson wrote a note in return.
“It said, ‘I listened to your songs twice' and he capitalized ‘twice,'” Byrd recalled Friday. “ ‘You've got it down. Great soundscapes and great melodies. Best thing I've heard on MySpace. Hugs, Jónsi.'
“I memorized it, man.”
He and Thompson decided this would be “a sensible gig” at which to finally play live. For the occasion, they wrote almost an entirely new set.
In the moments before they played, Dodson's apartment bustled with artists and writers and friends. Photographer Thomas Petillo, who shoots art for Hammock, set up lights and a large-format camera in a side room where he snapped portraits of guests in front of a packed bookshelf. Someone waltzed in with a life-sized Paris Hilton cardboard stand-up. A 2-year-old swirled her hand in a bowl of sunflower seeds and then helped herself. When some guests inspected some unmarked bottles of homebrew on the way to the 30-pack of Miller High Life Light in the fridge, Dodson stepped in: “No homebrew unless you're a member of Sigur Rós or Hammock.”
Some time before midnight, Thompson and Byrd convened in the dim, pink-lit living room. With guitars, a keyboard and a flotilla of pedals and amps, the pair crafted an hour of contemplative, peaceful sonic textures for about 30 people seated on the floor, on the window sill and on home gym equipment pushed against the wall.
Afterward, Birgisson congratulated the two.
“So, are you ready to tour?” the Sigur Rós singer asked.
“Definitely,” Byrd said. “Let's do it.”
“That's it,” Birgisson replied, laughing. “You're going to tour.”
Gradually, the moment sank in for Byrd.
“That was a rock show, wasn't it?” he said. “Someone was saying he was going to scream ‘Freebird!'”
“Yeah,” Thompson said. “Please. Don't.”