Monday, September 30, 2013

"Blues for Smoke" at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Roy DeCarava, Dancers, New York, 1956
Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11." Courtesy of the DeCarava
Jaki Byard, Blues for Smoke, 1960,
album jacket.
I have written about travel before, but never in the guise of an art review. Blues for Smoke, out of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, seems more like a city than an exhibition. The only elements it lacks are architecture and food. It has painting, photography, sculpture and installation. It has full-length movies, videos, documentaries, concert films, and sixty hours of The Shield. You can lean against the wall to hear whole albums of music by jazz and blues musicians (no seating, unfortunately, provided for 35 minutes of the namesake album, pianist Jaki Byard's 1960 Blues for Smoke). 

Blues for Smoke fills every inch of the Wexner Center. Headsets for music dangle ready for use in spaces better left as the passages they normally are; only the restrooms remain artlessly functional.

The outsized show reflects the excellent impulse of curator Bennett Simpson, assisted by artist Glenn Ligon, to provide as many lenses as possible on the cultural notion of the blues. And what would that notion—"the blues"—be? Refreshingly, no statement is made, no definition suggested. Only works of art are offered to us. What do we think? In or out? Do we think, "Spot on!" or "What's that doing here?" 

Beauford Delaney,Portrait of Charlie Parker, 1968.
 Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 23 1/2 in. 
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York 
Still, Simpson clearly starts from the premise that the blues are a form of musical expression shaped by the impulse to make something out of the nothing of hardship. The blues has inspired nearly every art form and continues to color and shape American—and possibly foreign—culture(s).

But fundamentally, it's music, with which the show is loaded. There is less Leadbelly than Jaki Byard; less Big Mama Thornton than John Coltrane. In general, Simpson isn't as interested in the roots as in the shoots—in all the ways the blues inspire.

Blues for Smoke is heavy on jazz. Beauford Delaney portrayed Parker ("Bird") in 1968, thirteen years after the saxophonist's death at age thirty-five. Parker is not presented realistically, but through symbols. His skin is so black that it is like a rainbow; his costume is like an African prince's golden raiment. He doesn't hold an alto saxophone, but a hand-mirror decorated with musical notes: His reflection must be music itself—or the Bird that sits near his shoulder? Is the sparrow from a Kansas City sidewalk transformed into but a regal West African crow, gliding above Sahara sands?

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Record jacket for Art Ensemble of
Chicago with Fontella Bass,
1970, America Records.

(Image not in Blues for Smoke)
Beauford Delaney was active during the Harlem Renaissance but moved during the '50s to live in France. A gallery note tells that he did not in fact consider himself an expatriate, reasoning that one can only expatriate from a country that claims you in the first place. "One must belong before one may not belong. I belong here in Paris, I am able to realize myself here. I am no expatriate."

Without exploring anew the details of music imported with West African slaves and its shaping of the blues, Simpson gives significant attention to the free and improvised jazz of the 1960s and later made by musicians like the racially and historically conscious Art Ensemble of Chicago. The record jacket from a 1970 release (not included in the show) only hints at their connection to Africa, made in their performances not only through instrumentation—talking drums, floor drums, rattles, whistles and other percussion equipment; use of  Western instruments to produce non-Western sounds—but through exotic costume and staging. The group's motto was, "Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future."

The hour-long film, Art Ensemble of Chicago in Concert,1981 (Rhapsody Films, 2005) is one of the first events you'll encounter at Blues for Smoke. Placed as it is, this electrifying film makes it hard even to proceed any farther. AEC's sweating musicians play from electrifying, almost ecstatic inspiration. Lester Bowie, the trumpeter, dresses in a white lab coat, emphasizing the experimental nature of his work, but the others—I reveal what no note does: Malachi Favors, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and Famoudou Don Moye—wear masks or face paint and garments in several African styles, adorned with cowrie shells and other jewelry. The color and richness of the pageantry provide an unforgettable display of racial dignity and pride. In their avant garde music it's difficult not to hear the links they make between improvisational jazz ("American classical music") and sources in African rhythms and sounds.

A fascinating documentary about powerhouse, avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor demonstrates his daily aesthetic and cultural ties to Africa (Cecil Taylor: All the Notes, 2006. 72 minutes, Dir. Fred Barney Taylor; Maestro Media, 2009). Because the background of his life is so impregnated with Africana, one can't help but wonder about associations he may make between his racial and cultural background and his extraordinarily grounded approach to music-making. He works in a way that almost entirely eschews Western, academic notions of how music is put together, down even to the basics of scales, preferring to be led only by the ear and confidence in instinct. 

Arkestra, Barcelona, September 21, 2013. Photo, Suso Navarrete
(Image not in Blues for Smoke)
And another great avant garde musician from the '60s and '70s is Sun Ra, whose connection to an Egyptian-based mystical morality binds the music of his Arkestra to social betterment for Black youth. Blues for Smoke includes Ra's 1972 film, Space is the Place, (GRP AAIMPD249, 1993) with the plot of a conventional grade B urban action movie. White law enforcement officers try to keep Ra and the Arkestra (all in defining, exotic costume) from performing, and slick Black pimps exploit innocent Black girls. Thanks to powers that make Ra basically superhuman—harmonic progressions converted to energy—he saves all situations.

The blues? Are we still talking about the blues with all these costumed improvisers making appeals to different regions or fantasies of Africa? I was interested that Simpson insists on making them prominent, for it's not something that jumps out like the connection between the John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and the blues. The confident commitment of free improvisation, and the musicians' deeply felt relationship with a distant world—both are drenched in fundamental tensions. They yearn for a place and time long lost, yet they work to create a comparable world of dignity and beauty by framing their own rules; by replacing old assumptions with new. Among these avant garde Black musicians, the blues aren't only about the fatigue of suffering: From the downtrodden arises a Phoenix-like impulse to brilliance.  
David Hammons, Chasing the Blue Train, 1989. Mixed media, dimensions variable.
Collection S.M.A.K., Ghent, Belgium. Photo by Dirk Pauwels. 

A few works of visual art respond directly to music itself, not to musical figures. Roy DeCarava's black and white photos of dancers at a rent dance in a small kitchen (not shown) and, above, in a dance hall, beautifully reflect the deep mysterious movement of music on soul and body. In the kitchen-dancers' everyday dress, the sadness of eking out dream-space under the overhead light and next to the sink are tenderly acknowledged. In Dancers, the darkness that accompanies all freedom is surely the flip side of the blues.

David Hammons' installation, Chasing the Blue Train, is both funny, visually engaging, and beautiful in its arrangement of a select few, spare elements. Blue Train is the title of John Coltrane's ("Trane's") first album as a leader, recorded in 1957, so the title is a pun, as is the work itself, with a blue-painted HO-guage train chugging along beneath a tunnel of coal ("coal-train") on each loop. Among the landscape of piano lids the train traverses are boom boxes playing music of pianist Thelonius Monk, Coltrane's inspirational colleague, and of a trumpeter—probably Lee Morgan, who was on the Blue Train album (no gallery note reveals the personnel or music). 

The importance of Chasing the Blue Train for us is not so much in knowing details of the Coltrane-Monk association, as it is in Hammon's 1989 response to the legendary album. Hammons'  installation is minimal, cool, and amusing. Its light-heartedness is appealing. It's based on word-play; the music is a prop for the visual and the implied verbal. I think it's more a commentary on the culture built around jazz than about the music itself. Hammon reflects on the wish to be "on the train" of "With It," recognizing the scenery, knowing the station names, where to get on and off the cool-train.
Bob Thompson, Garden of Music, 1960. Oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 143 in. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY. 
Bob Thompson's enormous painting, Garden of Music, celebrates great jazz innovators of his moment. Among the musicians in his Garden of Eden are free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and musicians associated with him: trumpeter Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell literally on the drums, and Charlie Haden carrying the bass (line). To the extent that pattern, color, and visual rhythm can "make music," Thompson aims to do so. And what  truly excites me is that so immense  a canvas celebrates avant garde artists at the moment of their ascendence, when the future can still take their legacy to greatness or obscurity. It's not the same as making a portrait of Bird fifteen years after his death. Thompson is deeply in the middle of this scene. He was friends with Coleman and this musical circle in New York, though the painter and his wife expatriated to Spain. 

Melvin Edwards, Write When You Can, 1991.
 Welded steel, 13 x 10 1/2 x 8 in. Courtesy of 
the artist and Alexander Gray Associates 
Expats and Afro-centrists; people living where they never wanted to be, born into a world that didn't want them, or looking for a better place. So much of Blues for Smoke relates to location the will to move on and up—to the promise that a man who can choose his environment can change his lot. 

In general, I think that the two-dimensional works in this show are less interesting than the music, videos, and installations, and for this reason: The blues are a matter of movement, atmosphere, and ambiguous or unsettled states of being. These are best captured in transitory and dynamic art forms. Thompson's painting, and Delany's (above) pay tribute to blues figures, but there's a difference between demonstration or homage and being caught up an experience. Two-dimensional works throughout the show are secondary sources—representations—a step away from engagement. The blues are experience itself, involving time and space. 

Even a stationary, three-dimensional sculpture like this small relief work by Melvin Edwards fills space and time, psychologically and in terms time's expanse of possibilities. It implies past and future; its mood is as complex as the horror and strength of its form and materials. Write When You Can is a title packed with nuance, future, and possibilities. It signals departure, presumably from a dark place where this conglomerate of chain, gimlets, screws and fused steel will be left behind at "home." 

Does sorrow overwhelm us that this is where one has been, and that this will always be part some immigrant's life? What kind of congratulations do we give the person who leaves this? What will she say when she writes? How will she explain her new-found world to people fixed in the darkness of this one? Within the psychic space of Edwards' sculpture there is room for all these questions to exist and begin to play out in our imaginations.

Blues for Smoke includes 78 minutes of Richard Pryor Live in Concert, 1979 (directed by Jeff Margolis, HBO, 2006). If there were more than two headsets attached to the monitor, I suspect that Wexner could outright cancel the rest of the show. Blood runs through every laugh Pryor evokes. It's impossible to watch him without knowing that every joke you're doubling over about is a horrible truth. "Be happy," he says, "for any Nigger doing anything," and he probably cuts as close to the bone of the blues impulse as anyone can.

Glenn Ligon, No Room (Gold) #42, 2007. Oil and acrylic on canvas,
32 x 32 inches. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.
© Glenn Ligon. Photo by Joshua White. 
Three canvases of Glenn Ligon's hang next to the monitor playing the Pryor video. Two have the text shown to the left: "I was a nigger for twenty-three years. I gave that shit up. No room for / No room for advancement." The other substitutes the word, "Negro" for "nigger." I was with a friend deeply-versed in Pryor, who assured me that this text is derived from Pryor', who is a great inspiration for Ligon too. 

These three paintings are from a much larger series with the same texts printed in greater or lesser degrees of clarity, surrounded by more or less smeared excess ink. It's a series painted of stuttering words that evenly divide a golden ground. Each canvas has, despite the sputtering and smears, an essential formal dignity. Yet despite the golden ground and the formal setting for the vernacular language, the canvas-to-canvas repetition never manages to get off the ground: There's no advancement. Nigger/Negro? How does one give that shit up? What's the relationship between statement and action? Between saying it on the stage, as comedy, and repeating it, in all seriousness, as text? Does anyone advance?

Such questions seem inevitably to lead either to constant expression of frustration and rage (Pryor, Ligon) or to movement (migration of the soul to real or imagined Africa, to Europe, to a hopefully less racist part of America). But movement away still leaves part behind. Zoe Leonard's  continuous installation/sculpture, 1961, is a poignant testimony to this idea of departure and personal history. Every suitcase added must represent more packed up from added experience—the difficulty of leaving the past behind, however painful it may have been. You can't shake the blues. You don't pack up in a pink suitcase and leave segregated America of 1961 behind as you click the latches.
Zoe Leonard, 1961, 2002- ongoing. Blue suitcases, dimensions variable.
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, Germany. Photo by Bill Jacobson. 
Leonard is a white woman in a show of mostly  Black artists. Simpson's piece suggests, however, just how far the influence of the blues penetrates through races, sexes, and nationalities. A splendid 14-minute, 2012 video by Wu Tsang, Mishima in Mexico, presents two young, English-speaking men of ambiguous sexuality who rent a hotel room in a Mexican city in order to finish a screen play of a book by Japanese novelist, Yuko Mishima. Moody, ambiguous, sliding between fiction and reality; character and role; and gender assignments, we watch it with questions from the surrounding blues environment. Japanese, Mexican, white, and transgendered: All these are categories that don't pop to mind with the term "the blues." Simpson invites us to see how far contemporary art can stretch the blues.

Stan Douglas, Hors-champs, 1992. Two-channel video installation with stereo 
sound 13:20 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York.
Image courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York, © Stan Douglas .
Blues for Smoke is a show of such grand scope, settled around so basic an issue—the  influence of the blues on contemporary artists and art forms—that it's impossible to come away unsatisfied. For any visitor there are beauties, surprises, brand-new satisfactions, and even old favorites to be found.

I was nevertheless very sorry to see that while Simpson gave much pride of place to music in a multi-media show, he did nothing to acknowledge musicians; he thought entirely like a visual arts curator, acknowledging only whom he assumed to be the Real Artists. 

One of the glories of Blues for Smoke is a 13-minute film, projected onto back-to-back screens. It records a performance of Spirits Rejoice by its composer, free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler and his ensemble. As the caption to the stills above reveal, all the credit goes to the film-maker, Stan Douglas. It requires very determined Internet searching on this work to eke out the name of any personnel on the performance beyond Ayler. Even though the trombonist is the great George Lewis (a MacArthur winner, even, in recent years), his name is never mentioned in the show or any materials connected to it. 

This is true of all the music films and videos. No names are given for the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, as eminent in music as any of the visual artists in this show. Ditto for the members of Sun Ra's colleagues, and the anonymous greats of music playing on the CD soundtrack for Hammon's Blue Train. Throughout the show, music is honored, but musicians—the most famous and groundbreaking—are anonymous. Or, in the case of the Stan Douglas film, what's celebrated is his film with his title, over the content of astounding music performed by genius musicians.

The confinement to visual (Art) standards in a multi-media show is curatorial oversight of a high order, suggesting that however prominently the music is showcased, it's all really just the blues. It's not embodied; it exists just in the air, an attitude, perhaps coming naturally to anonymous Black brethern, like all blues do. 

Can we advance a little here?

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