Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell. Order now.

Sounding Our Depths: The Music of Morgan Powell by Ann Starr has just been listed by Upper Hand Press.

Pre-orders are being taken immediately for the mid-August release of the 118-page book. A 72-minute compact disc of Powell's music accompanies the volume. Each track was selected for its immediate relevance to Starr's discussions. 

Powell is a composer whose unique oeuvre defies category, even within the world of contemporary music. His writing doesn't require technical musical background for the listener to participate in its depths and heart. The listener doesn't have to dig for lessons from past music appreciation classes to be guided by the sounds, pauses and paces of Powell's writing. It's a music that requires only ears, attention, and a listener's imagination. All Powell's music is performed by a circle of virtuosos who know the composer and his intentions well.

Powell understands the potency of his music, and that to comprehend it is to approach it like a child.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil" at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Cruzamentos: "Crossings," we're told it means, literally and metaphorically in Portuguese. Brazil is a country stuck together by a resilient filament of crossed races and cultures and here, in contemporary fine arts, by mingling of media, genres, and ideas that find names like inspiration, lack of inhibition, and necessity's inventions.

Cruzamentos is not a show to expect to see in a few hours. It's an event, an environment, a trip to a kinetic city whose life-blood runs in brilliant colors on the surface; where popular and high cultures mingle and reflect each other; where distinctions are important only until you cross thresholds. There prejudices drop and the strange becomes Carnival. Hey: It's the State Fair—common yet thrilling, with ordinary life compressed into a electrifying city of eros, manure, ambition, gaiety, private intrigues, and public fireworks. Cruzamentos closes on April 20, so start seeing it now.

Only a few works from among the many in the vast, multi-faceted show are approved for use by the press. The pieces I focus on here are among the quieter works that create pools of reverie in a show that is often defiant or ebullient.

Rodrigo Braga Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 
Three loop videos by Rodrigo Braga—Tonus 1, 2, and 3—play simultaneously on three walls of a darkened room, each bringing the viewer painfully and pruriently close to struggles for…survival? against the absurd? The longer you watch, the less clear, the more fascinating, brutal, and touching each becomes.

I find that the Portuguese word tonus means vitality, vigor, or energy. These English words describe not only the stirring content of the films, but the manner of their making. In two of the films, a man—for reasons that we don't know and quickly lose any concern with—is bound to an animal by rope in a way that creates a peculiarly equal relationship. In the still to the left, a man is tied by the wrist to a large crab about the same size as his hand. The rope's length is such that the two can't touch without an effort to shorten the distance. When we see the man finally clutch the crab, the result is thrilling because of the equality of the confrontation: The crab clutches him back. We think that the man will pry the crab's claw off, but what we see is almost a handshake, fierce, raw and muddy; an equal manipulation in which the grapplers are equal—they are "tied."

The tight frame shown in the clip is consistent throughout the brief film. The cinematography is so superior that the texture of the mud, the surfaces of hand and shell are real enough to make us shiver, cold and wet. 
Rodrigo Braga, Tônus, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

In the two other films that surround us in the hall, a man's hand is bound to the hind leg of a goat, leaving neither able to rise nor even to fight nor to succor one another. Where the hands of man and crab mud-wrestled, these two are doomed to a rocky, scraping plain. 

In the third film, a man lies on his in total passivity in a pirogue that's filling with water, a large, rosy and shining fish on his belly. The two of them are unconnected, and the film cuts often to images of the fish flopping alone in a boat "freed" of the man, but also freed of the water that he is incapable of moving himself into, despite his beautiful vitality.
Rodrigo Braga Tônus 1, 2012. Still from video 8’53,’’ Color and sound.
 Courtesy of the artist and Galeria Vermelho 

There is even more content to the films. But on the broadest level, they provide an extraordinarily deep and rich experience. They are perfection of filming and editing. They rock the viewer through rough currents of emotion created by the subtle synchronization of three films of different lengths and a gentle soundtrack behind the jagged and poignant action. Best of all, Braga has found a medium for communicating profound ideas about mankind's situation in life and in nature. He creates powerful metaphors for how we live vis-a-vis nature. He looks clearly at the importance and the efficacy of our wills and at the meaning of action. I greatly admire the Tonus series and the mind behind it.

The elevation of the ordinary to magnificence is what attracted me powerfully to Luiza Baldan's Sem Titulo (one of two "Untitled" works in the series "Little Paintings"). This is a work which, even more than most, needs to be seen in person to be appreciated, it's surfaces are so delicately presented  

 Luiza Baldan Untitled (from the Pinturinhas series), 2009. Inkjet on cotton print 33.5 x 43” Courtesy of the artist .

on its massive geometry. It's a charwoman's Vermeer, a mechanically-created print with the delicacy of an oil painting in color and texture—that caressing attention to the smallest detail that betrays a passionate heart within the maker. The green plastic bucket aside, all the colors are given and natural, just like the daylight that glows in a Dutch window. The stairway of some coarse building of industrial design is humanized by the blushing color of the tiled floor reflected, rouge-like on the wall. The deep blue panel at the base of the opposite wall warms the concrete structures in such a way that they become ocean to the sienna and ochre of the tiled floors: a warm Mediterranean landscape stirs beneath the otherwise cold and threateningly depopulated zone, making it a place to return to.

It's the contrast between the lover's attention to the surface, the embrace of the raw structure, and the appreciation for the marriage of might and delicacy that make this "painting" work so well for me. A scene like this is of course a powerhouse of design. It doesn't have to be more than that, but it is, communicating a passion for human qualities where even the memories of their weary passage remains.

Luchia Koch's Rusticchella occupies an entire gallery wall. Its great size; its illusion of deep space; the overwhelming sense of softness that makes you want to touch the surface and break through it, into the half-lit room—all these things contribute to a truly enveloping experience. It's a work that transports the viewer almost literally, mind and body.

Lucia Koch, Rusticchella, 2013. MEDIA. 
Courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery, Santa Monica 

The nature of the space is ambiguous in ways that create an effect similar to the one Baldan creates, above: A common space and materials are elevated to provide the viewer with a spiritual experience. 

The enclosure we look into appears to be a paper bag laid on its side, the expansion pleats on the roof and the floor. The hole cut in the right side turns it into a room; the bottom of the literal bag becomes a door, and the shape of its folds take on possible significance as a result. A portcullis? A sacred sign? 

The surfaces of the space appear to be glazed: the floor and the walls shine as enamel or tile would. On the ceiling and left wall are small, elaborate red writings in a language that I cannot decipher—is anyone supposed to? Light softly filters in from three directions, creating a dreamy quality, but enhancing the fragility of the ambiguously-sized structure. Are we indeed looking inside the ephemeral, a paper bag toy house that the rain or an errant footstep will destroy? Or have we entered an ages-old religious monument, its sandstone carved away by time and the elements?

It may be neither, it may be both. What I love about this is the sublime integration of all the possibilities in the great size and the soft surface of the work. Rusticchella is mesmerizing; you can move between and through its many ideas without having to make decisions. Its beauty and integrity remind us vividly that a work of art is an experience, one we can extend for as long as we like.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Power Gardener: Sarah Fairchild's Lush Plot

"Just close your eyes," I'd like to say, "and imagine the paintings I will describe to you." 

"They are very large, with backgrounds of metallic paints that shimmer and change colors as you approach from different directions. Gigantic floral forms are painted in hot magenta on top of the iridescent backgrounds. These huge pink plants are meticulously detailed, rendered with every vein and shadow. Their stems, stalks, and leaves, though, are made of fuzzy blue flocking." 

Where would you expect to find art fitting that description? In
 a head shop? In a bordello? In a bridal supply warehouse? 

Or at the Farmer's Exchange? For all of those meticulously executed, exotic and erotic forms are representations of truck farm produce. Corn stalks and brussels sprouts are the points of departure into Fairchild's splendid phantasmagoria. 
Sarah Fairchild, Zucchini and Nut Grass. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper. 51 x 67 inches. Courtesy, 
Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Fairchild's solo show, Lush, is currently at Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio. I have every hope that pieces from this show will be on display long after the gallery closing, ending up in one of our regions' excellent art museums. It would be very strange were their contemporary curators not looking seriously at this work and arranging their budgets for purchase.

This is the most gutsy and accomplished show of painting I've ever seen in Columbus. It is an uncanny balance of beauty, ferocity, and restraint. To see this work is to be mesmerized; to fall under the influence of an irresistible presence.
Flocking on top of iridescent paint.

Zucchini and Nut Grass, above, like all this work, is hard to photograph, for the colors and the holographic shine of the metallic background cannot be truly captured. Unique to Fairchild's painting is the creation of three layers with distinct surface properties. Yet she's able to integrate iridescent shine with completely light-absorbent flocking laid atop matte acrylic paint. How she came to conceive of this combination is the sort of genius that is either deeply intuitive or outrageously daring. In either event, it reveals that bravura confidence of an artist absorbed in her vision to the exclusion of everything else.

Fairchild acknowledges her love of Charles Burchfield's wallpapers and it's easy to see why she relates to them: the large-scale natural forms in asymmetrical repetition, plus the highly decorative elements of her paintings certainly tip their hat in that direction. Fairchild's paintings assert themselves far beyond design alone, however. The size of most of these is wall-consuming. The thought of repetition at such grand size only underscores how singularly her images are poised on the edge of science fiction or fantasy without stretching our sensibilities to the breaking point.
Detail of acrylic painting

Either close up or from across the room, the viewer has to be mesmerized by the intricacy of Fairchild's paintings. The meticulous workmanship is not a token of fastidiousness, but it's the history of the painter's absorption. The commitment to such a high level of realism in the context of a surreal forcefield of color and texture is an index of Fairchild's comfort with her extraordinary vision.

Zucchini blossoms
Those shiny, decorative backgrounds revealed between the foliage add psychological edge, emotional depth, and spatial ambiguity to the paintings. In Zucchini and Nut Grass, the title tames the sprawling pink form that might otherwise be read as a menacing, invasive super species—the stuff of science fiction. Once we've reassured ourselves however, that, "it's only zucchini," we are still left with the repeated shining concentric circles, blinkless, in the background. Are they eyes looking through the organism? Are they lights that throw the forms into this simplified relief? Or, are they merely visual echoes of the interiors of squash blossoms, there to reinforce the reality of the subject? This is Fairchild's special zone, between literality and the far shores of suggestion.

It's not only in Zucchini and Nut Grass, but in other paintings too that I find Fairchild's vision of Nature less related to Charles Burchfield's (see Starr Review, March 23, 2013) than to Henri Rousseau's. In design, she shares much with Burchfield; in feeling and power, she communicates the managed potential for ferocity found in Rousseau's mysterious, alluring jungles. 
Sarah Fairchild, Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper, 51 x 80 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn lies, like most of Fairchild's work, somewhere between a landscape and a still life. Scrutiny of the left side reveals a tall stalk of brussels sprouts ready for harvest growing among the corn. On the right side, overblown sprouts fall forward toward us, like roses past their prime in an elegiac interior. The cornstalks form a row of consistent measure across the painting, while the sprouts change scale dramatically, moving from distant ("outdoors") to present (close enough to touch).     
Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891.

Among this painting's details and transformations of scale are many secret hiding places—where Rousseau's big cats would lurk. On Fairchild's surface, we find ourselves investigating not the variegations of the color palette, though, but the holes that the bright, "negative" background space punch out among the pink and blue foliage. The silver under-layer almost literally tears its way toward the surface. Both the contrast of high and low values and the intricacy of the spaces carved out by those contrasts gives visual hints of some elusive, dynamic form among the layers. We may not be able to pin down a hiding tiger, but there's definitely a sense that we could be taken unawares by a sudden, unanticipated emergence from the complex scene.

Sarah Fairchild, Chinese Cabbage. Acrylic, silkscreen and
nylon flocking on paper, 
52 x 36 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.

When we catch our breath in awe, seeing a queen in her gown, robes and jewels, the reaction can be attributed to the beauty and carriage of the person herself, or to the awe imparted by the fineness of the regalia. The combination, though, leaves no room for doubt that we are in the presence of the most magnificent and admirable of women. 

Chinese Cabbage must be the name of royalty, for this painting elicits that kind of response. Is the cabbage so beautiful, or is it her raiment that induces so worshipful a response? Fairchild has made a portrait so close-up that the edges are cropped and even the "age spots"—the holes bitten through by insects—are meticulously detailed along with every fold and flourish. Weeds are the lace around this face, and they are set off against the opalescent, blue to violet background. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Pink Sweet Peas,1927.
Pastel on paper, 28 x 21."
It's hard not to connect the image with Georgia
O'Keeffe's close-ups of irises, sweet-peas, and other flowers with vaginal and vulvar forms. The most robust of O'Keeffe's, though, are feminine in a way that is softer and more sensual than Fairchild's. They are indeed lush, but in a way that is smooth, fresh, with every implication of youthful virginity. The flower is not separated from a background by any weedy, stubbly imperfections, as Fairchild's chinese cabbage is. But then, a vegetable is in a post-floral stage of life. A vegetable is about seeds, not seduction. 

Fairchild's painting is indeed deeply sensual, and some would say that all of her work is very sexy. To call it "sexy" is, I think, too reductive and simplistic. 

Sarah Fairchild, Red Cabbage. Acrylic and nylon
 flocking on paper. 
72 x 54 inches. Courtesy,
Harkins Gallery.
The difference does indeed seem to lie between the flower and the fruit. Fairchild never particularly valorizes blossoms over other parts of a plant. Cornstalks; corn silk; brussels sprouts on the stem; worm-eaten leaves; nosegays of field weeds: She does not fetishize the obvious botanical symbols of feminine beauty or ripeness. While she emphasizes the lush, the attention-getting, and the artful, the feminine element of her work lies in its ageless confidence and comfort, its "warts-and-all" self-display on its own terms. 

The unlikely mixture of elements from which Fairchild creates her paintings tells us from the beginning that she is not invested in a unitary aesthetic or theory about beauty or power. If anything is genuinely feminine about her work in a sexy way, it is her womanly confidence in her choices of matter, materials, and methods. Fairchild turns her tenacious, time-consuming process into a luxury: She knows what she wants to do; she doesn't ask permission; her love and her will show in the power of the work. 

Fairchild's sensual work is clearly the product of a woman with no use for rules that she hasn't made herself, and with a conception of femininity untrammeled by the ideas that maturity must be touched up, or that ripeness, intuition, and definition are beyond desire.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Wood Sculptures at a Senegalese Market: Art, Value, and the Tourist's Eye

On a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal, I visited the artisanal market at Pointe des Almadies, where authentic regional art and crafts are to be had. 

Not that these cannot be found in shops (i.e., the kind with lighting, doors that lock at night, and discreet sales ladies). But in shops, arts and crafts items are carefully vetted, and they are marked up to high, commercial prices. Foreigners with experience or coaching know that similar or identical items can be found in local markets. 

But to visit the marketplace (open stalls, no amenities, proprietors who are hell-bent on sales) if you are to enjoy the advantage of better prices. You must be prepared to stand up against those badgering, aggressive vendors. You have to be willing to bargain staunchly for that better price. You should assume automatically that any item is worth half or less than  the stall-keeper's asking price. Even the price asked, however, is probably a quarter of what would be asked in the swell boutique with doors. 

In the stalls at the artisanal market, one can find many beautiful and fascinating things: djembes and talking drums; jewelry made of seeds, shells, beach glass, ceramic beads, wax cloth; paintings of village scenes; leather sandals and bags; and, above all, carved wooden items from tiny trinkets to large, free-standing sculpture.

Most of the stalls offered small carved wood objects, whatever the real focus of its inventory was. Everyone had small, rough-hewn wooden turtles: Even at "full price" they'd cost very little. Their ubiquitousness suggested that they, like a few other items, may have been made entirely as tourist trinkets. 

I discovered once I got home that several rare kinds of turtles (marine and desert) live in Senegal, and that there are companies that even take tourists out to watch loggerhead turtles lay eggs in the sand. Turtles are likely to mean more even than tourist dollars to the Senegalese. Where was the line between made-for-tourists, and shared culture?

In the shop that carried wooden sculpture exclusively, the proprietor spoke pretty good English and was willing to spend some time actually discussing his merchandise with me. He did in fact have some stunning sculptures, like a sinuous, gleaming alligator carved of ebony that hung on the wall, five feet long in its curled state. No one would consider it other than a work of art, so well made, so well designed, so spirited a piece it was. Clearly it was made by an artist—whoever that person is, living under whatever circumstances, with who knows what expectations for the sale of his/her work. The alligator was what a small museum would be happy to collect for its African Art wing. It was a carving that was wonderful on aesthetic grounds alone. Its local significance could be made as relevant or irrelevant as curators and viewers wished.

Alike but different; faces or masks?
On the other hand, there were a great many modest objects that fell into a zone between the crude turtles and the magnificent alligator—for example, carved faces that were, as far as I could tell, masks of some sort. That they were incomprehensible to me was a block to my appreciation on even a basic aesthetic level. Were they the result of any particular local need or impulse? Or were these tourist bait, designed to look like Western ideas of African carvings? 

Here I was in an artisanal market, but I was confused by a blurring of several values. What was I looking for? Authenticity in terms of tradition, culture, or use: Yes. Aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship: Of course. Yet wasn't I quick to judge anything for appearing in a stall that I thought "too touristy? Wasn't I hasty to dismiss items I considered (for arbitrary reasons) kitsch, despite their being local and hand-made? How could I know the intrinsic value of anything there, knowing nothing of its significance?

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
If it hadn't been for the obliging shopkeeper whose English was a little better than my French, I think I'd have made no purchase. I think that these seven little teak carvings opposite would have remained impenetrable to me. I'd probably have examined them one by one, tried to decide which I liked best, and decided that none was all that compelling.

The shopkeeper brought all of them down at once, then he laid them out side by side, arranging and rearranging them carefully as if he were beginning a game of solitaire. They were not individuals, but a set of seven carvings.

They are, he explained, a calendar for the illiterate of their Muslim country, each indicating one of the seven days of the week. Each day, the appropriate carving is placed vertically to insure that the household proceeds in orderly step within the community.

In the photograph above, the carvings are laid out in order, beginning with Monday. Monday has one point at the top of the head. Tuesday has two. Wednesday's more elaborate, dual pairing (two straight up, the middle two coming together) indicates the day of the week traditional for marrying. 

Thursday has four points and a clipped beard as well. The four points are not only for the fourth day, but together with the trimmed beard indicate the day for the barber, where one is neatened up for Friday—the day a man wears a hat and combs his beard to go to the mosque.

Saturday and Sunday are days to be lazy about personal appearance. The points on top are "disheveled" and by Sunday the man is wearing leisure clothes and ornaments that are represented by the folds and forms surrounding the face.

I am very happy that I bought the calendar (in teak; a similar calendar in ebony was more than I wanted to pay). I am fascinated that it is so full of ideas and that looking at it takes me to a world I wouldn't have imagined without it. It's already served what I consider one of the functions of art just by opening a door that takes me past the thing itself.

Now that I know its significance, it is more appealing to my eye than it was before. The fact that it is not finely wrought makes sense and completes its story in a satisfying way. Was it made to be used? Or was it made to sell to tourists? Should I know? Should I care? Would knowing increase or decrease its authenticity and appeal for me?

I had been given the figure on the right as a gift in
the past. Now I know it to be a Sunday
figure from an ebony calendar set.
When I visit collections of African art, I'm always amazed by the forms, colors, and ideas of representation or symbol so different from those I'm familiar with. In museums, African art is often staged in a position closely bordering on anthropology, and the work of a vast continent with myriad cultures is of necessity, though unhappily, all clumped together. 

At the artisanal market, though, I felt that I gained some minor insight into the process of collecting artifacts from a far-away culture. What is art, what is tool, and are such distinctions useful? If it's made for trade, is it less valuable? If it's common, is it less valuable, or if it's rough rather than perfected? None of the distinctions I'm used to working with—even if only to challenge—made any sense in that Senegalese market. It's a place that either requires a set of questions I haven't discovered yet, or one that I haven't learned to put away.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Magnificent Terry Waldo: This is Ragtime

November annually brings home to Columbus, Ohio the greatest living interpreter of ragtime and early jazz piano, Terry Waldo. Waldo grew up here and graduated from Ohio State. Waldo's many friends celebrate his birthday on Thanksgiving eve at Becky Ogden's Bungalow Jazz concert series. It's a tradition held as dear as the feast day itself, especially since the guests get the gifts at the honoree's expense of effort. The consummate entertainer, Waldo plays, sings, tells bawdy jokes, and even takes requests (within limits: Not Take the A Train: "It would be wasted on my talents," he suggests.) A one-man guardian of the vaudeville flame, Waldo declares himself willing to let the superficial reign, to make people happy, to have fun. 

Terry Waldo at his birthday concert, November
2013, Bungalow Jazz, Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by James Loeffler.
A Waldo performance is the delight that a sunburn must be to a Laplander in December. But tap your toes and laugh your head off, if you're paying attention to the music, you'll be astounded to find that he plays ragtime with a power one rarely ascribes to what we think of a merely a cheerful music. Waldo interprets and improvises from a depth of understanding few access. Protege of Eubie Blake for the last fifteen years of the great composer's life, Waldo began even in his teens to pursue this music and to sit in with the generation that invented it. He's become the world's premier performer and scholar of the music on the basis of experience-based understanding.

Here's Waldo's opening from November's birthday concert, "The Pearl," by Jelly Roll Morton:                  

Acute timing, articulation, and improvisation all leap out from this and all Waldo's performances, the latter being central to his understanding of the music. Over the years, he reports, he's been dragged into "pissing contests" with musicians for whom playing ragtime is a matter of copying old records. "It's not jazz," says Waldo. "You're always doomed to failure. If you're copying records note-for-note, musicians on the stand aren't listening to each other: It's not alive. I get into a lot of shit about that," he confesses. "My recordings are originals. Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't have done a tune the same way twice." How many ways has Waldo played Eubie Blake's "Troublesome Ivories?"

Waldo's education in ragtime and traditional jazz is the result of curiosity and the opportunities of a great scene in Columbus and Dayton. When he was in high school and college in the early '60s, he benefited from the legacy of the '40s traditional revival. He knew the great Johnny Ulrich, who played piano with one hand and trumpet with the other, who had played with Bobby Hackett and did Jackie Gleason's arrangements. He heard and learned from Gene Mayle and the Dixieland Rhythm Kings, the Gin Bottle Seven, and trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who taught him banjo. He founded his own band, the Fungus Five, in 1963, as a high school student, and a star was born. Or, at least, an indomitable artist was.
Selection of Waldo's releases, including 26-hour Public
Radio series, "This is Ragtime." Photo by James Loeffler.

During his student summers, Waldo played in a banjo band at the Red Garter in the French Quarter of New Orleans and got to know musicians still living from the original days of ragtime and New Orleans jazz. He worked in San Francisco during the '70s Dixieland revival, this time as a tuba player at Turk Murphy's club as a member of Earthquake McGoon's band.

In short, Waldo learned his art from the ground up as a young man, playing with and learning from the first generation men (and women—Alberta Hunter) who made his music. 

Although Waldo was both a band member and leader (his bands included the Ralph Emerson Waldo Jazz Band, Waldo's Ragtime Orchestra, and his Gutbucket Syncopators, which recorded several great CDs), he reminds us that ragtime is principally piano music. It was offered as sheet music; it's longer form than jazz; and compared to jazz band music of the Dixieland era, it's very complex harmonically. 
Illustration from This is Ragtime by Terry Waldo, Jazz at Lincoln
Center Library Editions, 2009. Wlado's High Society Stompers
with Sandra Day O'Connor on washboard.

Many casual listeners enjoy ragtime thinking it essentially uniform and predictable. But hearing Waldo play James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," you can hear how the music veers among keys in both hands, changing colors crazily, rushing tempos, and making the listener stagger to keep up. We can tap our feet to it, but ultimately we have to just surrender to the exciting succession of tremblers that mark its irregular course. This goes back to interpretation and improvisation. While lots of sheet music exists for Ragtime tunes, as Wynton Marsalis points out in the introduction to Waldo's book, This is Ragtime, "Many times what you write is so much less than you can play."

During our evening with Waldo, it was interesting to hear him distinguish between band and piano music when a request was made for him to play the Lil Hardin delight, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a Dixieland band favorite. The music is from his period, but he's a ragtime pianist, something quite different: Hear Waldo's reaction to this request. His brief performance could convince someone unacquainted with the tune that it had been a piano rag all along. 

Waldo greets fans at Bungalow Jazz. Photo by James Loeffler.
Waldo's first real encounter with Eubie Blake  was at the 1970 St. Louis Ragtime Festival. he played Blake's formidable "Charleston Rag." Afterwards, when Blake took the stage, he declared to the crowd, "This man Terry Waldo played my 'Charleston Rag;' if he'd have been a woman, I'd have married him." 

A friendship was formed that resulted first in Waldo's arranging a tour for Blake of colleges in central Ohio (Ohio State declined the pleasure). Eventually, Waldo transcribed most of Blake's music and resided with Eubie and Marion for several years as student and assistant. Waldo takes amused—but very sincere—pleasure in Blake's having referred to him as his "ofay son."

In this video of Eubie Blake himself playing "Charleston Rag," one is reminded of two aspects of ragtime that are always shine from Waldo's performances. First is that, for all the fun, it is cerebral music. The rhythmic and harmonic intricacies—What work it must be to transcribe a performance!—are great. Glad as it makes us feel, there is nothing simple about it, certainly in conception. The other thing is that despite its musical demands, ragtime is always presented lightly, as an amusement for the performer and audience alike. Eubie Blake puts himself through his paces, but not without intermittent jokes about his ability to recollect the tune.

Waldo's material is accessible and engaging: "I see it as show biz." He sees himself as actively in the vaudeville tradition because even Dixieland jazz bands played vaudeville. When they did, they played no more than fifteen-minute sets with maybe five tunes per set, including drumstick showmanship and visual gags. It would be part of a larger entertainment with "singers, jugglers, comedians, an unnatural sex act—whatever made it work." 

Terry Waldo's history of ragtime and early jazz piano.
So while he is the consummate interpreter and teacher about ragtime and early jazz piano, Waldo also does television and, radio, produces musicals and is, of course, a composer in the ragtime and vaudeville veins. No show is without his own songs, always bawdy or satirical with a stinging political or social edge. After performing on request Tom Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" last month, he followed up with his own, "Let's Pray Against Someone." It's fun, but fun is also essential to the tradition.

"I do know vaudeville, and I act in my shows. Eubie was a great actor and performer," Waldo told me. "As a Black actor, he was like a boxer: You go out and give 'em everything you've got—Bam bam, no apologies, you don't be messing around! You have to have a sense of humor: Give them comedy; give them novelty songs: 'I like bananas because the have no bones.'"

For these reasons, Waldo the entertainer, the vaudevillian, takes exception to many existing presentations of ragtime, especially to people who record hour-long "archival" CDs with no breaks, simply one tune after another without suffusing any essential levity to keep it various and interesting.

Terry Waldo's knowledge about ragtime is the result of unbridled, lifelong curiosity, pursued since his 'teens. He's plunged into any opportunity he could find or create for his whole life. His book about ragtime is only one form in which he has transmitted his knowledge about early jazz. His National Public Radio series is available through his website. He has also recorded lectures for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which are available on YouTube. In these videos we can appreciate the entertainer, but we primarily see the excellent pedagogue who knows his material so deeply that he needs no recourse to academic or obfuscatory language to impart either facts or enthusiasm to his audience. He assumes we are interested and listening: He makes it fun: Terry Waldo Discusses Ragtime.  Here you can hear his own performance of the "Charleston Rag" as well as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." 

Terry Waldo's an artist I admire because the depth of his knowledge is based on his experience of his art—he understands it from the ground up, through his ears and muscle memory, through observation and conversation, trial and error. I also respect Waldo's lover-like commitment to what he knows and does. "I'm a dinosaur," he once told me. The revival of the '70s is long gone and the people who are interested in playing traditional jazz come through academic historical interest to a music of guts and laughter. I'll show up to his party, though, as long as it lasts, just to "come and hear." 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Noah Purifoy's Outside: the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum

Noah Purifoy, Shelter. Joshua tree in foreground.
Noah Purifoy, interior of
My children have got me into most of life's great experiences and so it was once again that through my daughter's reconnoitering I visited Noah Purifoy's home and Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the Mojave Desert. We entered when the early morning shadows cast by the cactuses of greater Joshua Tree, California were still long on the sand. This collection opens very early in the morning. Empty parking spaces for five and six cars abut a neighbor's property across the unpaved road, and neither guards nor doors nor walls enforce the posted hours of operation. The Museum is just there: a circus, a shrine, a stunning collection of sculpture and installation existing as a fact of life, an integral part of the desert landscape demarcated only by an occasional barrier of inclusion. We enter the Purifoy site as we enter a theater and see the stage, with imaginations tingling. The only limits here are set by our own capacities to appreciate the unity of action set before us.

Noah Purifoy, Bowling Balls. One of
three bowling ball towers.
In 1989 Purifoy left Los Angeles, where he had been a founding member of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. He had gleaned rubble from the infamous race riots to use as sculptural materials, and he continued to use found materials for the rest of his career. He moved his practice to Joshua Tree, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. On his ten acres he created over a hundred works from discarded materials. 
Noah Purifoy. Possibly, Three Witches. It was hard
for me to keep up with titles as the map of the site is
schematic and nothing is labeled. But the interplay of
Art and Nature is wonderful and not unusual.

In popular imagination, people who retreat to the desert are saints, hermits, or kooks. Wise men go for spiritual discipline and reflection; monomaniacs discover that odd kingdoms await them there. These people re-enter society either as Jesus or as Brian David Mitchell, the prince of a two-person sect of child abductors. People who go to the desert are rarely like the rest of us.

The desert symbolizes circumstances of deprivation with no joy. But the power of symbols lies in their lack of specificity, so we don't imagine the desert in any detail, as a place with properties beyond absences. When we think of the lives of hermits and saints and outcasts, we don't envision the desert earth as nurturing flora and fauna; we don't think of the vistas, sunsets, or the subtle gardens at their feet. The actual, living desert inspires habits of alertness, observation, and awe. Its phenomena exist on a very broad scale—as vast as the endless sky, as minute as sand-dwelling insects built for survival.
Noah Purifoy. Rear, Ode to Frank Gehry. Foreground, Sixty-five Aluminum Trays.

When Purifoy moved to the desert, he must have been profoundly aware of both the symbolic and specific power of the place, for it's not only his genius as a sculptor that is so moving, but it's his genius as an artist in the fullest sense—his ability to see beyond what he has his hands on. On his property one encounters not only the many sculptures, but also the size of the space itself, the infinite sky, the continuous desert, and the cactuses that grow undisturbed among the many man-made phenomena. In his museum,  the visitor never loses consciousness of the environment and its components of sand, plants, sun, and sky. Purifoy clearly considered and built with those in mind. They unify the property and they unify his efforts across time. He uses cactuses to pull together groups of several sculptures, or, sometimes, he places artworks with a cactus as the focal point. Purifoy's use of his complex setting reveals the observational basis for his art that seems at first encounter marked by pure imagination.

Noah Purifoy, one car in the long train he built on the site

Purifoy's property is on the edge of a Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. His desert retreat was not obtained for the purposes of landscape painting; he seems not to have inspired other artists to follow or colonize around him. Whether he was visited by agents, gallerists, and curators, I do not know, but the site is so unified and concentrated that it's difficult to imagine anything obtruded on his focus there. The Foundation quotes Purifoy with saying, "I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be," words that reinforce the impression the Outdoor Museum conveys, that this work was made from inner compulsion, not for reasons of career.

The photograph (left) shows where Purifoy segregated his accumulated materials or, as any self-respecting neighbor would call it, his junk. Every scrap that appears in his constructions is used with self-conscious wit, grace, humor and punch. The space—as large and composed of hundreds of thousands of individual elements as it is—feels animated by the life stored in those myriad parts and activated by their use in artworks. Because it's clear that nothing is arbitrary in this world, the effect is musical. There are naturally-occuring vibrations, like sound-waves; particular harmonies generated by a place so perfectly and intuitively orchestrated. I've experienced nothing like this—visual unity of such a vast scale—outside of grand gardens, symmetrical in plan. 
Noah Purifoy, No Contest. The "building" is a facade.

It's unusual to find as little repetition in a body of work as one does in the Outdoor Museum. "Outsider" artists may   limit themselves throughout life to a single approach, material, or style. Contemporary academy-trained artists produce bodies of work, based on a career model of development that assumes ever more favorable judgment awaits their ever-changing work, where change equals improvement. 

In art—in every enterprise—the perception that one has succeeded is a great inducement to continue doing the same thing: Success is seductive, even when it's damaging to broader expression of creativity. But here, Purifoy has built buildings one can enter; he's constructed facades, earthworks, towers. There are abstract sculptures, simulacra, miniature environments; some works are busy and elaborated, and others are no more than the barest suggestions of form. There are works that focus attention on the environment, the church, or on art itself. It seems that nothing recurs.

Noah Purifoy, Sculpture made from the aluminum
tube frames of patio chairs, enhanced by shadows
Alone in the desert, though, liberated from the effects of outside judgment, what is there to short-circuit the exploratory impulse? I believe that this extraordinary place is testimony to the stifling effect that organized Art can have on the connection between creative impulse and individual production. Under the sun on the Mojave Desert, Purifoy would have experienced little daily commentary, opinion, or intrusion on his creative independence. Of course he could have built nothing but gates for fifteen years—anything is possible. But his setting seems to have given him the privacy to fill mental and spiritual as well as physical space and he did it in a broad and balanced way, without expressing any observable need for self-replication.
Noah Purifoy, detail of architectural
installation with ornamental and structural use
of toilets, reminiscent of classical columns

Again, the desert sun both reflects and shines like a spotlight on Purifoy's achievement. It seems to move with the viewer among the works on the site, calling attention to the uniqueness of each—to its relationship to its environment, its outstanding form, materials, and spirit.

Separate Purifoy from the art world; isolate him in the desert, away from the commerce of galleries, from separated and denominated museum rooms (Black, Contemporary, American, Twentieth-Century); remove him from having to hear, speak, or interpret Art's professional jargon—do all these things and you can come up with Purifoy as a genuine outsider artist. 

In Purifoy's personal garden adjacent to his trailer

The CV available on the Noah Purifoy Foundation site makes it evident that Purifoy did not at all fit the technical definition of an outsider: He had an art degree, many solo shows, prestigious fellowships and awards. But could these facts ever make an insider of an Alabama-born Black Angelino, whose mature period work is formed from the rubble of an infamous race riot? It seems to me that it's a very doubtful proposition. Socially and psychologically, there would be much to place him as an outsider.

But as an artist, Purifoy strikes me as an outsider in the best, most liberated, enviable sense. The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is a brilliant, unique place created only by an artist contented with own thoughts and imagination. He appears to have turned out his ideas with a patient spontaneity untarnished by vogues, criticism, or suggestions. The harmonious mixture of calm and excitement I felt there undoubtedly had to do with Purifoy's outsider perspective: He put himself beyond everything that is usual but extraneous to the central work of an artist, which should be observing, thinking about, and doing what is most important to him. How far out can you go? Here, Purifoy is, in every aspect of his work and life, a nonpareil—excellent and right.

This site is an inspiration to any artist in any medium. That this place is so suffused with its creator's values shows the excellence of stepping wholly away from organized art's—from society's—congested sphere of comparison. The desert is purifying and solitude is refining. It's hard for me to conclude otherwise after visiting this sacred place, Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. 
Panorama of Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Photo by Margaret Starr.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

For Instance Laura Bidwa

For Instance Me is the title of 
Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (green), 2012. Oil and acrylic
on panel, 11 x 15."
painter Laura Bidwa's current show in Room, an intimate gallery space at Columbus College of Art and Design. You'll have to sprint to see it by the time this review comes out (it closes on November 15), but your raised pulse will calm once you get there. Bidwa's work is contemplative, mysterious, and serene. A visit to this show is like looking into  the variety and nuance of one beautiful, thoughtful mind. The thirteen paintings arise from one visual premise yet they show great variety. There's no doubt that you stand in a unified, unique environment. You have the opportunity to explore its fascinating details, for within the given of a loosely gathered, pastel mass situated against a black background, each painting is wholly independent of its neighbors. It's one cast of mind with many kinds of thoughts.

Bidwa engages us with the figures—those irregular, translucent forms that sometimes drift, sometimes propel themselves across the black, sanded fields of her paintings—by means of suggestive titles. These never explain, declare, or pin down her subjects because ambiguity is their nature. 

Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (yellow, 1), 2012. Oil and acrylic on
panel, 11 x 15."

A big part of my pleasure in Bidwa's work is a sense of peace with undefined outcomes. Four of the thirteen paintings are Creature(s) I Don't Know. Well, I sure don't either! But there they are, whether or not I know or can define them. These paintings—with figures of various colors, densities, shapes, positions; placed against backgrounds of greater or lesser opacity—have quite a strong effect on me. They remind me of the frequency of my own "unknown," subliminal thoughts. Do they move across my consciousness like meteorites; like dust; like clouds? Are they fragments, or blind spots? Do I see the thoughts I don't focus on? Or do I simply neglect them? My ideas may have nothing at all to do with what Bidwa thought or sought to do. But the multivalence of art is one standard of its power. Considered this way, Bidwa's is explosive.
Laura Bidwa, Literally. Oil and acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

Bidwa is clearly not an automatic painter—she does not paint in a trance, nor give us what comes to her spontaneously. But it is part of her art to convey a sense of the momentary, yet to still it so we can seize upon the flashpoint of connection, when a word or a vision blinks across the mind, usually to be lost as it occurs. I cannot parse or explain her painting, Literally. But the invitation to connect the word, the concept, and the image can't be passed up. "Literally" makes us think of something accurate, real, and certain. What does it mean that the figure is suspended, has substance, and pleasing color? That the black background is rent, exposing a creamy beyond? Bidwa nudges us into alertness to quiet questions, and into a sense that they are all around us, breathing into the thin fabric of daily consciousness.

Laura Bidwa, That's the Way That It Ends, Oil and Acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

I particularly like the painting,That's the Way That It Ends, especially in its relationship to the others in the show. In this one, Bidwa has not sanded off any of the black paint. In fact, she has returned with it to partially paint over the colored figure. She has applied dots of color to the surface of many of her paintings in a way that feels almost light-hearted. When she does it here, their force is different because they bolster a sense of spatial depth. In all of the paintings one feels three dimensions, but in few do the layers of space seem to impinge on one another. Here they do, as the figure seems to be absorbed into the unbroken background. That's the Way That It Ends, folks. This image is unrelieved and heavy in contrast to its neighbors, adding an arresting change of mood and idea to the show.

For Instance Me is a masterful show. Bidwa does subtle and resonant work with a just a few, repeated visual elements. She is utterly confident in her process, materials, and the strength of her communication. She is also aware of the breadth and depth of her potential audience. Through her titles especially, she open doors to the mysterious paintings and encourages our minds to travel the ground she has traced.