Tuesday, June 30, 2015

J. M. W. Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed

We finally saw the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner, about the great 19th century British painter. The movie was short on plot, long on verisimilitude, and utterly indelible. Well worth a look. His paintings pointed toward abstraction and often featured swirling energy, sometimes in depictions of storms and battles at sea. Here he captures the arrival of the steam engine in a famous painting from 1844, which was late in his life. He favored palettes of yellow, gold, and red, and left the serene seascapes in blue to others. Not a people-pleaser, that Turner.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Michael Alvarez Paintings

Aunt Helen, oil, spray paint, and paper on panel, 48" x 48"

I read Juztapoz art mag to learn about artists I might not normally encounter. It's lively and blessedly free of jargon. It's based in LA and covers a lot of West Coast artists, including many who skew toward the pop or street or skate boarding side of things. My favorite feature in the new issue is an interview with Michael Alvarez of Northeast LA, whose paintings are crazy good. The more I look at them, the more I want to learn. He doesn't really have a huge web presence at the moment, which suggests his profile still has a long ways it can rise, which it should. Here's his website.

He often incorporates spray paint into his oils, which gives them a pleasantly fuzzy look, though I wouldn't say the spray paint is the dominant factor. The paintings are very social, based in community life, and come across as a mix of realism and surrealism. Exhibit A: that really big baby. And I'm including the kid at the bottom because he echoes William Merritt Chase's "The Leader," which I featured here last year. Except "the leader" wasn't wearing high heels.

In the Juztapoz interview, which was conducted by Austin McManus, Alvarez explains: "Trying to process information, sometimes a lot of it at once, combined with the distortion of perception can kind of feel hallucinatory. At least it feels that way to me, and that's a feeling I want to convey." This conjures a poetic aura. The paintings are quite large, which must increase the impact in person.

Celebration of a Large Baby, oil, spray paint, and pencil on canvas, 60" x 48"

Neighborhood Watch, mixed media on panel, 72" x 96"

I'm the Boss, oil and spray paint on panel, 48" x 48"

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Recent Evil, Considered

Good and evil reside on a spectrum, and sometimes it's not easy to say definitively which is which. During the last couple weeks, however, the news featured three cases where common sense definitions of evil apply. Some thoughts.

1. Close to home, we had the remarkable development of the Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, apologizing at his sentencing hearing for the damage and pain he caused. When I first saw a news brief on this, I was impressed, and hoped that those who had invested so much into his development, including his teachers, might feel some small relief that a human being still lived within the monster he had become. And when I heard commentators remarking that it was problemmatic that he never identified what he did as wrong I thought they were being unduly harsh. Then I read the full statement. In it he spends more time talking about Allah and Islam than anything else, with the effect being that even as he apologized, he was not quite taking responsibiltiy for his actions -- since only Allah knows how things will play out in the end. This is deeply unsatisfying. Religion has many purposes and bestows many benefits, many of them noble and grand. But one thing that religion never should be used for is the abdication of responsibility, especially in the public square, where most others will not share your theology.

2. How incredible that the Confederate flags started coming down after the horrific, evil massacre at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston! Incredible because before Governor Haley announced her belief that the flag should be removed from state property, one might have gathered from listening to apologists that it's just baffling that the flag could have anything to do with racism, historical or present; as if the average flag supporter made regular donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, spent hours surfing around at HuffPo, and set the DVR to never miss a Rachel Maddow show. The speed with which the rhetoric changed revealed that much of the heritage talk was a smokescreen concealing the undeniable connections of the flag with the American evil of slavery and various modes of white supremacy. The heritage talk made it possible for politicians to avoid doing the courageous thing, lest they offend core constituencies. Many seem relieved that they can do the right thing now.

3. On a minor note, some of Hitler's youthful paintings were sold at auction last week. Often referred to as a failed artist, Hitler actually wasn't a horrible painter. He just wasn't as good as he thought he was, nor skilled or inspired enough to be great. This got me wondering: If someone were to hang one in their home, would it it be wrong to enjoy it? It would be deeply weird, but wrong? His paintings didn't symbolize Nazism in any way; they're not swastikas. In fact, might it be positive or beneficial somehow to appreciate the good or human part of the worst, most evil man of the 20th century? I think it might, but there is no way in the world I would do it. Again, deeply weird, and maybe just a bit beyond where I'm able to extend my compassion. Or maybe that's not even what compassion calls for.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

One Dicey, Screwed-Up Symbol

Let's say you are among those supporters of the Confederate flag who do not associate it even in the least with white supremacy, slavery, or the attempted dissolution of the United States. Wouldn't you still say to yourself, "I know my motives are pure, but I also know that for countless millions, black, white, and otherwise, it's a vile, hateful symbol of the worst that our country has offered. Basically, when we fly it, it's perceived as an extended middle finger to huge swaths of the population. I disagree, but I also feel our future as united people is more important, so it's just not worth it to keep flying and promoting it."

More people are finally saying this, but did it really take a massacre of good people to bring us to this place of common sense and decency? Could it not have been self-evident earlier? Are these "rights" more important than our responsibilities? I give Mitt Romney credit for forcing the issue among the G.O.P., and helping to get us to a place of small, but potentially real improvement.The cowardice of the current candidates was quite striking, though.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Philip Glass, Robert Janz, and the Painting Chimp

Robert Janz, sometime in the 21st century, in front of some of his NYC street art

Friend of Art & Argument Robert Janz makes a heartfelt and humorous appearance in composer Philip Glass's new, very well received memoir, Words Without Music. As it turns out, Glass and Janz were friends when they were quite young, and the nineteen-year-old Janz educated the slightly younger Glass in the art of painting. Of his friend, whom he calls Bob, Glass says: "I suppose he was largely self-taught, but he was able to talk about paintings -- their structure, content, and history -- in a most articulate way." Glass also calls Janz an "accomplished and sensitive painter," which is certainly true. The two friends were based in Baltimore then (it was the 50s), and they would visit the Phillips Collection in DC, where they could view modern masters like O'Keeffe, Klee, Dove, Noland, and above all, Mark Rothko, whom Glass found "a revelation."

Glass concludes his recollections of their friendship with a telling anecdote: 
Philip Glass
About that time the Baltimore Sun had gotten wind of Pollock's revolutionary painting techniques, dripping and squeezing oil paint over an entire canvas. The art critic of the paper, like many people in those days, was shocked and outraged by this latest affront to Art. He went to the Baltimore Zoo and somehow got permission to work with one of the chimpanzees in the monkey house. The chimp was given a large canvas and tubes of oil paint. It didn't take long for him to squeeze the paint onto the canvas. This was photographed and put onto the front page of the newspaper with a headline that read something like "Baltimore's own Jackson Pollock is Alive and Well and Is a Chimpanzee in Our Own Zoo." This kind of thing was going on all over the country, especially among art lovers. Usually it was left as a simple claim such as "My two-year-old daughter can paint better than Pollock."
I rushed over to Janz's studio to show him this latest attack on Art -- on the front page of my hometown newspaper, no less. He studied the newspaper photo for a while. Then in a calm and dismissive manner he said, "The trouble with the paintings is that the chimp is not a very talented painter." The humor of the moment calmed me down.
Robert's response was non-ideological, ironic, and, I would guess, accurate. This sounds right to me since Robert is authentically Zen and Buddhist in thought and practice, unlike today's "That's So Zen!" crowd. I think Glass included this story to show how Robert helped him develop the thick skin and self-confidence needed to attempt and develop his own revolutionary music. A nice tribute to an old friend.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Albert Oehlen Paintings: Assuming the Mantle

You might have noticed that here at Art & Argument we like old fashioned things like oil painting and saxophone solos. The newest New Yorker has a good article on the German painter Albert Oehlen, who gives us a sense of what a De Kooning or Rauschenberg might look like in the early 21st century. Writer Peter Schjeldahl asked Oehlen what music he likes, and he said, without a doubt Ornette Coleman. The article was written before Ornette died, so that's pretty good timing for that response, and resonances with "free jazz" are readily apparent: Cacophonous, yes, but beautiful too. At any rate, this is the kind of thing I like.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

My Ornette Coleman Tribute: In All Languages

When I first saw the news online that composer and sax player Ornette Coleman had died, a quick wave of grief went through me, like it was personal. I'm used to jazz masters dying each year; after all that's what the timeline of this great art form dictates. But this was different. A few minutes later a friend texted me with the news. He recalled that Ornette had been important to me. I guess that's right, I thought, though I was far from an "Ornette-head." I replied that maybe it's because he made music that was somehow more than music. And I guess, now, because he represented something so important in jazz: He was an independent Black man who fiercely and defiantly, though gently and lovingly, challenged every notion of what jazz in particular could or should be and what art in general might be in America. He died of heart failure, but he never suffered a failure of nerve.

The Ornette Coleman obits were everywhere last week. There's no need for me to go over the contours and import of his life and career. As good as those pieces have been, including Ben Ratliff's stellar piece in the New York Times, they don't give much idea why you actually might want listen to his oft-cacophonous music. So here I will talk about what listening to him was like for me.

1. For no particular reason I first got to know Ornette (this was the very early 80s) through his live "At the Golden Circle Stockholm" recordings, as opposed to his groundbreaking quartet records from the late 50s, the more logical starting place. These are trio records from the '60s, with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. As was my habit back then, I would take naps with the headphones on. Once, with one of the "Golden Circle" records flowing into my ear canals, I found myself in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, and something very interesting happened. Beneath the music I sensed that a language was being spoken to me. It wasn't words or emotion. But it was what was inside of the music. It's not good for a writer to say that words fail, but there it was. I have never forgotten this, and in fact the only other time I experienced this was when I was listening on the 'phones to Charlie Haden, Ornette's original bass player.

2. From there I picked up Ornette's stupendous move into electronic music, "Dancing in Your Head." Here we have Ornette and his band dealing directly with trance music. The main eight-note figure of "Theme from a Symphony" metamorphoses over the course of 27 intense minutes. It functions like a mantra does when you get into an extended meditation, rather like an update of what Coltrane was up to with "A Love Supreme," but here in a more frenzied format featuring the electric guitars of Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix. This is where you can understand why the jams of the Grateful Dead are said to partake in Ornette's aesthetic. I paired this record on a 90-minute cassette with the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." I called it "Communion and Infinity."

3. Next I obtained, in quick succession, Ornette's lyrical duet record with Charlie Haden called "Soapsuds, Soapsuds," featuring, incredibly, the theme from the TV show "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and "Song X," a collaboration with Pat Metheny, here showing his wilder side. These are both great mid-career Coleman discs. If I recall, "Song X" does feature Coleman's trademark knottiness, but also one of his loveliest ballads, "Kathelin Gray," co-composed with Metheny. For a "difficult" musician, Ornette sure could do aching beauty well. For example, his ballad "Lonely Woman" is a perennial cover for jazzers working in all branches of the music. Listen below. The astringent tone of the horns keeps the music, despite its melodiousness, in the category of acquired tastes. Of course, those are the best kind. Ornette and trumpeter Don Cherry sound to me like raw onions.

4. Now we get to Ornette's most accessible record, 1988's "Virgin Beauty." Robert Christgau gave this a solid 'A'. I still listen to this all the time (for me, a "desert island disc"). But it's not that well regarded, not considered a vital part of the Coleman canon. I don't understand why. This is where I recommend you start if you're not a hardcore jazz person. The record is sometimes mellow, very, very funky, and just enough "out there" to let you know this is still an Ornette record. A couple highlights. The cut "Healing the Feeling" is at the top of my Ornette faves. I remember listening to this over and over and thinking, This is what I want my life to feel like. I have selected it as this post's top-level YouTube presentation. Please click. Second: Miles Davis famously dissed Ornette's work on the trumpet, an instrument Ornette taught himself to play as an adult. This could only be envy. Listen to the "Virgin Beauty" cut "Chanting," with the band swirling and gathering beneath Ornette's vulnerable horn line. Beautiful. Case closed. Also worth noting: Jerry Garcia appears on the record, making the Dead-Ornette connection official.

5. Over the years I fleshed out my collection with some of his classic early stuff, as well as his mid-career double LP "In All Languages." I really need to pick up some of his acclaimed later work like "Tone Dialing" (1995) and "Sound Grammar" (2006). I actually listen a lot to Old and New Dreams, an Ornette semi-repertory band that featured former sidemen Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, with Dewey Redman sitting in the sax chair.

6. A note on Ornette's aesthetic. Ornette famously expounded his own theory of music making called Harmolodics. To hear him explain it is awesome. But, as with Wayne Shorter, his utterances tend toward the gnomic, to put it gently. By all means seek out some interviews with him. My short version of what Ornette is up to is that he doesn't want players supporting each other or conversing with each other in any explicit way. What he wants is for players to walk side by side, with a logic or relationship that is intuitively, not formally or rationally right. This is what gives his music it's unique character and keeps it from feeling rote or cliched. *

I did see Ornette perform once. We caught his mid-90s "Tone Dialing" band down at Berklee in Boston. I remember that after each song it felt to me like applause wasn't quite the right response. Not because they weren't great, but because what they were doing wasn't "performing." It was something else.

* Another key to his "free jazz" method is to build a solo outward, to keep pursuing and connecting ideas and phrases in whatever direction they suggest, as opposed to structuring a solo in keeping with predetermined chord changes. There can be less of a sense resolution this way, but that's part of the point. [Added 7-11-15]

Postscript: Last year I did a post featuring Charles Mingus' exceedingly interesting thoughts on Ornette's music. He said it's like "organized disorganization or playing wrong right." Exactly!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Danielle Legros Georges' Haiti

Stereotypes exist because they are true. Or let's say they aren't exactly untrue. What they are is partial. Or, more accurately, when a partial truth becomes shorthand for the whole, that's when it's a stereotype, and problematic. This is the point that Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges makes about her native Haiti in a recent Boston Globe profile piece by Kathleen Burges. After the 2010 earthquake, journalistic convention resulted in every story leading with the fact that Haiti is "the poorest country in the Western hemisphere." True, yes, but only partly so, and true in a way that ignores the persistent richness of life. Burges ends her piece with these lines that Legros Georges composed on this topic, lyrical and lovely.
You should be called beacon, and flame, 
almond and bougainvillea, garden 
and green mountain, villa and hut, 
little girl with red ribbons in her hair, 
books-under-arm, charmed by the light 
of morning.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Art of Charles Pollack

A few weeks ago I was talking with some friends who are classical musicians. They said that some of J. S. Bach's relatives were actually very fine composers, with many works well worth performing and listening to. They are just overshadowed by Johann Sebastian's unmatchable, epochal genius. Now I see that Jackson Pollock's older brother Charles was a fine painter himself. At least I knew about the other Bachs; I had never even heard about Charles. He's in the news because of a big retrospective happening now at the Guggenheim New York. His works look to be classical abstractions, with some pieces edging into color field. They tend to be large, three or four feet high or wide. I'd love to see some in person. One story I read noted that Charles was in some ways the superior painter, but never made a huge psycho-aesthetic breakthrough like Jackson did. Here's the Charles Pollock website.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Musical Punctuation, Continued

Whenever I hit the Publish button for any new entry, exceptions to whatever rule I have just proposed flood my mind. Here are a couple that occurred after last week's "Music Needs Punctuation Too" post.

1. As soon as I proposed that Miles Davis is the master of musical space, the voice of my Ideal Reader resounded in my head: "Miles? What about all those guys that came before him, guys like Lester Young and Count Basie?" Absolutely. In fact, as the years went by, Basie's piano playing reduced almost entirely to space and punctuation, with no sentences in between. If you see later footage of him, he liked to just raise an eyebrow and drop in a leading tone on an offbeat every bar or two. He made the rhythm section the lead. Like a point guard dishing out assists.

2. Having proclaimed that breathing room and punctuation rule in live performance, I recalled an indelible musical moment from the avant garde music fest Autumn Uprising that ran for a few years in Boston in the late 90s, early aughts. This group came out and for their first "song" played one note at maximum volume for about five minutes. It was magnificent -- and funny. But in this case, the 150 of us or so in the audience knew what we were going to get: music that made us come to it, and not vice versa. So context is key.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Music Needs Punctuation Too

A few weeks we saw Ravi Coltrane perform at in Berklee Performance Center in Boston's Back Bay. They came out full blast, like it was already the middle of the song or the set. That was pretty cool. A definite aesthetic gambit. Ravi was playing long, unbroken lines on his tenor as the rhythm section boiled underneath. The trouble was they kind of stayed in that spot. As I mentioned to my friend after the set, they didn't leave enough breathing spaces in the sound to help the audience find a way in, didn't play enough clearly defined riffs or motifs to give us something to hang our hats on. So the set, while decent, never really took off.

I recalled this when I was reading the latest JazzTimes and came across an excellent feature on what blues and R&B players can teach jazz players. The great tenor man Pee Wee Ellis recalled what he learned playing with James Brown:
One time James Brown came in with the lyrics for "Say It Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud," and I just ran with it. I came up with that bass line, and that horn line was a little teedle-dee-dee, and he came up with the answer to the horns" "bomp-de-bomp." He was very big on punctuation. He called them "hits."

This was the punctuation that allowed the music to make sense. This is as important in music as in writing a paragraph. You need the commas and periods; otherwise it's just a stream of consciousness. You need to break that up into sentences. You have to take a chance and use your instincts as to where to put the punctuation.
Tenor player Ron Holloway, who I'm familiar with through his work with the late Gil Scott-Heron, added:
When you're cursing someone out, you're not rambling on or showing off your college vocabulary. You're being blunt and using short sentences with pauses for the message to sink in. It's the same in music. To play that kind of blues and R&B phrasing, the more percussive approach, you have to be thinking in those terms. If you are thinking in terms of long phrases of 8th and 16th notes, you can't do it. If you're thinking in terms of fewer notes and a bigger sound you can.
You know who really used space well to swing like hell? The dear departed master, B. B. King. In jazz, the master was Miles Davis. Each phrase he played was clearly defined, with space surrounding it to let the "message sink in" and give the rhythm section a chance to respond and join the conversation. Even when a Miles solo is less than perfect, I find myself hanging on every word. Now, maybe that solo seems less than perfect since the way Miles plays allows you to comprehend and make a judgment on what's being said. It takes some nerve to do that. There's a reason the big city con artist is known as a "fast talker." The last thing they want is to be understood.

All this being said, there's a place for the long-winded approach to the arts. Cormac McCarthy, a master of fiction, actually prefers to use very little punctuation. It's a conscious decision, proximity to the dread run-on sentence notwithstanding.  Of course, Ravi's father, John, was famous for his "sheets of sound" and long, long solos. Again, a conscious aesthetic choice. But if you really want to reach people, especially in a live setting, punctuation and breathing room rules.

The performance above is from Miles' classic quintet from the 50s. Miles' opening solo is a marvel of definition, and, to my ears, riveting. And Trane actually leaves a lot of space in his solo, since it wasn't the 60s yet. The Red Garland piano solo is the quintessence of swing. And dig the drumming from Philly Joe Jones in the out-choruses -- as well as the punctuation marks he provides throughout.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Robert Frank's America

Last week I did a piece on Rackstraw Downes, who paints those parts of our surroundings that many of us like to pretend just aren't there, the gritty infrastructure of our shining American city on a hill. Photographer Robert Frank was up to something similar in the 1950s, when he published his series of images called "The Americans." Instead of portraying the ignored physical environment he presented the people not often seen in Norman Rockwell cover images or on "Leave It To Beaver." The images aren't disturbing so much as they are funky. But they do show an America that those devoted to Post-War, Cold War propaganda preferred not to deal with. Is Frank's vision more real than Rockwell's? Not really. But the point is that we see what we choose to see.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Bahauddin: Fragrance of an Invisible Flower

Here's the passage called "Fragrance of an Invisible Flower," from The Drowned Book: Ecstatic and Earthy Reflections of Bahauddin, the Father of Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne. This reflects the philosophy of Sufism.
I see the essence of being alive as water flowing from the invisible to here, then back there. My senses know they came from nowhere and will go back to nowhere. I recognize the one step to non- and from non-existence to here. When I deeply know my senses, I feel in them the way to God and the purpose of living.
Look at this surprising flower
which cannot be seen, and yet
its fragrance cannot be hidden.
God is the invisible flower. Love is the flower's fragrance, everywhere apparent.