Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"Summer Ponds—New Work by Betsy DeFusco" at the Ohio State Faculty Club

How lovely to have a backyard pond like Betsy Furlong DeFusco does, with time to contemplate its inspiration on canvas, in color. "It's very relaxing to sit and watch the fish swimming around endlessly in a swirl of color, and I soon became engaged in seeing a whole world of activity in a tiny body of water. I am constantly inspired by the different worlds in nature and by the act of painting itself as I explore the edge between abstraction and representation," she tells us in the statement she prepared for her large exhibition, which hangs at the Ohio State University Faculty Club through October 28.

Betsy DeFusco, Seasnake Sushi 2. Oil on wood panel, 9 x 12."
(Leafy vines decorate the fish shapes like strings of festive lights draped from a balcony at an oceanside resort.)

While DeFusco's work begins with observation, her interest in invented color moves the paintings toward abstraction, as do her simplification of forms and her evident interest in the decorative. This show is genuinely delicious. It is restful, peaceful, alluring. The floating forms of water lily pads with goldfish idling among them soothe as much painted in intense pastels as would their real—and less vivid—originals. Her strong colors, softened by applied layers of transparent glazes, read at a distance as water color rather than oil because they are sheer and give the illusion of translucent overlap. Seasnake Sushi 2 is such a work, an expression of exuberance created by color, shape, line, and the artist's ability to use them as she will.

Betsy DeFusco, Floating Colors 2. Oil on wood
panel, 16-3/4 x 21-3/4."
Any painter who chooses water lilies  and a pastel palette to work in is bound to be compared to Monet; DeFusco is wide open to this comparison, with her luscious colors and dreamy, floating forms. It's wise to remember, though, that Monet's mission was entirely different: He was a student of light, intent on rendering reality in a new way, working to represent. 

I'm not so sure that this is DeFusco's mission, however beguiling her palette. While in Floating Colors we can imagine blue water giving over to green, or the play of shadows on water having this color effect, the lack of detail in the lily pads tells us that the artist is not out to convince us about the nature of what she saw. What she "captured" was a vision, in which a scene of lily pads on water was an inspiration for a foray into color, her emotional and imaginative center. Another basic thing to notice is DeFusco's evenhanded brushwork. In Floating Colors, as in many of the pieces in this show, the strong strokes back and forth show no impulse to mimic nature. They shuttle across the scene to form a scrim and to create an impossible simultaneous motion suggested by the cuts in the leaves: Some move to the left, others to the right, all on the same current. (If you inspect images on her Facebook page, linked above, you can get a better sense of these surfaces.)

In DeFusco's series of small-scale lily pad paintings, a favorite of mine is Near the Shore.

Betsy DeFusco, Near the Shore. Oil on wood panel,
16-3/4 x 21-3/4."

The forms in this work fill the picture plane in sizes and more complicated relation than in some, suggesting a possible reality for the leaves. At the same time, the edges of the forms are indistinct and, compared to most of the work in the show, the colors are very muted; I feel that I have to rub something from my eyes to get close enough to the picture. 

I think that DeFusco has hit a particular sweet spot here, between painting a scene and painting a dream. The strong horizontal brush strokes that span the surface of the painting once again lend a quiet dynamic to what appears to be a cool and settled scene.

Betsy DeFusco, Swimming Through. Oil on wood
panel. 12 x 12."
Two more small paintings won my heart, two that read as realistic. Swimming Through features a sturdy gold fish, not abstract at all, swimming in clear water just below a few small lily pads. The water is gray-blue. The plants are green. The fish is gold. All the elements are painted with sufficient detail to convey a sense of their reality.

I like the point of view. I like it that we are situated so that we are looking absolutely straight down at this fish. I can't quite imagine how I got here—so close and so directly above—without disturbing the quiet calm of the scene. I feel like I'm in a privileged place. It's special, but it's not abstract. What's even more special is that it is obviously fleeting. While there is a lot of implied movement in DeFusco's work, this is both a fish and the fish. It's not one of a mass of moving forms. We know which way it's going, and that it will soon be gone. There's a drama in this fleeting scene that the more lively and crwded paintings cannot have. 

 I also enjoy the muted colors of the painting, especially in contrast to those around it. DeFusco loves the pinks and bright tropical colors, so her show is quite a brilliant experience. That Swimming Through feels like something self-sufficient and happy in its calm literal expression is especially refreshing in context.

Autumn Pond shares with Swimming Through this nod toward literal reality. Both paintings move into a contemplative space as a result, a space that the more colorfully abstract paintings don't occupy. The distance between this and Seasnake Sushi 2 is vast.
Betsy DeFusco, Autumn Pond. Oil on wood panel,
12 x 12."


The focus of this painting is very clear; the subject is the yellow lilly pad trailing a tendril that disappears out of the bottom left corner. There is a distinctly dynamic aspect to the composition. Even though it is not a swift or driving picture, there is a sense of something to come that adds purpose and story. The yellow form crosses a background line, moving from gray-blue water into water clear enough to reflect foliage in all its true, deep and brooding green color. A flat, stucco pink leaf intrudes at the top margin from DeFusco's abstract and artificial world. 

I'm happy to accept this embassy from the other side. It's beautiful and it reminds me of the edge that DeFusco works. But it doesn't undo this lovely moment of reality, when a resting leaf floats between two worlds, becalmed between the aesthetic of color combinations and the truth of incipient decay. 

If DeFusco's show has any major flaw, it's that there is too much work in it. She has produced a prodigious body of paintings on a few subjects in a special, tight pallet. I think she would be better served by withholding some and piquing the appetite for more. But beautiful it is. For the art lover who watches the leaves change with a sense of regret, this is the show to see to cling to the sweetness of warm days and long, slow, contemplative days of ripe beauty.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Group Improvisation by the Tone Road Ramblers

This is a long-awaited opportunity for me to write about the Tone Road Ramblers when readers can experience one of their improvisations without its being through the abstraction of prose only. The video comes to us with thanks to Eric Mandat. It can also be viewed on YouTube.

Morgan Powell
As it’s currently constituted, the personnel of the Tone Road Ramblers are: Morgan Powell and James Staley, trombones, and Ray Sasaki, trumpet. These three are original members who have been playing together since founding the collective in 1981. Eric Mandat, the clarinetist and percussionist of odd hand instruments, came in 1989, and though Howie Smith, with his bouquet of saxophone voices (ranging from soprano through contra-bass) has been with the group in one way or another for years, he officially replaced flutist John
Ray Sasaki
Fonville a couple of years ago. Only recently have they been without a formal percussionist, and they find that it’s okay. By nature, the best improvisers are firmly grounded realists, requiring no magic to spin gold from straw. For them, there’s no important difference between them anyway. If you listen, you’ll understand where and how such distinctions dissolve.

I have written about this organization and its members many times before, in Starr Review, New Music Box, and in my book, Sounding OurDepths: The Music of Morgan Powell (2014). Yet, thanks to Eric Mandat’s filming, this is the first time I’ve had video footage from a concert that I could use to show what it is so difficult to tell without the experience. How does the writer translate what is literally inarticulate into words? (See the post before this, in which Ray Sasaki’s helpfully asserts that playing the trumpet is speech for him).

James Staley
The Ramblers generously answer questions during breaks during their concerts because their unique music leaves many with more questions than vocabulary. Let me share a precis of responses to their FAQs:

Everything you hear is spontaneous. It is unrehearsed; there is no initial plan or “setup.” There isn’t a plan about who will play first: Someone will, and there is no discomfort with silence until someone stirs.

TRR has no leader. Ensemble members play (or refrain from playing) in response to what they hear their colleagues playing. No one is waiting their turn. As Ray Sasaki explains it, they are having a conversation that has a life of its own. If we accept the idea that each musician has been speaking with his instrument for most of his life, we are listening in on conversation that takes the many tones conversations do: quiet, calm, argumentative, silly, reminiscent, irritable, celebratory and all the rest. In conversation, sometimes one has nothing to add, or recognizes that he would only interrupt the flow. Sometimes his contribution will deepen it, and sometimes he has  a lot to say. This model may help guide your listening.
Howie Smith

The conversational model also helps listeners organize the experience that is distinctive for having none of the traditional markers we normally depend on to direct us in music: no beat (necessarily), no measured sections, no dependence on Western scales, nothing to guide a listener’s expectations. The music is made of sound, incident, and the ever-occurring present that asks you neither to linger nor to jump ahead. Just listen with the concentration of an eavesdropper: You are all attention, never knowing what surprising gem will come your way, and your heart will race.

Many anticipate chaos at the very idea of group improvisation but listening—and watching—will quickly dispel this notion. This is not a free-for-all, but the production of highly refined musicianship as execution and listening both. Chaos would result from simultaneous exertion of ego, each performer closed to what is going on around him and determined to make his own point. 

Clearly, these musicians aren't in competition with one another but in cooperation. They respond to the sound environment rhythmically and tonally, and they participate in the creation of atmospheres and impulses that will create a whole. They trade places in the composition, moving as the music develops between foreground and background, sometimes supporting with underlying chords or rhythmic punctuations, at other times asserting themselves with outbursts or long lyric lines. All this is executed so fluently that it is often difficult to distinguish voices so protean that they are often unrecognizable from their orchestral exemplars. 
Eric Mandat (courtesy of Rex Gaskins)

The point is not the individual voices, but the experience of a developing composition. Consider the breadth of sounds lavished on the ear and their disposition vis-a-vis one another. These combinations of sound, new to listeners, are new to the performers creating them in the moment. This music occurs because the musicians have made it a practice for over thirty-five years to override deeply-rooted Western musical rules and to free instincts about how to use their instruments—their voices—and what music is in the first place. The Ramblers' conclusion that freedom disconcerts audiences trained to believe that constraints—structure, form and fixed relationships—define music.

But works of art, however they are created, must have limits and feel whole. Performances and compositions, once begun, convince listeners that they've not only stopped but concluded. Ramblers performances will never end with the resolutions of nineteenth-century symphonies, our beloved standard for The End. The frequently-asked question to the Ramblers, "How do you know when it's over?" is not only legitimate, but of great concern to audience members asked to suspend most of their musical information to listen in the first place. 

As with making the music, the decision to conclude a piece is a group decision. Like all their decisions at every point, it could go any number of ways and it depends on what they are collectively and individually hearing. When they hear the possibility of completion, there is no necessity of doing so. If some one or two have more to say, the music will continue, refreshed. But when it ends, it ends with a conclusion—but it's one of countless possibilities in the continuum of sound and silence from which improvised music is made.