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Gambit Weekly The Marriage of Art and Music

By D. Eric Bookhardt

MAY 11, 1998:  As expressions of human creativity, art and music have long been linked. Indeed, the words "museum" and "music" both stem from the Muses, the ancient Greek deities of creative inspiration. In modern times, artist-musicians have been a major influence on the evolution of rock through historic bands like the Beatles, Kinks and Talking Heads. And many of us had friends in our school days who slapped paint on canvas when not too busy blowing out guitar amps.

Viewed from this broad perspective, art and music seem to go hand in hand. In tribal times, they jointly conveyed the values of society at large -- yet these same synergies are mostly overlooked today, perhaps because the world has become so specialized. It was partly in response to this tendency that the Contemporary Art Center was founded more than 20 years ago, and if many approaches to art and music have been undertaken since then, the CAC's The Colors of Rhythm show is unique in many ways.

Because I contributed to the catalog, I'll try to stick to descriptions instead of value judgments, though it really is an interesting show. Curated by Jacqueline Bishop, Colors focuses not just on art and music, but ultimately on the soul of the old Bayou State itself -- a tribal nexus where Native Americans, Africans and Europeans often found themselves in ironic confrontation. That collision ultimately led to a cross-cultural fusion, a gumbo of whole new forms. As music critic Michael Ventura noted in his landmark essay Hear That Long Snake Moan, "It should be no surprise that rhythm and blues and rock-n-roll leaped from the South ... from places within a half day's drive from New Orleans." Ventura traces the origins of jazz, blues and rock to the same tribal fusions that made this city the voodoo capital of North America.

The underlying impulse was a kind of inspired spontaneity -- an approach that went out with the Druids in Europe but lived on in African and Native American cultures. This took the form of what the Yoruba people of Nigeria call ashé, or spiritual command, which in art suggested something like "mystical coolness." (The American term "cool" -- as in "cool jazz" -- is said to derive from the Yoruba, who described inspired drumming as "cool.")

Although John Scott's sculpture has long been identified with jazz, he says his work is not "about" jazz per se. Instead, it seems to be more of a visual evocation of the "mystic coolness" such music engenders, so the sculptures seen here -- constructions of brightly colored rods and circles floating freely in ambient space -- are like natural forces reduced to energy, form and spontaneity. It is a buoyant effect, seemingly modern in tone but with polyrhythmic undercurrents of mystical coolness, or ashé.

Works like Francis Pavy's Zydeco Diva illustrate the link between art and music.
By contrast, the rather flat and figurative spaces of Francis Pavy's paintings might seem unrelated. But in African art, the formal design expresses the rhythmic energy, or spirit, within, an approach that links these otherwise dissimilar artists. In Pavy's Zydeco Diva, a crimson female stands in an aureole of blue fire like a Cajun Isis in a swamp marsh haunted by a rock star spectre in the brambles. Beyond its pop aspect, this is something eerily surreal and hauntingly Haitian. But in the opulently funky gilded icons of Leslie Staub, another Louisianian with longstanding ties to zydeco, we see far more specific visions of the rhythm and blues masters, as her Church of Soul title suggests. So works like Bessie Smith and Amadee Ardoin are elaborate jeweled talismans of the blues spirits, reliquaries of saintly syncopation.

Further permutations appear in the work of Willie Birch, an Orleanian from the Magnolia housing development who went on to become a New York art star in the 1980s. Birch uses symbolic figures as spirit guides to mystic coolness, as seen in For Sassy Sarah Vaughan, a duo of Afro-divas pregnant with harmonic potency. But Dona Lief's icons of pop figures like Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson refer to the far darker continent of Hollywood Babylon: Big Media, a realm of digitalized human simulacra electronically transmitted in convenient tabloid format.

Douglas Bourgeois, by contrast, is a like a missionary sage of cultural marginalia on a mission to reclaim the soul of pop. His jewel-like palette and microscopic brushstrokes suggest a trailer park PreRaphaelite, as seen in A New Place to Dwell, in which a saintly Elvis manifests the divine light of the guitar gods while his old Mama and Priscilla with big hair watch from the shadows. By invoking the Grail, Camelot and Valhalla, and inhabiting them with Prince, Elvis and Susan Moonsie, Bourgeois gives us a gothic cathedral of soul, an ecumenical Mont St. Michel arising from a Sea of Love. It is all mythic and mystically "cool," yet populist in its flash and dazzle -- as is the show itself. .

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