When the injustices and disappointments of the lover, working man, and second class citizen brought him down, he called out in his pain.
In the blues, matched to refrains and a beat that came from down deep in their consciousness, African-Americans found a soothing balm. Growing out of the chants and field calls of their time as slaves, the blues brought form to raw pain and having encapsulated it, sublimated it to an act of joy. Perhaps because it captured such deep emotion, and reached so deeply into the soul of the black man and woman, the blues reverberate in much of the music we hear today.
It is not surprising, then, that those reverberations reached into the broader realm of art – that the blues has meant something primal for black writers, artists, and filmmakers as well as musicians. Curator Bennett Simpson of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, who organized Blues for Smoke, the traveling exhibition currently on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH, sees the blues as a matrix for a constellation of art forms. He synthesized the branches of the blues tree into a show that combines art, videos of music performances, and films.
Simpson picked elements of the blues – its pride of individualism, its use of the crossroads as a metaphor, its rhythmic element, and its resistance against the hand of oppression – and located works from the past roughly 60 years that resonate to those themes. The title of the show, from a piece by American jazz pianist Jaki Byard, refers to the way art cuts through to the essence of a culture, providing a vista into the truth about it. Recordings of a dozen of his pieces, in which the two hands play off of each other, creating interwoven threads laden with syncopation, is one of the highlights of the show.
In the show’s catalogue essay, Simpson describes the blues as “a sensibility or stance shaping culture.” As a particular form of song – one emphasizing raw emotion and the inflections of everyday language – the blues provided a platform for the development of jazz, rhythm and blues, and now hip hop. And the picture of oppression it painted gave shape to black consciousness and helped bring about the civil rights movement.
Blues for Smoke includes works by both African-Americans and whites that speak to racism and oppression, to the rhythm of life in the black community, to the architecture of the ghetto, and to the dissemination of the blues worldwide.
Without any syllable spoken or guitar strummed, a live feeling of the blues saturates some works, as though the camera or canvas were swaying with some blues tune. In Roy DeCarava’s photo Dancers, New York, two figures in silhouette dance in sync in a darkened hall exuding the pulse of the blues genre. Romare Bearden’s collages take off on the crossroads theme, which, in the blues of musicians such as Robert Johnson, represents a place of departure with both a sense of hope and the possibility of disappointment. In Watching the Trains Go By (c. 1969), images of men (some wearing dresses) and symbols of the countryside, such as a pot of beans and a bird in a tree, juxtaposed with a train, suggest the yearning to escape the harshness of rural life.
Art also provides a commentary on the blues, which like its cousin, jazz, constantly evolves, pushing new musicians to the forefront. Bob Thompson’s 1960 painting Garden of Music, pictures four jazz innovators, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden, playing their instruments, surrounded by a largely uninterested group of people. Aside from hinting at the challenges that innovators may face in finding an audience, the painting could be seen as an allegorical representation – alluding to the Garden of Eden – of the challenges of a racially and ethnically diverse world.
In Rodney McMillian’s installation From Asterisks in Dockery (2012), a small gallery converted into a chapel, entirely “clothed” in crimson-colored vinyl, hints at two seemingly contrasting elements of the blues: its rawness and its association with the spiritual. The installation’s title alludes to the Delta plantation Dockery Farms, where many of the legendary blues musicians lived and worked in the sharecropping days of the 1920s and 30s.
Artists have confronted the injustices of slavery for decades, in different media producing various messages. While some of the work of that genre in this show seems too overt and obvious (to wit Melvin Edwards’ amalgams of chains, cages, and other instruments of confinement), others, like Kara Walker’s Fall frum Grace: Miss Pipi’s Blue Tale, give new meanings to the institution of slavery. The video, in which Walker manipulates cut outs like puppets, tells the story of a white woman’s seduction of a slave and her white lover’s violent retribution. Through the erotic thrusts of their lovemaking and the later violent strangulation of the slave, she conveys the raw forces of the slave’s joys and misery. The black and white expressionless silhouettes moving to a background of carefree minstrel tunes suggests that slave and master alike were caught in a tragic snare by the defined and limiting roles of plantation life.
Much of the art in Blues for Smoke is conceptual, and installations – some taking up an entire room – abound. Jack Whitten, drawn to the music of John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor in the early 1970s, finds the conceptual approach allows him the freedom to capture the spontaneity and spirit that jazz embodies. “I translate Coltrane’s sheets of sound into sheets of light,” he says in an essay published in the catalogue.
In Whitten’s painting Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington), (1974) narrow bands of color cross the canvas horizontally. While for the most part they create a seamless flow, deviations in a few places where dark lines suddenly become white, or where there is a break in a straight line, cause a burst of light color or a dip or fracture. Like a blues or jazz piece, it has a rhythmic beat and refrains that repeat. But there is also syncopation — breaks in the pattern – that awaken the listener and create surprise and irony.
While the show is all about what the blues did for the arts, there is little explanation of what the blues is. For viewers without a grounding in the blues, such as myself, this seemed essential. Watching videos of artists such Howlin’ Wolf (of the Chicago blues scene of the 1950s) at stations at several points throughout the show is worth the time. But since the recordings run up to an hour, it’s hard to balance the listening and viewing while keeping a visit within the typical two to three hours.
The show is arranged thematically, but there are no narratives connecting the works within a gallery space to each other or to the blues, so for the most part it is up to the viewer to see the commonalities. That makes for a challenge in a show as vast as this one: 40 individual artists, many represented by multiple works, plus films and videos.
What the show does quite successfully is present the widest spectrum of what the blues signify, and to that extent it is mind-expanding. It can be seen as a series of snapshots of art relating to the black experience over the last half century, glimpsing works of artists who interpreted that experience. The show covers an immense amount of ground and is underpinned by outstanding research, apparent in the show’s rich catalogue. As a measure of the blues’ influence, Renée Green’s Import/Export Funk Office is a walk-in demonstration of how the blues was “translated” when it reached Germany, where it has a large following.
Placing blues music side by side with art produces the potential for a powerful synthesis of artistic forms. With the soothing trombone and jolting saxophone in Stan Douglas’s video installation Hors-champs (1992) echoing in your mind, you wander out to a view Kerry James Marshall’s painting Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid), which idealizes the black female form. As an exploration of a uniquely American art form, the show is a must, both for anyone already captivated by the blues, as well as for those who want to gain an unusual perspective on how it has influenced the arts landscape.
Blues for Smoke is on view through December 29, 2013.