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Roberto Rabanne's 'Synesthesia: A Further Photographic Trip with the Grateful Dead' on view in Chicago
Roberto Rabanne's work centers around rarely seen early photographs of the band from 1967 right through the decades.

CHICAGO, IL.- In celebration of the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary, photographer Roberto Rabanne debuted truly psychedelic 3D photographs of the Grateful Dead in Chicago during the band’s “Fare thee well” shows at the NYCH Art Gallery.

His new massive body of work centers around rarely seen early photographs of the band from 1967 right through the decades. These large scale historic photos are set into unique frames embellished with black lace and classic Dead-centric motifs of skulls, bones and roses.

Rabanne’s photos are displayed in a fitting thematic “Tableau Mort” of life size decorated black skeletons, skulls, bones, red and black roses. This unusual setting is a spectacular medieval psychedelic scenario referencing the fantastic surreal imagery of Hieronymus Bosch, meeting Fra Angelico meeting Aldous Huxley and Dali.

With this ground breaking show, Rabanne has now gone Furthur than his contemporaries with a powerful and eloquent visual tour d’ force narrative that will delight legions of Deadheads.

“Synesthesia. For Owsley Stanley, legendary underground chemist, Grateful Dead benefactor and sound engineer, that was one of the most profound experiences of the freeform concerts known as the Acid Tests, where the Dead really emerged as a band. “I actually saw sound coming out of the speakers,” he explained in an interview. It surprised him in many ways, on many levels, perhaps most of all because it showed him how centuries of human learning and experience could find expression in ways that transcended ordinary Western consciousness, even the idea of consciousness. Small wonder that after he left his work as a chemist and as an engineer behind, he would turn to art to express his visions.

That was the bigger lesson of the Haight-Ashbury, and by extension, of the counterculture and the 1960s: that life could be art, even if living up to that ideal remained as elusive and difficult a challenge as it always has been. For Roberto Rabanne, like Stanley and so many of his friends and peers, that was the clarion call of the Haight. And nowhere did that call sound more clearly than in the music of the Grateful Dead.When Rabanne and Garcia met on Haight Street one afternoon in 1966, they struck up a conversation, and so began another of the many friendships that knit together the burgeoning community that would soon put a face on the counterculture. “We bonded over Latin culture, talking about my childhood in Panama, Garcia’s father’s Spanish heritage, our interest in art,” Rabanne recalls.

But their conversations took on an urgency as life in the Haight accelerated. When Rabanne first saw and heard the Dead, he had an epiphany: “The music, the sound effects, the lights, the immersion of the concert experience as a visual artist, it all fascinated me, especially when I realized that I could translate the music into visual art.”

This is not to say that Rabanne’s photographs reassure, rather when they remind, it is with that flash of memory, burnished bright by the intensity of lived experience. Art is always confrontation, however limned by beauty. A photograph is an invitation to explore not only the joy and ecstasy of life but also its discomforts: trial and trauma, the pains and pangs of learning, growing, and aging. In so doing, they also prompt us to rediscover, to reaffirm, to reclaim, taking the forgotten or unknown or estranged and rendering it usable, immediate, intimate—the way Robert Hunter told us in “Lady With A Fan” that storytelling could make “things we’ve never seen … seem familiar.

Rabanne’s photography does all of that. It is more than just his response to the timeless challenge of making the human race visible to itself, it is his particular reframing of that problem: to find the humanity and the effort—the sweat and the joy—in the art of the Dead and fix it, for a fraction of a second, so that history can outlive that fragile, precious evanescence, and endure.

That is why Rabanne’s photographs are more than just a window into a past already receding. They are an expression of the values that animated the Grateful Dead and made them his subject, one allied with the same fundamental ideal that gave them their name: a folk motif that bound together so many ancient folk stories, all describing how we should honor the past with no thought of reward, which is ultimately its own reward. And that, too, was something the band members recognized. That democratic inclusiveness, that sophisticated grasp of the gossamer but sinuous connections that can link artists working in vastly different media: all of that was bound up in a name that also suggested how that ideal could be vast and vital and sustaining.

This is why the phenomenon of the Grateful Dead includes the photography of Roberto Rabanne. His photographs go to the heart of the Dead’s promise—and shows what it offers for an America still riven by arguments over the meaning of the sixties, the counterculture, and the Haight-Ashbury.

Synesthesia is the transposition of one sense to another: seeing sound, hearing sight. At heart, though, synesthesia evokes the idea of transformation: not just perception, but reality; changing ourselves and our world, converting one form to another, not unlike the medieval alchemy that sought to transmute lead into gold. Rabanne’s photographs not only transmuted one art form into another, they fixed a transitory present, distilling the fleeting face of history into memory.

Just as the name “Grateful Dead” implies, there is an ethical dimension to that kind of transformation, one that Owsley sensed and that Rabanne and the Dead embraced—one that still cries out from the protean music the Dead created, and the striking images that Rabanne recorded, all rooted in the energy and ideas of that time and place.

For over forty years, that energy and those ideas persisted, harnessed by the remarkable power of the Dead and frozen in the images Rabanne witnessed. It is a pleasure to see those brought together at last, presented in this exhibition on the fiftieth anniversary of the band whose work did so much to inspire him, and whose work he did so much to preserve.

With these photographs, we can all share in that past, a magic that would otherwise be lost." --Nicholas G. Meriwether, Grateful Dead Archivist, UC Santa Cruz

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