Sculpture


James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-10

For the winter holidays this year I’m visiting my family who have recently moved near Nashville, Tennessee.  Since they’ve only lived here for a couple of years now and I’ve only visited a couple of times I’m still in the process of discovering all of the various art related places in the area.  There is of course a decent amount of money in the Nashville area so there are some interesting thing, though as far as I can tell nothing purely devoted to modern and contemporary art. In fact there is often this mix of the banal with the contemporary, blatant decorative art  of varying degrees of gaudiness (they seem to adore Chihuly here) next to cutting edge contempory pieces.  So it was with some pleasure that I discovered that Cheekwood, a large mansion and estate with gardens and galleries, has a sculpture park with over a dozen contemporary pieces. Of particularly interest to myself was Blue Pesher, a James Turrell Skyspace.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-1

Blue Pesher is the second Skyspace I’ve experienced the other being Light Reign at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle which I wrote about in my Atmosphere as Art post. All of the light spaces are designed to be these contemplative spaces that focuses ones awareness onto a narrow area.  Blue Pesher, and Pesher is a Hebrew word meaning “to comment upon”, shares the circular opening in the roof like Light Reign, which creates an intense singular view of a section of the sky. The rest of the space couldn’t be much more different however. First off it’s located in the woods on the grounds of the Cheekwoood mansion, buried in a hill.  You enter through metal doors (entry through doors seem to be a common feature of these spaces) and procede down a cemenet hallway to the circular room. The room is a big larger thaen Light Reign and is again all concrete with the bench along the wall being molded right into the concrete.  Light Reign is entirely wood lined (with cedar IIRC) and has a warmer more congenial atmosphere. On this cold winter day in Tennessee the cement bunker of Blue Pesher was frigid, a feature that I expect is much more welcome in the hot southern summers.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-4

The center of the floor of Blue Pesher is a circular cutout filled with a fine black sand and a metal disc in the very center.  This is an interesting feature and while people clearly walked across it, to me I felt it forced to the edge, to walk around the space and not through the sand.  While it was cold to sit on the benches, it was as rewarding as it was at Light Reign. The focus on the intense blue sky (at least on this day) and the hushed atmosphere immediately draws you into the intended contemplation. This was eased on this day with a lack of visitors as I was the only on there for some time until my parents turned up.  While light is Turrell’s medium and passion for those attuned to sound the space is equality rewarding. The circular concrete walls make for a fine echo chamber and the hole in the top and the corridor entranceway seem to funnel sound in from afar.  Sitting there along in this peaceful atmosphere listening to the sound of the chill wind in barren trees, the birds that remained for the winter and a distant away babbling brook was a superlative experience. The whistle of a far away train was almost too much to bear.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-6

Visually the circular opening in the roof is amazingly compelling; you can’t keep your eye off of it. I’ve been in Light Reign on cloudy and partially cloudy days and while those are quite rewarding, the piercing blue of a cloudless day seems beamed into your eyes on a tight focus.  On this day after maybe ten-fifteen minutes of contemplative gazing an areoplane flew across the aperture drawing a fine line of pollution across it (see the picture at top).  The line of white on this blue canvas was a perfect piece of minimalism.  The light from the opening also is cast on the wall, with the faint shadows of the surrounding trees and is equally captivating.  The whole space is so simple and yet so effective; I always emerge from them relaxed and energized.  I heartily recommend the experience if you are ever in the vicinity of one of these skyspaces.

James Turrell, Blue Pesher (1997-99)-11

Check out all of my photos of Blue Pesher and Light Reign in my James Turrell Flickr set.

Spiral Cage by Yanying designs
Titanium Spiral Cage by Yanying designs.

Jasper Johns Lightbulb, 1958

Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1958

If Target Practice was a sprawling survey of thirty years of art around a specific theme, then Jasper Johns Lightbulb is almost its direct opposite with its laser tight focus on not only one artist but only one particular piece of imagery within that artists repertoire. That image of course is the light bulb; an artifact that Johns first sculpted in sculpt-metal in 1958 which he would go on to sculpt various versions of this piece as well as create numerous prints of it. Later he created a sculpture of a light bulb, its socket and a twist of wire all laid out as if baubles on a shelf. This was again the subject of numerous prints. In the early 70s on finding an “English Light bulb” with its distinctive “bayonet” style base he again made a sculpture of it in which it was displayed like a seashell. This was the subject for prints and paintings as were the other sculptures. His final works (so far anyway) involving the lightbulb are a return to his original lightbulb this time as prints.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb 1970

Jasper Johns English Light Bulb 1970

This show originated at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and pulled together pieces from public and private collections from around the US.  Most impressive to me was the amount of proofs and pieces from Jasper Johns private holdings demonstrating that he was committed to this project.  Inexplicably the sculpture for English Light Bulb (pictured above) only appeared at two of the three museums that ran this show Seattle not being one of them. The fantastic catalog that accompanies this show does have a nice photograph of this piece as it does for each piece in the show. This catalog, unlike the Target Practice catalog, can be purchased online and I’d have to say would be a worthy purchase for the Johns fan. There are four short essays, informative but not overly speculative at the beginning of the book followed by sections for the sculptures and works on paper.  Each piece is give their own page with no other text or  images there. A nice presentation of these works.

Johns has a reputation of coldness (the “Iceman” of modern art) and remove with a Duchamp-ian use of appropriation and (as Target Practice hammered home) a constant questioning of painting.  He picks a common object, selected for its familiarity more than anything else and explore it over and over in a variety of formats: sculpture, painting, prints and so on. All this is well and good but I can’t say that’s what attracts me to the Johns pieces that I like so much. I find his use of these objects to be closer to how Keith Rowe uses the radio – its a “found object” that owes its conceptual basis to Duchamp, but the intention and use is definitively post-Duchamp.  Duchamp’s ready-mades are a commentary on art and being an artist (among other things, sure) whereas I think that Johns and Rowe use the notion of a found object as piece of something greater.  Johns doesn’t simply pick a ligh tbulb and display it, elevated to the status of art by his signature. Nor does Rowe turn on the radio and let it play as the piece in and of it self.  Its the insertion and manipulation of these objects into other contexts that is the key to their art I think.  It adds commentary and it charges the work with other meanings, but they in and of themselves are part of a greater whole.  At least this is how I see it.

Jasper Johns English Lightbulb, 1970
Jasper Johns Light Bulb, 1970

I’ve appreciated Johns for a while now, but only recently have I become especially taken with a number of his works. It has been a project of my own that led me to this wider exploration of his works.  This project has been exploring the notion of “gray” in music and has led to a series of pieces that I qualify as such. These pieces are all paired with color photographs that I have taken that also express this palette.  Its an interesting musical notion, one that became of interest to me in context of live recordings of silence, as Cage of course pointed out there really is no silence the music continues when the musicians aren’t playing.  In recordings, unless there is something else going on, the “silence” takes on this characteristic that I tend to think of as “gray”.  For this project I’ve been trying to abstract this grayness to capture this essence of silence, but through sound.  As I always do when I’m exploring ideas such as this I look at how others have expressed this notions which led me to Johns. Gray is a constant in Johns work, from the sculpt-metal of these early sculptures, to his prints and paintings.  The expressive qualities of his grays I find captivating and his gray on gray pieces suck in my eye in a similar fashion as solid black painting might.  I spent quite some time at this exhibition lost in the swirls of gray that form the background of many of the prints and the neutral seeming surfaces of the sculptures.  Some of the most captivating were black paint on film whose surface and transparency led to a rich dark gray that seemed to have incredible depth.  As I usually do in a gallery I was listening to music on my iPod and in this case I listened to the current pieces in my Gray Sequence and quite enjoyed the correlations.

Among the great treasures of Seattle is sculpture, instrument inventor, composer, etc Trimpin. As with any installation artist, unless you are a jet setter, it is hard to see much of his work in person and in his case in particular it is quite difficult to gather much of a sense of the scope of his work.  This is because there are no catalogs, no recordings and little documentation in general of his work. That is until the release of a new documentary film Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, which is now making the rounds of the festival circuit.  Happily for me the Seattle International Film Festival is one of those festivals an they are showing the film several times throughout its three week run. 

I made the trek into Seattle Saturday May 23rd to catch the film, only realizing that morning that this coincided with Folk Life the epic four day free music festival in Seattle Center.  Seattle Center also houses the SIFF Theater where the film was being shown and the combination of Folk Life and SIFF meant it was going to be crazy. So I left extra early to insure that I’d make it there in time to get a good seat.  A backup on the freeway on the exit to the Seattle Center had me plenty concerned that it was going to be exceedingly difficult but it turned out to be the result of an accident at the exit ramp.  I was able to park right in a garage right across from the SIFF theater (at a fairly high parking cost) and was almost two hours early.  That was fine as Folk Life was a fine distraction and I also wanted to get lunch before the film.  This I did and I walked through Folk Life a bit which is always entertaining. You see they allow anyone to busk almost anywhere during the festival and as you walk around all varieties of sound intermingle and compete with each other and the sounds of thousands of people engaged in conversations, transactions and the like. Always sonically rewarding. I didn’t spend too much time there, I wanted to be certain of a good seat (they give precedence to SIFF members so sometimes the number of good seats for non-members is nearly non-existent (and yes I suppose I should be a member, but I find film festivals almost the worst way to see a film so I usually only see a couple per SIFF). 

I only waited around for about a half an hour before being let in, though I was in the wrong spot for a while and thus was not as far to the front of the line as I should have been. I got a good seat though, in the middle fourth row back. SIFF Cinema is not a huge screen so that is not too far forward. One or two rows back is probably the best seats in the house but this was within the good range.  The festival organizer introduced the festival and the film to us and then director, Peter Esmonde took the stage.  He only gave a few words before the film primarily admonishing us to listen as well as watch and to thank a lot of people. The lights dimmed, we were treated to about 7 minutes of trailers and finally the film.

Trimpin's perpetual motion machine

The film mainly devoted time to exploring the creative process and followed Trimpin through junkyards (shout out to the late, lamented Boeing Surplus!), galleries, concert halls and his workshop/studio.  It worked in historical material in service to this goal in that he mostly spoke of his upbringing in the Black Forest region of Germany in terms of musical, mechanical and important events that later influence his work and process. Woven throughout the film was the development process and finally a performance of a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet called 4 Cast: Unpredictable. Watching him work was among the best aspects of the film, observing him work out this completely original ideas of turning junk into machines that made sound. One moment that I particularly loved was the accidental discovery of this beautifully haunting glass armonica as he was polishing with a rag the glass tube from a television set. He had this hung and was using them as sound projectors for reed instruments that were in the tube like next of the glass.  As he was polishing one of these he pulled the rag out and it generated a sustained tone like running your finger on a wine glass. He was immediately captivated and iteratively worked out exactly how to replicate it. Then he tried running his finger on it ala a wine glass to similar though a bit duller results. Finally he dug around the copious piles of stuff in his studio and pulling out a bow proceeded to bow the glass device to beautiful results.  This is a a highly creative mind at play and discovering something that who knows how he’ll apply?  They showed the finished installation with the TV tubes and it did not utilize this effect.

 

4 Cast: Unpredictable

4 Cast: Unpredictable

 

The film also spent time covering Trimpin’s lack of interest in many of the trappings (or traps?) of the art world: he has no representation, or an agent nor as I alluded to earlier has he spent much effort on documentation.  He wants to do his work and move on to the next thing.  But his installations are permanent, durable, completely hand made and interactive. Getting to see a bunch of these, which you’d have to travel all over to see was fantastic.  As was the bits we got to see of this performance with Kronos which only happened once and has not been documented beyond this film. (though see the pictures here an some video footage here).  The first Trimpin piece I ever saw was the huge fountain of guitars in the EMP and the process behind putting this together was also covered in the film.  Trimpin, who tells a good anecdote, detailed his meeting with EMP founder and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as not a traditional public art pitch. The guitars at the top of this mammoth fountain of guitars would play music via these robotic devices that Trimpin constructed and Paul Allen inquired who would get up there to tune these guitars. Trimpin, flustered on the spot replied that they’d tune themselves.  Paul Allen, who heretofore had failed to even look him in the eye, looked up from his dossiers and uttered an awed “Wow”.

 

 

 

Trimpin had come to Seattle from his clearly beloved Black Forest because he said he had better junk.  The stuff you can find in Boeing Surplus and the other junkyards that feature castoffs from Seattle’s aerospace, shipyards and other high tech industries certainly provide that (though sadly most of these resources are now gone).  His experiences in the Black Forest, home of the cuckoo clock industry and where every beerhall, shop and coffee house would have a unique music making devices (usually based on music box type technologies) clearly set him on this track.  The bespoke nature of those instruments, their mechanical nature with their exposed mechanisms and memories etched in physical objects clearly directly anticipate his sculptures. But his move from the pure pragmatic aspects of those machines, to the abstractions of his, plus his embrace of the Cagean notions of sound as music makes his the tremendous artworks that they are.  These machines are really compositions that play themselves, or are instruments that the audience is vital for it to actually sound.  Trimpin heard the great player piano composer Nancarrow on the radio and his world opened up.

 

 

He hadn’t heard music of that density and complexity, music that was acoustic and yet required mechanical means to exist.  It was like the music machines of Bavaria being put to use on modern, creative and wholly originally music.  Trimpin eventually would meet Nancarrow and work with him, transcribing Nancarrows deteriorating piano rolls into midi and saving the music for all of us.  Kyle Gann’s great article for American Mavericks series on builder composers covers this territory a lot better then I can.  It is important to note that Trimpin’s restless imagination never stayed stuck with antiquated technology, an issue that actually hindered Nancarrow from realizing some of his more ambitious later projects.  The film showed him working with mechanical and pneumatic instruments, reading punch cards and the like in his earlier works. But his later works are all controlled by Apple laptops, use Midi and custom control software and his assistants include computer programmers, roboticists along with sculptures and machinists.

This film is right up there with Rivers & Tides as one of the best art documentaries that I have seen. In many cases it is because of the subject matter, Trimpin, like Goldsworthy, is about process and there is an ephemerality to their work that lends itself to film.  But beyond that it is the artistry of the filmmakers to not try to force their own narrative, to create a “story” but to focus explicit on the creative process.  This film was being projected right off of a dvd which is fully setup with menus and extras and everything. I think that after its time on the festival circuit it will certainly be made available on dvd. I urge you to see it if it plays near you, but otherwise definitely plan on picking up this dvd.

After the film there was a brief Q&A with the filmmaker and Trimpin moderated by the SIFF organizer. I folded in bits from that into the above but the most interesting questions were on his reluctance of documentation.  To which Trimpin replied it was the issue of reproduction, that since his sculptures acoustically generated the sounds they were inherently spatial and that stereophonic recording couldn’t capture that. Once 5.1 systems were everyday he said he felt that a better reproductions could be made.  He was then asked why he allowed the film to be made which didn’t really get a direct answer but they talked about the rules they put in place for the project. These namely involved the lack of forcing any sort of agenda from the filmmaker on Trimpin. He’d be allowed to film and tape whatever but nothing would be done to accommodate that and there would be no artificial scenes, retakes and the like.  This I think was pretty essential to the film.  

Anyway they wrapped this up fairly shortly and told us there would be a reception and panel discussion at 4pm the Lawrimore Project a local gallery about 5 miles away.  They also mentioned that they’d be showing outtakes from the film and had some of his scores there to view.  Well all of the sudden my plans of wandering around Folk Life for the rest of the afternoon changed and I had to make my way to this. Christopher DeLaurenti local musician, writer of whom I’ve written before gave me directions to this rather out of the way gallery and I was off.  Took some time to make my way across town but made it I did about ten minutes or so before the panel discussion.  I acquired a much needed pale ale (it was very hot on this May weekend) and checked out the art hanging in the gallery.  Their current exhibition is on Scores a top near and dear to my heart. There were some interesting things hanging but I’d need more time with them to say much.

 

Left to Right: Charles Amirkhanian, Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and  Scott Lawrimore

Trimpin, Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray and Scott Lawrimore

 

The panel was made up of Charles Amirkhanian,  composer and producer of Other Minds fame, the aforementioned Christopher DeLaurenti, Jacob McMurray a Curator at the EMP, Beth Sellars – Curator, Suyama Space who put on many a Trimpin exhibition and of course Trimpin himself.  It was moderated by Scott Lawrimore of the Lawrimore Project. The panel was quite interesting, it began with discussion on the relationship between Trimpin’s art and composition with digressions into Nancarrow, Cage Antheil and the like.  As I’ve mentioned before Trimpin tells a good anecdote and we got several of those. He talked about seeing a concert (I’ve spaced on the composers name) in Amsterdam which featured multiple orchestras on barges in the canals, bells from the churches and sounds basically coming from all over the city. The density of sounds and the extreme spatialization of them highly impressed Trimpin. But it was hearing Nancarrow on the radio that he felt that that density, complexity and layered structure could be captured in a more finite system. This was instrumental on Trimpin’s moving into the more abstract musics that his sculptures would make.  He also talked of attending a music conference (In Denver IIRC) with Cage and others where he finally got to really talk with other composers (which he said just didn’t happen).

There was really too much covered in the panel to really go into, but one thing that brought up some serious regret was talking about the Year of Trimpin in 2005. This year+ long showing of Trimpins works in 11 galleries all around the NW (extending as far as Montana) was probably the best opportunity to see a lot of his works. Something I missed back in the day. After much discussion it was opened up to audience questions and proving the rule that in open Q&A you are always going to get some idiotic question the very first one was asked about how much he was influenced by urban culture. Specifically how much “crunk, beatboxing, rapping” and the like influenced his work. Anyone who had seen the film knew that he followed his own muse and while his stuff is not disconnected to the world around him there is no Crunk involved.  The second aspect of this dude’s question though on engagement with the world was taken into an interesting direction and Trimpin talked about the political nature of his works. In this regard many of his works are political but not always overtly so. As always I find that a lot more effective then in your face political art which has small impact and even less longevity.  One of Trimpins more overtly political projects involved 24 bobbing chickens used as a random number generator to create new random speeches using words culled from 8 years of GW Bush’s Saturday radio addresses.  Chris DeLaurenti pointed out three urban/political connections in Trimpins work: reuse/repurposing of the detritus of modern society, the non-commercial aspect of it which, as Kyle Gann has pointed out, is inherently a political act and the inherent accessibility of his art some of which demands interaction with the audience to work at all.

Overall a great panel with tons of good information. After this they showed some outtakes from the film in one room while there was a reception with food and drink in another.  The later attracted the MFA’s in throngs but it was the scores hung on the wall that got my attention. I couldn’t find many images of them on the net (the best at this Henry Gallery page) but they were fascinating.  A mixture of subverted traditional notation, midi/mechanical notation, colors, images all colleged together some in an almost Rauschenberg level of complexity. Real artworks as well as being scores.  To this graphical score geek I was entranced by these.

But I did also watch all of the outtakes (which were clearly “bonus features” on the dvd) the most interesting was of a visit to the Instrumentarium where Harry Partch’s instruments are stored.  There was a great segment of Trimpin in the back room of the museum with the curator as he played and demonstrated all of Partch’s unique creations. Trimpin was clearly enthralled and like a kid in a candy store.

Anyway this was a great afternoon of art and film and talking with interesting people about interesting things. I learned a lot and was highly inspired by a lot of what I saw and heard.  I definitely want to see more of Trimpin’s art and will seek it out whenever I travel.

See all of my pictures from the panel here.

Further explorations:
1) Trimpin: The Sound of Inventionmovie blogimdb page, SIFF Page
2) Trimpin on Wikipedia
3) Trimpin page at Other Minds
4) American Mavericks series on builder composers, Kyle Gann
5) Trimpin installation at the EMP
6) Trimpin installation at SeaTac
9) Kronos Quartet
10) Trimpin on Youtube
11) Conlon Nancarrow on Wikipedia
12) Lawrimore Project
13) Christopher DeLaurenti
14) Other Minds
15)  EMP
16) Instrumentarium

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