wet earth

The Power of Two

For some, committing to one’s creativity sometimes means committing to the solitary territory of a life spent mostly alone.  The writer and his desk, the musician and her instrument, the artist and his tools: the countless disciplined hours spent developing one’s craft can mean that these may be an artist’s most enduring relationships.  Perhaps that is why seeing two people perform together has the potential to be so compelling: we are witness to a solitude that is broken, yet the performers’ voices remain distinct, individual, not lost, say, in the anonymity of an orchestra.  Last weekend at the Monterey Jazz Festival I had the opportunity to hear fantastic music performed by ensembles of various sizes, but it was the duos that struck me as the most emotionally rich and satisfying.

Jack DeJohnette remarked before his performance Sunday night that the music he was about to play with guitarist Bill Frisell would be “as much a surprise to us as it is to you.”  That quality of surprise, of open curiosity, transformed their set at Dizzy’s Den into a 90-minute arc of music-making that can only be described as spiritual.  When he is playing the drums DeJohnette has a habit of starting pieces in a mood of almost random exploration, beginning with the most basic activity of two sticks hitting a drumhead, without apparent shape or purpose. One can see him not imposing, not planning, but allowing, observing, listening.  Trusting.  Slowly, something coheres.

In this intimate set-up, Frisell never once took his eyes off DeJohnette, which meant that throughout the entire concert the audience saw the guitarist in profile, as if we were mere eavesdroppers to an important and private conversation.  I was struck by the way the two men took turns supporting each other.  DeJohnette’s depth as a musician gives him free range to improvise complex rhythmic melodies on the drums while Frisell offers a steady chordal groundbeat—usually the function of the drummer.

When DeJohnette moved to the piano, it was he who created the musical foundation in the form of slowly repeated chords, while Frisell seemed to be following a train of notes that traveled far into the ether.  (Frisell uses pedal effects to generate a loopy, sliding quality to his notes, so that each note seems more like a wave than a precise tone.)

I wish I could mention the names of some of the pieces I found so beautiful, but DeJohnette, who turned 70 last month, has a mumbly, raspy voice, and the only reference I could make out was to something from Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain,” a wandering piece whose C-Major resolution felt like the arrival of the divine.  With such exalted artistry the titles don’t really matter.  Does a lengthy drum solo that seemed to emerge out of the earth’s molten core have, or need, a title?  It does not, but it does have a context: two people in equal partnership and offering mutual support.  At the end of DeJohnette’s ferocious solo, which brought the audience to rapturous applause, Frisell was there to gently weave their sounds back together again.  It was magic.

One of the joys of this festival is simply being at the fairgrounds amidst all the people and the vendors and the wafting scents of delicious food and the strains of music that float from the different venues across the grounds and through the oak trees.  To an observer, stories and the myriad fascinations of human behavior abound.  On Saturday afternoon I watched a mother and her two boys on a patch of grass, all three of them blowing bubbles, except that the younger boy, who was around four, wasn’t getting it.  He held the little plastic blower too close to his mouth and he blew too hard.  I watched as frustration and even despair settled into his young face, as his fingers gripped the blower more tightly and his cheeks puffed up to really blow.  I saw that his mother didn’t see this.  I saw that already, at age four, this boy thought that he needed to figure out on his own how to achieve the bubbles that now surrounded him, that were emerging so easily, tauntingly, from his mother’s and his brother’s lips.  He saw them doing it successfully, and rather than ask for help, ask for someone to show him how, he burrowed ever deeper into his desperate attempt to do it alone.

The power of two is the power of listening, of asking for help, of coming out of the fire of the solo and finding that someone is there with a melody to wrap around you and carry you forward.

Small Is Good

I’m still recovering from jet lag and the sinus infection I picked up my during last weekend in Paris, so this post will be brief.  Actually, brevity and smallness is what is on my mind this week as I reflect on my trip and what stands out in my mind as its highlights.

Wait: right now even the word “highlights” makes me think of a certain grandness, a tall, lofty summit overlooking lesser experiences or beings below.  In our attention-grabbing culture we are surrounded by the loudest voices, the biggest spectacles, the hugest successes.  Yet I wonder if I am alone in finding all that bigness bordering on tedious, on simply too much for our tender nervous systems to take in and absorb.  There can be a straining for significance in the grander efforts, a clenched-fist yearning to be #1, that makes it difficult for us to be anything other than overwhelmed in the presence of The Important.  Overwhelmed and, frankly, submissive, which is the opposite of free.

As a younger man, when I traveled to a big city with famous museums, I invariably spent many hours, both exhausted and enthralled, in the company of great works of art.  This time, I found I had little appetite for big crowds, big museums, big art.  At the modest Wallace Collection, in London, I stood enraptured before “Landscape with a Bare Tree,” by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Wynants.  In this vibrant landscape you can absolutely smell and feel the dark moist earth and taste the freshness of the sky.  You can hear the sounds of people moving slowly, the clop-clop of their horses on the trodden ground.  The wind carries sounds that are sparse yet distinct.  I enjoyed losing myself for several minutes in Wynants’ world, alone in a gallery that was empty except for a bored museum guard who wandered in and out every few minutes.  Elsewhere, London was packed to the gills.  But at this small, beautifully organized art collection, there was the space, the freedom to truly enter into a work of art—which is a way of going within oneself.

In Paris, my favorite art object was a small writing table at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, in the Marais neighborhood, by the 18th-century furniture-maker Charles Topino.  In “Le Bonheur du jour” (I love that he gave his table a title), Topino uses inlaid wood to create gentle, sporting images of those small domestic objects that for some of us do indeed signify a kind of “happiness of the day”: a pot of tea, a vase of flowers, a book, a quill and paper for writing.  The table generates a spirit of well-being, the freedom of solitude and personal reflection.

An interesting point: unlike the grand museums with their hefty admission fees, which forcibly turn the visitor into a consumer and can make him feel almost obligated to spend a long time inside to get his money’s worth, checking off a list all the famous objects studied in Art History, admission to both the Wallace Collection and the Musée Cognacq-Jay is free.  You can come, you can go, you can pause, you can return.  You are free to enjoy what is inside on your own terms.

When I returned to Monterey I felt a sense of renewed gratitude for the small, quiet places we have around town to explore and experience art.  I haven’t been to either branch of the Monterey Museum of Art in awhile, so in the next few weeks I will post about what they are currently showing.  First, though, I must catch up on my sleep.

The Energy of Darkness

My computer program has very fixed ideas about what constitutes a portrait (taller than wide) and what constitutes a landscape (wider than tall).  In art, however, the application of such rigid categories is not helpful.  A Monterey exhibit of moonlight paintings by American artist Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), for instance, would seem to fall under the category of landscape—lots of sky, lots of ocean, sometimes a few trees, always a moon—yet these enthralling, recently rediscovered works also possess certain qualities more commonly found in still lifes, abstractions, and even portraits.

These are exceedingly quiet paintings.  The ocean does not surge or even ripple; wind does not pass through the trees.  Even the blackest storm seems to unfurl in a state of hush.  De Forest suffered from hearing loss as a young man and he eventually grew deaf, which may have contributed to his decision to leave New York and its thriving gallery scene and settle in Santa Barbara.  He produced thousands of plein-air paintings, with over 400 moonlight paintings alone, and one gets the sense from the Museum of Monterey’s small, attractive exhibit that the isolation and the quiet felt in these paintings make them self-portraits—the inner self—as much as landscapes.  These are still lifes of the soul.

Some of the paintings move toward a form of raw abstraction that would not be seen in American art for over a generation.  In the undated “Storm Brewing in Moonlight,” the image is barely recognizable as landscape.  The sky is mottled with dark clouds, the earth is brown and black, a roiling swirl.  The moon is present in fragments.

In the 1905 “Moonlight on the Shore,” both sea and sky are a nearly identical gunmetal gray, looking ahead to the horizontal bands of Rothko.  “Montecito Peak in Moonlit Fog” (1909) is also constructed as a series of layers—a gray lowering sky, the gentle slopes of a pale mountain, a green meadow with a few trees and bushes—lending the work an Asian, meditative quality.

These paintings are also striking in their absolute absence of story.  In the placid and gauzy “Twilight Moon with Reddish Sky” (1902), the sea is as still as a lake, the peachy colors a kind of floating, drowsy veil.  Nothing happens, nothing moves.  All is calm.

Given the acute delicacy of these works and their special atmosphere of quiet, it was a bit jarring to be forced to listen to the cacophony of sound from an exhibit celebrating the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival on the museum’s lower level.  Also distracting are the identical frames that seem to entomb these sensitive images rather than support them.  Still, it is a testimony to the paintings’ subtle power that within a few minutes spent in their company I was able to tune out the sounds coming from below, ignore the streaky metallic frames, and just concentrate on the art.

For in such works as “Moonlight in Black Sky, York Harbor, Maine” (1907), de Forest has truly captured the energy of darkness, both gloomy and captivating, reflecting Romantic attitudes of the time but imbued with his own personal stamp.

“Collecting Moonlight” is but one of a generous cornucopia of exhibits, programs and activities associated with the Second Annual Art in the Adobes Festival, whose theme this year is “Rediscovery: Monterey Artists at Home and Abroad.”  The Festival will include weekend exhibitions in historic buildings in garden settings, art demonstrations, activities for children, plein-air artists competitions, and a parade of international dance costumes.  Of special note is the three-day only presentation of a long-lost WPA mural by M. Evelyn McCormick, which was discovered rolled up in a Sacramento warehouse and has been carefully restored.  “McCormick is famous for introducing French-style impressionism to Northern California in the 1890s,” says Julianne Burton-Carvajal, one of the festival’s principal organizers.  “In this bold mural, painted in her mid-sixties, she shows her modernist muscle.”

Art in the Adobes Festival Weekend, September 13-16.  For tickets and complete information visit the Festival website.

“Collecting Moonlight: The Night Paintings of Lockwood de Forest,” at the Museum of Monterey, 5 Custom House Plaza, through October 14, 2012.  A reception in conjunction with Art in the Adobes will be held on Friday, September 14, 6:00-8:00 p.m.

Note: I am publishing this blogpost, which I wrote two weeks ago, from Paris, France where I am on vacation; just this morning I learned the sad, bewildering news that the Museum of Monterey will no longer be headed by Lisa Coscino, who did so much to rescue MOM and transform it into a vital local institution.  Anyone who cares about the arts in Monterey can only be disappointed and even angry at this turn of events, and sorry to think of the stimulating exhibits, like the one reviewed above, that will no longer be scheduled.