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Music Meets Art

December 31, 2013

A trumpet’s bright tone, the vibration of a piano note, a crooning voice: these sounds have long inspired visual artists.From the birth of jazz and the blues in the twentieth century, these genres have transcended their musical roots. Blues and jazz have impacted popular culture for decades and still inspire the visual world. Two local exhibitions, Blues for Smoke at the Wexner Center for the Arts and I See the Rhythm at the Dayton Art Institute, examine this intersection of musical and visual experiences.

Leonard_1961_1Zoe Leonard, “1961” at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 2002- ongoing, Blue suitcases. Photo by Bill Jacobson.

Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and on view at the Wexner through the end of December, Blues for Smoke features over 40 modern and contemporary artists connected to the blues genre. “Although Blues for Smoke is primarily an exhibition of visual art, it also includes numerous instances of recorded music, not intended to ‘illustrate’ the artworks but to demonstrate how some of the moods and effects generated by the artworks are remarkably similar to what the music clips are evoking,” said Bill Horrigan, Curator at Large at the Wexner.In Zoe Leonard’s work titled 1961, dozens of vintage blue suitcases form a line through a gallery space. The piece has “mysterious evocations…suggesting abandonment or disappearance…in that sense providing a poetic link to the world of blues, a world in which pain, hardship, and human trauma is never absent,” said Horrigan.

The Dayton Art Institute’s I See the Rhythm focuses on a selection from its vast collection of over 26,000 objects, complemented by commissioned work by local artists. Experiencing artwork through the context of sound uncovers relationships between the objects, artistic process, and musical concepts, ideas and structures. “Music is an abstraction. It plays off of emotion, feelings and even how we feel physically,” said Diane Stemper, the Art Institute’s Education Initiatives Coordinator.“There is a more open interpretation; people engage with the world in a lot of different ways – spatially, kinesthetically—in the case of some of the work in this exhibition, you can reach into it, walk around it and create sounds with it.”

IMG_3251Anthony Luensman, “Delirioso” (detail), 2013, Stainless steel drum, piano harp trombone, chimes, joysticks, electronics.

The installation Delirioso by Cincinnati-based artist Anthony Luensman has roots in American jazz, with references to American jazz legends Don Cherry and George Lewis. At the push of a button, a sound or musical riff is activated, allowing the audience to transform dormant musical instruments into spectacular auditory experiences. “I’ve always been interested in the physical (hence visual) mechanisms which produce sound,” said Luensman. “Having multiple independent pushbutton and joystick triggers allows for the entire installation to be played by small groups of people in their own orchestrations. In my interactive work, success can mean giving up much of the control of the output; I merely provide the parameters.”

bashaw_daiMichael Jerome Bashaw, “Sonic Interplay” (detail) at the Dayton Art Institute, 2013, bamboo, titanium, steel and found objects.

Michael Jerome Bashaw’s Sonic Interplay also invites interactivity. Constructed collaboratively with students from the Art Institute’s youth programs, the large-scale sculpture’s matrices of colorful spheres can be projected against squares of sheet metal. “I discovered a couple dozen sheets of titanium at the scrap yard, and when I struck one with a wooden stick, I was inspired by its shimmery tonal quality,” said Bashaw. “Making sound sculptures gives me the opportunity to experiment with an unusual tonal tapestry.” Often created with interaction in mind, Bashaw’s work creates sound or music depending on the level of contact. “I consider it a success when an installation provides opportunity for people to gather and create sound and rhythm together,” he said.

Other works at the intersection of visual arts, music and performance include composer John Cage’s prepared piano, created by placing objects on its strings to manipulate the instrument’s sound. Documentation of performances, stills of prepared piano compositions, and a lithograph with graphics echoing sheet music notes complement an actual piano that can be altered and played. Inspired by jazz, Norman Lewis’ Cantata is a painting of abstract forms representing rhythms, soundscapes and patterns. Contemporary artist Sanford Biggers’ Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva 1 creates a literal platform for music and dance on a silkscreened rubber tiled dance floor.

exp_biggers_web450Sanford Biggers, “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva 1,” 1999, Silkscreen on rubber tile and Formica.

Developing new perceptions on modern and contemporary art, Blues for Smoke and I See the Rhythm successfully bridge the sensory environments created by music and visual art. “One hope is that as viewers move through the galleries, they’ll respond to some artworks that aren’t immediately understandable as having a musical reference,” said Horrigan. “They might begin to look at the work differently.”

Blues for Smoke is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts through the end of December. A video on the exhibition Blues for Smoke can be seen at See the Rhythm is on view at the Dayton Art Institute through April 2014. Michael Bashaw’s “Sonic Interplay” is on view through January 3 and Sanford Biggers’ “Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva 1” will be unveiled with a public celebration on Sunday, January 12, from 1 – 3 pm. Learn more at

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