The Big Payback


I Feel Good/ James Brown

Music and art have been entwined for centuries, like two arms with one hand. The under-heralded artist Alton S. Tobey described it as “a kinship ā€” as when a musical composition is said to have color and a painting to have rhythm.” As well, many seminal photographers place music as a must-have connection to their output both in the darkroom and the field. For Ansel Adams, the negative was the ‘score’, the print he referred to as the ‘performance’. Adams succinctly said that “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes hear music.”

Are You Experienced/ Jimi Hendrix

My dear friend, the painter (and musician) Robin Rose, has a mature, dynamic show presently at Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington. Called The Big Payback, Robin’s new work features a fresh, compelling set of encaustic paintings that pay homage to a number of songs by some of his A-list musicians: Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Captain Beefheart among others. The paintings burst with the manic energy and sexy silences of most great music; by layering deep shades of pigment with thick ropes of wax Robin helps the viewer hear the paintings. Robin describes the light that emanates from within when painting with wax as “the intangible thing that’s there that’s not.”

Dark Star/ Grateful Dead

And much like the indescribable “thing” that music does to us when it bypasses our synapses and roots around in our core, Robin’s paintings reveal as they conceal. I used to be of a mind that certain artists landed on an idea early in their careers and then proceeded to stay there, virtually like beating a horse to death and then beating it some more. But over time I have learned that some of the great artists stick with a great idea because as they burrow deep into the marrow of a theme and fold back the layers they often find pulsing, glowing gems.

Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love/ John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra

Music has inspired the work of certain artists by lending that visceral but intangible link to get inside the brush strokes or to point out the salient details in a painting, photograph or sculpture through nuance, gesture or something in between. Richard Serra has named several of his big, chewy ink stick drawings after the musician he was listening to over the course of a day while making these minimalist powerhouses. We own one titled John Coltrane and often when I look at it I conjure the deep, exquisite sounds from ‘trane that made him one of a kind.

Richard Serra/ John Coltrane

So it’s not just the fact that music inspired the creation of the work but that it propels the viewer to step into the music and let the colors or shapes or moods act to transport the senses, if only momentarily, to a higher plane.

Yet we rarely hear music in a traditional museum or view projected paintings while listening to symphonic concerts; it’s really only R&B and jazz (and their step-child, rock and roll) that co-opted the combining of imagery and music in a way unique to the physical side of this rich vein of contemporary music. I wonder if while painting the Sistine Chapel did Michelangelo hear a choir practicing from a nearby chamber? Did the patrons who supported da Vinci or Caravaggio provide lute trios to accompany the artists as they worked their magic? I like to think it was there…and everywhere.