November 24, 2010 · Print This Article
There is nothing I enjoy more than the intersection of musical performance and visual work. At Sound on Sound, a Christopher Wool exhibit at Corbett vs. Dempsey, I watched Joe McPhee activate that intersection. As stated in the CvD press release, “the title of [Wool's] show comes from a 1968 recording of [McPhee's] that has never been issued,” a gesture that echoes in Wool’s wall-length abstractions which play with what is, is not and what was there. With those paintings as a backdrop, McPhee ‘s performance created a touchstone of literal, temporal experience–a positive reminder that history is not simply a spectral projection.
Wool’s larger abstracts pay homage to modernist painting just as they undermine that homage. The focus is on surface rather than paint. The paintings are flat and slick. The action of the paint appears to have taken place behind the surface–an implied, impossible-to-reach space. A space the viewer can never touch. These paintings ask you grasp for an idea–to strain through the mark-making, and parse their accumulated gestures. While the more obvious marks are high contrast–blocks of white paint that seem applied with a paint roller, or finer snaking black lines that seem straight from a can of spray paint–the meat of the work is behind those singular pronouncements. The meat of the work is the background wash, variant erasure-marks where singular phrases might have existed before. It is about what Wool erased–a project of deduction for any viewer bordering on a Rorschach print: while some of those deductions are accurate, any number of personal associations come into play, disguising the process. Looking at Wool’s work is like shadow boxing–what becomes a metaphor for his project of painting abstracts at all.
The contemporary abstract painter must account for The History of Painting. Wool seems to suggest, via these spectral works, that history is impossible to grasp, elusive in it’s Truth, unstable, even, as it is reliant on a present’s interpretation. History becomes more an image of one’s self than any real vision of what was. The viewer parses Wool’s process, (or the history of each specific painting) just as Wool is reflecting and parsing the history of painting. In either case the result is subjective and, even, maudlin. It will never be requited. There is no true history.
Images of Wool: The giant bare room with countless paintings lined up along the walls. The boxing bag hanging on the periphery of a studio shot. Photographs of broken-down cars. Artist in a El Paso tank top with a breathing mask and paint gun. Wool is a painter’s painter; in a frieze article his nose is discussed at length as an ideal, “A seriously tremendous nose, something a rock climber would gaze at in awe, especially if it were on the scale of Mount Rushmore. How would one begin to climb it?” All of these images, both self-created and perpetuated by others amount to a decidedly male tradition; it echoes of Pollack and yet, as one of many in a patriarchal succession: how to fill the shoes of a predecessor? How to achieve some recognition? Especially when the death of said predessor boasted a simultaneous “death of painting.” A death no one really believes in, but nevertheless enjoys to bat around. (An article I read years ago, I wish I could remember suggested that every ten years we exume the body of painting to see if, indeed it is dead, before reburying it). Wool is not asking if painting is dead or alive, instead he presents ghost-paintings: after-images created out of smoke. He admits the smoke-and-mirrors archetype, while nevertheless being married to its tradition.
Last Saturday, McPhee served as a kind of in-between orator, one who played directly with the Wool’s themes while creating a connection between Wools contemporary-image-of-the-past and the present moment. There was something grounding about McPhee’s presence–a positive gesture on this side of the paintings. McPhee is real. He is not a ghost. His relationship to history, while profound (he came on the scene in the 60s and 70s and boasts a significant reputation as one who integrated emotional content with experimental improvisation), is nevertheless active, contemporary, literal. At the same, his work with recording equipment–particularly this devise of “sound on sound”–speaks directly to Wool’s process, wherein an improvised (and emotional) recording of gesture is layered on top of other temporal gestures to create unpredictable layers.
McPhee stood between the work and the audience–a man of medium height. He wore a baseball cap and carried a soprano saxophone. The beak of his saxophone was dressed in a little furry hat–a fake animal head with two plastic yellow eyes. I liked imagining the saxophone, animated with this “hat” and McPhee in his basement, staring at the yellow eyes: no doubt they have a deep relationship. He carried the audience through a range of sounds, using the saxophone’s percussive potential with windy toots and bellows; sometimes it sounded like he was blowing through a large metal pipe.
At the beginning of the performance, he called the thought of Houdini into the room, mentioning his name and encouraging the audience to close their eyes: he promised to make sounds about illusion and suggested a literal connection between himself and Wool. “We are both interested in illusions,” he said. He played the saxophone and, with my eyes closed, the notes seemed to come from various directions at once despite his standing in one place the whole time. In other instances, McPhee played two songs at once, blowing through the reed just as he hummed simultaneously; eliciting a crying underbelly-sound that followed the upper sax-melody. These discordant melodies struggled to overcome one another other; neither one strong enough to do so. Like Siamese twins sharing a heart, the melodies shared one finite breath. Then this too would break off into a new song with sometimes sharp and shrill passages of music, like a fast forward bird–McPhee activated my inner ear, so that I heard the notes occurring outside of me, while experiencing an interior wiping sensation/sound inside of your head. And suddenly I recognized a passage–he played God Bless The Child, with some trembling, discordant defiance, pleasing in it’s surprise. He took us on abstract tangents only to return in time to rescue any listener from doubt with the refrain. He then read a poem.
I think it’s important to remember any abstract improvisation can illicit a insecurity–the viewer/audience can’t know where it is going. It’s a little like going on a hike as a kid and not knowing where you’ll end up, only that you’re supposed to follow and trust the adult ahead of you. Here again there is an image of the Elder, the person showing you the steps, the person you must trust. Whether it’s the history or experimental jazz, or the history of painting, we are walking down a familiar path, trying to contextualize ourselves to that history, to understand where the contemporary “I” fits in it and figure out what the next step is. Part of learning that history is falling in love with that history, just as one must recognize a life in the present, where that history is only a shade. Like Christopher Reeve’s character in Somewhere in Time (1980), one must, in the end, let go old ghosts.