The hills are filled with the sound of art, or . . . is it the sight of music? Actually it’s both, at least at the Sonoma State University Art Gallery, where currently on view is Sound, Image, Object: The Intersection of Art and Music. The exhibition features work by twenty contemporary artists from around the country whose art makes reference—either literally or conceptually—to music or sound, and includes sculptures, photographs, prints, video, and installations.
Music and the visual arts have a long history of mutual influence and cross-referencing. Composers, especially from the Romantic era, such as Tchaikovsky, endeavored to evoke visual images through their symphonies. In the visual arts of the Western world, the portrayal of music, singing and dancing goes way back. Images of angels playing stringed instruments appeared in early Renaissance paintings, and even before that, depictions of music and dance appeared in Egyptian art and Greek vase painting. But these were generally static images of figures with instruments. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a French artist, Eugene Delacroix, painted a portrait of Paganini that was an attempt to express the sound or at least the passion of the music being played. Then later, in the early twentieth century Wassily Kandinsky strove to express the spirit of music through color, line, and abstract forms. In the mid-twentieth century, Abstract Expressionist action painters, such as Jackson Pollock, were known to listen to jazz music while they worked in their studios. Eventually, as the ability to record and reproduce sounds improved, artists began including actual music and sound in their work. Or, in the case of the avant-garde composer John Cage, whose 1952 composition, 4’ 33” (Four minutes, thirty-three seconds), only involved the ambient sounds of the concert hall, thereby making a firm reach into the realm of Conceptual Art.
For artists today the possibilities of using sound are quite endless, especially through use of new media and the Internet. The work on view at the SSU Art Gallery reflects different ways music and art interact, and influence each other, literally or conceptually. While most of the work in the exhibition is by contemporary living artists, homage is paid to the late John Cage, who would have celebrated his centennial this year, with a piece called Score without Parts. The print was created by Cage in 1978 as part of a body of work he produced at Crown Point Press over a fifteen-year period.
Musical instruments play their part in the exhibition where there are both actual instruments as well as objects that make reference to them. For example the assemblage sculptures of William T. Wiley, Banjo for J.B., 1985, and Robert Hudson, E Flat, 1986, aren’t intended to be played, instead they evoke musical personalities and concepts. Whereas the sculptures of Terry Berlier are actual instruments and can
be played by gallery visitors. These include Pan Lid Gamelan II, 2010, made of old pan lids arranged like a xylophone, and her Stairdrum, which is fashioned from wood, metal, and drum parts. Both have sticks available for creating your own inspired sounds in the gallery. Then, from a more conceptual stand point is Tom Marioni’s, Musical Instrument that Cannot be Played, 2003. Made of black lacquered wood, and looking like a miniature piano with no keys, it can only be pondered and not played. This static piece is accompanied by photographs of Marioni’s performative art, including historical events from the early 1970s, and his more recent, Drum Brush Drawing, which consists of marks made on sandpaper by a drum brush.
Musical compositions can also be expressed in visual formats. One example is the 2007 kinetic multimedia installation, I Saw The Light, by Paul Kos. This tongue-in-cheek, very literal, interpretation of the old Hank Williams’ tune by the same title includes an old timber saw, set in a pendulum sawing motion, illuminated by a hanging light bulb. The swinging saw and its shadow moving on the wall keep beat to an audio recording of the song, as they “saw the light”. The whimsical arrangement is very much in keeping with Paul Kos’ 1970 piece, The Sound of Ice Melting, which is comprised of a block of ice surrounded by a several standing microphones and speakers, and was recently seen at the Berkeley Art Museum.
In a different approach to visual interpretations of music, is Isabelle Sorrell’s, Cantilena, 1987. In this plain-framed piece, overlapping strips of white embossed paper, and penciled-in annotations, give it an appearance of simplicity. However, the piece is much more complex in its concept. Referencing, Beethoven’s IXth Symphony, Sorrell distilled the composition down to four alto voices, represented by four rows of paper strips. In the background the four alto voices, singing a capella, can be heard in the accompanying audio recording.
Other artists participating in the show are Mauricio Ancalmo, Brian Caraway, Chuck Close, Bruce Conner, Lewis deSoto, Chris Duncan, Jacqueline Kyomi Gordon, Victoria Haven, Christopher Janney, Jack Ox, Sarah Rara, Steve Reich, and Alice Wheeler. The exhibition continues through October 14. For more information, gallery hours, and parking updates, check their website, www.sonoma.edu/artgallery.