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  • Scott Williamson

#L2P: "Reclamation" at Taubman Museum

Paul Vallinski's wall-installation sculpture of vinyl "song" bird mobiles

L2P (Listening to Paintings) | 3.17.18 | Taubman Museum of Art | Roanoke | SMW, curator & artist

Below are some journal musings and iPhone images from works on display at the Taubman Museum in Downtown Roanoke, where yesterday I had the pleasure of delivering a semi-annual presentation called "Listening to Paintings" (#L2P). I curate and perform a 1 hr. program linking art works on display to songs, arias, and recited poems. The engaged and appreciative audience followed me from one gallery to the next as we looked at art and talked about shared harmonies and dissonance, color, light, lyricism and form, form and content, in-between listening to folk songs, ballads and poems.

Vallinski Exhibit | Irish Folk Songs | Synesthesia, hearing with your eyes, seeing sounds as colors and forms...

Vallinski and his through-line theme of transformation (see image above).

Opera LP fragments as birds = metamorphosis / transformation...

Addiction into art – creative process as catharsis of recovery – art, memoir, and mental illness

Green metal butterflies paired with Irish folk songs for St Patrick's day ("At the mid-hour of night," and "O Harp of My Country," from a collection of Thomas Moore ballads arranged by Benjamin Britten for his partner, the tenor Peter Pears...) Its images of the bound lyre aching to express its freedom in song are powerful resonators with both the ancient bardic world of Orpheus and the ongoing struggles for freedom across the world...

Below is an image from "Outside Eyes", an exhibit that includes commentary from artists in fields outside the visual arts. I was invited to contribute to the exhibit and comment on Rosemary Laing's vivid digital print, greenwork (below). I mentioned composer John Adams's discussion of the origins of his symphonic poem, Harmonielehre - "Harmony Lesson." It's named after a book by the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg (a Picasso of classical music).

Adams describes a dream of a large tanker emerging out of the SF Bay and launching "like a rocket" above the Golden Gate Bridge. I compared Laing's central plinth in greenwork to the e-minor chord Adams repeats and varies at the opening of his imposing orchestral tone poem...)

Laing's greenwork, for which I supplied the wall-text description

Moving into "Reclamation: Pan-African Words..." ...Connecting the irony and bold, fearless ambition in so much “outsider” art, and linking Kehinde Wiley’s ground-breaking portraits to the German-Jewish WWII refugee Hanns Eisler’s song setting Brecht’s biting ditty “To the little radio" (which Sting covered in the 1980's with new English lyrics titled "The Secret Marriage.")

I paraphrased James Baldwin’s quote on the blues that when confronted with pain "women shake their heads and cry, and men take the train and ride..."

How Maya Angelou evokes that same cliché but reverses it in her empowered self-portrait,

We then connected Baldwin's train-riding blues to Rashid Johnson’s impressive and visually engaging tar-black wax and enamel painting on burned wood, “Train Hanger”.

Rashid Johnson (b. 1977): Train Hanger (2013)

This weekend's program marked our 2nd encounter in as many months and regional museums with the amazing ab-ex master Sam Gilliam.

Sam Gilliam (b. 1933): Clear Around, 1973

The TMA’s show features a smaller cousin to the wall-sized example we saw at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh last month.

Gilliam's striking use of color and his lyrical, musical lines; his beautifully colored palette - he is like Ravel in paint...

I'm reminded of Gertrude Stein (whose much-praised novella Melanctha served as inspiration for a Glen Ligon piece in Reclamation, one in a series of Ligon's signature etched words and phrases which blur into abstraction, become broken down, rendered incomprehensible and therefore effectively silenced…)

Paraphrasing Stein: “I like Picasso. I like looking at his paintings.” Like Stravinsky paraphrasing her and saying he "liked listening to Boulez"... I like looking at Sam Gilliam’s abstract canvases.

Tim Seibles's poem “Mosaic” is quoted as an epigraph in the great essay accompanying the gallery guide book for Reclamation. I had the honor of studying with Tim in 2014. I was so nervous about working with VA’s poet laureate on “Lessons from the Commonwealth” I wrote him a letter prior to the poetry festival explaining my intentions. He was kind and generous with me, and told our seminar he was in favor of abolishing use of the socially-acceptable version of the racist slur, the so-called "N-word." Echoing other artists, he suggested simply saying the word outright as a way of demystifying it while reclaiming its power. Naming and owning...

One of the bits of advice he gave me on the poem was to drop my original epigram. I had the R & H lyric "you've got to be taught to hate and fear / you've got to be carefully taught" just below the title, and in effect this gave away the poem's punchline...

After the reading Saturday at the Taubman, one of my friends and colleagues commented about how every racially charged reference in my poem was one she experienced and could relate to... Ah, Virginia. Ah, humanity. Ah, to Life!

Romare Bearden: Pittsburgh Memories

We connected Tim Seibles to "Dolph", (the beloved composer Adolphus Hailstork) and I offered a solo chant-like version of his a cappella choral night-scape, "Nocturne." We connected Pittsburgh poetry Professor and MacArthur "Genius", accomplished painter and former college basketball star Terrance Hayes to Gwendolyn Brooks by reading her seminal acid jazz elegy "The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel" in conjunction with his "The Golden Shovel" (part I. "1981"). The last words of each of Hayes's 24 lines form the sequential text of Brooks's poem.

I sang a pair of Langston Hughes poems (via a cappella versions of Ricky Ian Gordon's lyrical ballads "Luck" and the rhapsodic "Dream Variations"). These helped connect the Maya Angelou poem to some of the ground-breaking and convention-defying portraits on display. We shared Tim Seibles's sensually vivid and brazen wit via a pair of poems from his collection, Fast Animal.

I likened his inventive use of form via his series of "Villanelles" as akin to a contemporary artist playing with established norms such as genre paintings or portraits. As Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker challenge traditional models in their portraits, so do poets like Hayes and Seibles continue the modernist tradition of "transgressive" play with forms...

Marshall and Walker prints (l. to r.)

Tim's sensual poetry and the visceral, textural quality certain writing has is like the impasto textures of expressionist painting (see images by Johnson, above, and Andrews, below). Seibles's vivid imagery make his poetry a natural fit for sharing in an art gallery of Pan-African art. I concluded, in front of Johnson's "Train Hanger" by reading his brilliant and timely homage to another old-master genre in "Ode to My Hands."...

With over 100 works on display, this exhibit is one we will be returning to regularly over the remaining 6 months of its residence here. It will be worth every re-visit...

Andrews: Mr America, 1967

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