Saturday, June 7, 2014

Entry - 6.7.14

When my office moved up to the 50’s about two decades ago, it occurred to me that, besides my paying more for lunch, the new location afforded me access to the hub of galleries clustered along 57th Street in Midtown Manhattan.  This represented a great improvement from our prior location.  While, on the upside, the stores, restaurants, delis and bars serving our old location were more fitting pricewise for a proletarian workforce (of which, I consider myself a member), the downside was the immediate area was pretty devoid of any cultural life.  Occasionally, if I was feeling particularly ambitious, I’d hike across town and up about ten blocks to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library, where I’d rush in huffing and puffing, make a quick tour of the show and then beat a hasty retreat back to my office.  From our new digs, I could easily visit on my lunch hour a host of excellent galleries such as Marlborough, St. Etienne, Michael Rosenfeld, Marian Goodman, Tibor de Nagy and Pace.  One of my preferred places to go was 745 Fifth Avenue, a building that housed a few of my favorite galleries like Forum, Mary Boone, Edwynn Houk and McKee.  A jazz pianist was usually stationed in the lobby, his music welcoming visitors in from the noisy NYC streets.  Moving from floor to floor in the building, I’d cover four or five shows in a single lunch hour, taking my time to consider the work, feeling privileged that such a great resource was now at my disposal.

So, one afternoon some years ago, I step into Mary Boone Gallery, not knowing what she’d be showing that day, and find the walls covered with ambitious oil paintings, very large in size, often composed of multiple panels.  For the most part, the paintings depict groups of people situated in open landscapes.  These paintings don’t function like Gainsboroughs in which the landscape is somewhat generic and generalized, serving as a foil to enhance the emotional projection of an individualized sitter.  The landscape in these works represented documentation of very specific locations, places that held equal significance to the artist as the people who inhabit them.  The landscapes were not scenic or manicured, having more of the forlorn, disheveled quality of a ghost town, moonscape or an area that had recently suffered some natural disaster.  But these places are not the products of abandonment; everywhere we see evidence of human activity: the large scale movement of earth, workers laboring like ants in the landscape, buildings undergoing demolition, a modern construction project mushrooming inexplicably in a remote, unchartered region.  And the people populating these unusual landscapes wear cheap, mass-produced clothing: T-shirts sporting logos, blue jeans and flashy sneakers.  In contrast to the momentous activity that is taking place around them, they often seem lost, disconnected and purposeless.

Liu Xiaodong - Emigration of the Three Gorges - 2003

Liu Xiaodong - Out of Bichuan - 2010

Liu Xiaodong - Phoenix - 2010

Liu Xiaodong - Self Portrait - 2008

Liu Xiaodong - Sky Burial -2007

Liu Xiaodong - Three Gorges Newly Displaced Population - 2004

Liu Xiaodong - West Ridge Again - 2010
I’d never heard of the artist, Liu Xiaodong, before, which isn’t too surprising considering that he is a member of the generation of artists that came to maturity in China as the nation was transforming itself into an industrial and commercial powerhouse.  In 1963, he was born in Jincheng, an important industrial city in north China, best known during Liu’s youth for coalmining.  At the age of seventeen, Liu left Jincheng to study art in Beijing where he attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts for both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies.  Liu is now a central figure among China’s Neo-Realist painters, his work documenting many of the ills resulting from his nation’s rapid industrialization: population displacement, economic turmoil and environmental devastation.  He travels extensively, choosing to visit areas experiencing disruption and upheaval due to social, economic or environmental change, usually working on his large canvases on location – an ambitious undertaking to which the photograph below can attest.

Many times I’ve seen him referred to as a Social Realist, which seems fair since in his work he strives to expose the often ignored negative consequences of the rapid development which China has experienced over the last half century.  I’m not a big fan of Social Realism.  The artwork of this movement sheds light on suffering and injustice, serves to educate a myopic public about issues and conditions it would prefer to ignore and may even inspire a moment of empathy for those less fortunate than the viewer.  I can’t argue that those goals aren’t significant and praiseworthy.  But even the best products of this movement often leave me feeling, after an initial reaction of dissatisfaction, sympathy or outrage, less than engaged.  It’s not that I disagree with the perspective asserted by the work, but I think that work that is basically didactic in function must inevitably simplify, ignore nuance, deny inconsistencies, perhaps even lapse into exaggeration.  So, after the intended message of the artwork is delivered, there may not be a lot more there to be gleaned.

Ben Shahn - The Dust Bowl - Resettlement Administration

Isabel Bishop - Tidying Up

Jacob Lawrence - Toussaint L'Ouverture Series - 1938

John Steuart Curry - The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne - 1940
 Luckily, Liu’s work doesn’t seem constrained by the Social Realist mold.  In the weeks spent in preparing this entry, I’ve kept a couple of Liu’s images on display at my home and office and find that they keep me interested upon repeated viewings.  One reason for this is that Liu restrains himself, that the work never trespasses into the overtly didactic.  Perhaps the work reflects the ambiguity that he feels about the change he witnesses occurring about him.  But I think there is something more going on.  There is definitely a surrealistic aura to these works.

Liu Xiaodong - Into Taihu - 2010
A boat is filled with adolescents, dressed neatly but casually – like students.  They are certainly not fishermen or laborers.  Their bodies are slim and flimsily muscled.  Their faces are individualized, expressing a range of emotions.  They seem extremely innocent and vulnerable as they sit in the wooden boat, a transport with no visible means of propulsion.  Above their heads, cranes hover, long necks extended from their torsos, sticklike legs dangling beneath them, fragile wings disheveled and entangled.  Their frailty and susceptibility mirrors that of the boys, serving to intensify our empathy for them.

Liu Xiaodong - Jincheng Airport - 2010
 A group of several men and a woman gathers in a jungle clearing.  Dressed informally in brightly colored clothing, they are engaged in serious discussion apparently presided over by a crouching man holding a document.  Looming behind them is a small jet fighter seemingly decommissioned and stripped of parts.  The juxtaposing is odd. The people gathering appear to be engaged in some local, grassroots activity.  They are informal and relaxed.  But the plane suggests that another influence intrudes here, one that results from technology, capital, a centralized government, a military whose vision extends beyond the nation’s borders.  It is difficult to reconcile the two worlds alluded to here, and the viewer is left feeling confused and dissatisfied.  Perhaps that is the artist’s intent.

Of course, when looking at Liu’s work I’m at a disadvantage.  Only peripherally aware of China’s recent history, I may be discerning the surreal in images that contemporary Chinese would find completely accessible and self-explanatory.  But I don’t think so.  One of the benefits of painting is that the artist’s options are almost unlimited.  Liu chooses to present ambiguity, the irreconcilable, the disjunct in his paintings, a choice which allows his work to transcend the didactic.

I’m going to take a moment to address the topic of technique, so bear with me here.

Back when I was an undergraduate at college, one of the regular assignments we were given in the Art Department was to make the journey into NYC once or twice a semester to visit galleries.  It was a bit of a hardship losing a full day of my weekend, a time I’d usually use to catch up on assignments, but the experience was definitely worthwhile.  We were directed to cover a specific area in a trip, Soho or Chelsea or 57th Street, but it was left to our discretion which galleries we chose to visit.  So Gallery Guide in hand, I’d hoof it to 15 or 20 galleries in a single day, climbing up and down staircases, making quick tours of shows, jotting down a few notes and collecting the essential postcard.

Eric Fischl - Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man - 1984
During one of these journeys, I first saw the work of Eric Fischl, another artist I’d not heard of before.  His paintings disturbed me.  At the time, I found his overtly sexual themes to be sensational and opportunistic.  But it was his technique which gave me the most trouble.  His painting wasn’t “painterly”; it was purposeful, utilitarian and lacking in nuance.  I saw little or no underpainting in his canvases.  Often the bare canvas was left exposed.   Transitions between highlights and shadows were not developed, and the colors used were local and conventional.  His surfaces were not complex and built-up.  At that time, I was somewhat fixated on the work of early-Twentieth Century expressionists, artists whose efforts achieved extremely lush and painterly results.

EL Kirchner - Playing Naked People - 1910

Egon Schiele - Albert Paris von Gutersloh - 1918
While I was struggling in my own work to develop a comparable virtuosity, it was shocking to come across an artist discarding the very skills that I had yet to fully master.  I thought of Fischl’s technique as “matter-of-fact” painting.

As I attended grad school and then worked on my own, I continued to be drawn to painting that was complex, built-up and layered, whether I was looking at representational or abstract images.

Balthus - Therese - 1938

Willem de Kooning - Gansevoort Street - 1949

Lucian Freud - Woman in a Grey Sweater - 1988

Anselm Kiefer - Nigredo - 1984
For a period, I think I even became obsessed with texture, building-up layer upon layer of paint on my canvases during successive sessions.  I believe that I was seeking my own “El Dorado”, the perfect surface, and my imagery suffered for it.

Over years and many paintings, I came to realize that there was too much artifice in my work and sought to “abbreviate” my technique, striving to be more utilitarian in my process.  I remind myself that paint is only paint, and it is not unconscionable that it follow the properties of paint and be “read” as paint on the surface of a canvas.  There is a definite beauty in simple, honest painting that I was unable to appreciate earlier.

Today Fischl’s paintings no longer trouble me.  During the decades that have passed since I first saw his work, many artists have adopted a similar approach to painting.

Neo Rauch - Die Stickerin - 2008
So when I first saw Liu’s paintings (there was a purpose in my digression), I wasn’t offended by his straightforward, practical execution.  Often he sweeps thinned-out paint over the canvas with a broad brush, applying a second darker layer over the first, wet on wet, to indicate shadows.  He generalizes a lot, eschewing fussy detail, and leaves the bare canvas exposed in many areas.  Of course, his approach is somewhat necessitated by the size of his canvases, many of them monumental in dimension, and working on location with live models would certainly provide an incentive for accelerating process.  But, I believe, Liu could not permit himself the liberties which he does if he were not philosophically in accord with his technique.  After all many artists known for complex, lush surfaces have tackled the challenge of scale without sacrificing their aesthetic (Rembrandt, Balthus, Freud and Odd Nerdrum would be good examples).  No, Liu is using the visual vocabulary most suited to his work, a sort of field reporter’s shorthand that attests to his desire to honestly document his world.

By the way, my own struggle with surface is far from over.  Though I recognize that I should aim for a more pragmatic approach to painting, I would say that I’m only walking a middle line at this time.  I still rely on an underpainting to work out compositional elements and to complement the dominant tones in a painting.  And I continue to paint in layers and relish varied, emphatic brushwork.  But I try to keep it organic, to minimize artifice and restrict process.  I must admit that I’m a bit of a reformed junkie, intellectually aware of tendencies I should avoid yet emotionally ready to lapse at any moment.  I’m taking it one painting at a time.

Gerard Wickham - Mary and Conrad - 2005
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Friday, May 2, 2014

Entry - 5.2.14

My childhood elementary school had determined that students should learn to play a real instrument starting in the Fourth Grade.  I don’t recall being asked if I wanted to play an instrument; it was simply assumed that all children were musical.  So, instead of being asked if I would like to learn to play an instrument, I was asked what instrument I would like to learn to play.  For me, this wasn’t a difficult question.  I had noticed that drummers were given a padded block of wood on which they could practice, quietly, at almost any location.  I’d be in the cafeteria eating my sandwich when a kid at my table would whip out his sticks and begin hammering away at his block of wood.  I thought that this was pretty cool.  It was also my supposition that playing the drums would be easy; after all, how hard can it be to hit something with a stick?

“I’d like to play the drums,” I quickly responded.

“We already have enough drummers.  You’ll learn the clarinet.”

And so began my brief romance with the licorice stick.

I never liked the clarinet.  Saliva would build up on the mouthpiece and run all over the instrument and, eventually, the musician.  My fingers were too small and skinny to properly cover the holes.  For some reason, I was never able to hit a high note on the thing; whenever I tried to do so, the clarinet only screeched.  And I never practiced… which might explain why I never learned to read music.  Of course, I had mastered the memory tools, FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, to determine note order on a scale.  But I, literally, had to count how many lines down a note was located and then go through the mnemonic rigmarole for every note I played.  By the time I figured out what note I should play, another ten had already passed by.  My solution was to play notes arbitrarily in time to the music.  I still wonder how my music teacher, a kind and patient man employed by the school system, put up with me.   

One of the benefits of playing an instrument was that I got to march every May in our town’s Memorial Day Parade, an event in which participated school bands, Little League teams, glockenspiel players, Boy and Girl Scout troops, the Lion’s Club, the lacrosse and football teams, the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations, baton twirlers and cheerleaders, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the turbaned Kiwanis, police and firemen and finished up with a lineup of the town’s fire engines and a real live tank.  It really was amazing that anyone was left at curbside to watch the parade.  After three years of study, I was still blowing notes randomly, but I really enjoyed the marching part.  The clarinetists would clamp a device onto their instruments to hold their sheet music while marching (in my case, it served for purely decorative effect).  Every year we would play “The Marine Corps Hymn”.

Because our school band was too small, we could not march alone and had to be combined with the band of another school in the district.  Before the parade, we gathered on the back streets of the town to be properly organized as a consolidated unit and then were left to wait for our turn to march.  On a beautiful, sunny morning, as I stood in formation waiting in the mottled shade of the giant elms that lined the street, I was approached by a cute girl at least a head taller than I.  She was not from my school.

“So you play clarinet too?” she asked.

I nodded.

“What part?”

I looked back at her, speechless and confused.  Exasperated, she tugged at my clarinet and looked at my sheet music.

“Third clarinet!  What grade are you in?”

I finally found my voice.  “Sixth.”

“Sixth Grade and still playing third clarinet?” she exclaimed.  “I play first clarinet.”  She sneered and walked away.

My music education would not continue into Junior High.

Having a curtailed performing career, I never developed the technical vocabulary that would permit me to speak accurately and concisely about music.  If you read Part I of this composition on contemporary folk artists, you may have noticed that I rely on metaphor and visual imagery to discuss how songs function.  Don’t conceive this as my being fanciful.  My ignorance of music terminology forces me to find an alternative means to express my observations and responses to this art form.  I hope this deficit is not taken to reflect a lack of interest in music.  While I never learned to play any instrument (I even struggled with the tonette), I have devoted many, many hours of my adult life to what I would call educating my ears, perusing musical genres from classical to grunge and building a substantial collection of recordings.  Music is a vital component of my life, an assertion given credence by my desire to express here, however clumsily, my thoughts and reactions to the work of these contemporary artists.

Having stated this, I can continue with my sampling of contemporary folk musicians.

Anais Mitchell
Anaïs Mitchell – A singer-songwriter from Vermont, Mitchell was raised in an atmosphere where independence and intellectual excellence was stressed.  At a young age, she was encouraged to travel and covered a good portion of the globe, making stops in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Japan.  Perhaps this accounts for her precocious ability to allude to the larger implications of the intimate dramas which she unveils in her songs.  Mitchell doesn’t have a large voice, and she doesn’t introduce a lot of ornamentation to her singing.  Within her simple approach to vocals, she manages to elicit nuance and expression, exposing, at times, an unsettling vulnerability.

She was fortunate to come to the attention of Ani DiFranco, who signed her onto her own label, Righteous Babe Records, which released three of Mitchell’s albums between 2007 and 2010.  Ultimately, she started her own label, Wilderland Records, which has released two of Mitchell’s albums since 2012.  Though she can piece together quite successfully a collection of independent songs (take 2007’s The Brightness, for example), Mitchell seems most inclined to tackle thematically related cycles and narratives.  Her 2012 release, Young Man in America, follows a character, who I believe is roughly based on Mitchell’s father, through a number of songs while addressing themes relating to labor, economic inequity and power manipulation within relationships.  One song, “Shepherd”, was inspired by one of her father’s stories, and it is his face that adorns the cover of the album.  In 2013, Mitchell teamed up with Jefferson Hamer to record a series of old English and Scottish folk songs documented by a Harvard professor, Francis James Child, in the late 1800’s.  The resulting album, Child Ballads, a satisfying and sweet collection of seven songs, beautifully harmonized and accompanied with lean acoustic instrumentation, talks about personal and hierarchical struggles within preindustrial society.

But it is with Hadestown (2010), created along with director Ben Matchstick and arranger Michael Chorney, that Mitchell accomplished her most successful work, a folk opera based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Mitchell reconstructs the tale, transforming Hades into a Depression Era shanty town run by a pragmatic and cynical boss obsessed with preserving his power.  Within the opera, she explores the insidious relationships between seeming opposites like art and money or freedom and deprivation.  Mitchell has performed Hadestown in many venues with many co-performers, but, when recording the album for release, she gathered the quintessential cast of performers, including Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.  “We Build the Wall” from Hadestown is an incredible song dissecting the ugly truth of how nations and classes maintain economic dominance, but I include “Flowers” here because it is better suited for Mitchell’s voice and range. 

What I wanted was to fall asleep
Close my eyes and disappear
Like a petal on a stream, a feather on the air
Lily white and poppy red
I trembled when he laid me out
You won’t feel a thing, he said, when you go down
Nothing gonna wake you now
Dreams are sweet until they’re not
Men are kind until they aren’t
Flowers bloom until they rot and fall apart
Is anybody listening?
I open my mouth and nothing comes out

Will Oldham
Bonnie Prince Billy – When just becoming familiar with Will Oldham’s music, I tended to watch his videos on YouTube which probably gave me a distorted impression of his work.  The videos are quite funny, often featuring Oldham clowning around in a self-deprecating fashion, and I thought that his songs must be playful and humorous too, somewhat akin to the work of Harry Nilsson, let’s say.  It took me a while to recognize that Oldham’s music was serious and sensitive.  Having worked as an actor early on, perhaps he just can’t resist hamming it up a bit when a camera is pointed his way, but I think something else is going on.

Oldham seems to value contradictions.  While one part of him is constructing a perspective, another part is dismantling it.  So, by performing a serious song humorously, he is forcing us to listen to it differently than he originally intended.  Throughout his career, Oldham has consistently approached writing and performing music with a unique mindset.  When just starting out, he would surround himself with similarly unskilled musicians and deliberately document in single take recordings their mistakes and deficiencies.  He recorded his songs on outmoded equipment in non-studio settings.  Also, rather than pushing to establish name recognition as a young artist, he changed his name from album to album, cognizant that each album represents a distinct artistic venture and hoping that a new audience, unprejudiced with preconceived notions about what a Will Oldham song should sound like, would eventually find the album.  He continually shuffles and adds new players to his band.  Just as a point of interest, Angel Olsen, presented in Part I of this blog topic, performed back-up vocals for him for a couple of years.

In recent years, Oldham has consistently released albums under the name “Bonnie Prince Billy”.  Also, now he produces high-quality recordings with talented musicians.  He is a great songwriter and an intensely emotional performer.  Incredibly prolific, he has released many albums, though my favorites are I See a Darkness (1999), The Letting Go (2006) and Wolfroy Goes to Town (2011).

I include here a beautiful live performance by Oldham at Coney Island of “2-15” and “New Partner”.

Now the sun's fading faster, we're ready to go
There's a skirt in the bedroom that's pleasantly low
And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow
And my friends they still whisper hello
We all know what we know, it's a hard swath to mow
When you think like a hermit you forget what you know

Link to “2-15” and “New Partner”:

Alela Diane
Alela Diane – For a number of years, long before going digital, I would read a review of Alela Diane’s music and tell myself that I had to hear her stuff.  So on my lunch hour I’d trek on over to Borders from my office and dig through the stacks of CDs on their display shelves, only to come up empty.  Same would happen at Barnes and Noble and Best Buy.  I would grumble in frustration, mutter some expletive under my breath and move on.  This actually happened a few times.  Miraculously, a year or two ago, a friend of mine was going downtown to J&R in NYC (which unfortunately just a few weeks ago went out of business) and, having been asked by me to keep an eye peeled for Alela Diane, handed over to me a couple of days later the CD To Be Still.  Upon listening to it on my stereo that evening, I knew that the wait had been worth it, that my perseverance had paid off.  Since then, I’ve become somewhat more technically savvy and have learned how to purchase and download music on the internet, a must for anyone whose tastes don’t conform to the norm.  So now I’ve gathered a fairly respectable collection of Diane’s music.

Another Californian, Alela Diane was born in 1983 to musician parents.  Her father, Tom Menig, often plays in her backup band and tours with her.  Parents nurturing an early interest in music seems to be a common thread in the stories of so many of the folk artists I’ve researched for this topic.  Diane began writing her own songs at about the age of twenty and was encouraged to perform publicly by Joanna Newsom.  Another common thread, she self-produced and released her first albums, which eventually led to her being picked up by Rough Trade Records.

Her lyrics, so essential to Diane’s music, tend to be grounded in personal experience and do not hide behind encryption and metaphor.

“…the music that I cherish the most is the music that you can really tell is coming straight from the heart, so I think that throughout my musical career I’m always writing about things that are important to me and that I do care about.  Because that’s why I think music exists, it’s because of the lyrics for me and talking about things that I feel are important to me or could help people get through something in some sort of way.  I think that’s a big problem with popular music right now, the commercial radio at least, it’s just like all of those folks are just singing about things that really don’t matter at all.” – Alela Diane, Hive Magazine

Diane’s presentation is simple and direct too, her arrangements very pared down.  Commonly, she accompanies her singing on solo guitar.

About a year ago, Diane’s marriage to fellow musician Tom Bevitori ended and Rough Trade Records dropped her.  So in 2013, she self-produced and released About Farewell, an album that addresses the dissolution of her marriage.  The songs are honest, confessional and, while not indulging in self-pity or finger pointing, maintain an excruciating tone of sadness.

I include here a live version of “Dry Grass and Shadows”, recorded at Portland’s The Funky Church, a performance that I find very moving in that the musicians are solely focused on the music, their exertions striving to produce a pure and perfect expression of emotion.

Strong spines of valley hills all overgrown in gold
Look softer than a spool of old silk thread
But if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin
Oh, if we walked down with our feet
I'd be pulling spines and barbs and fox tails from your skin  
Link to “Dry Grass and Shadows”:

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan – It came as quite a shock, after listening to Callahan’s deep baritone voice and somber, deliberate delivery on a number of albums, to finally see a photograph of him.  I was expecting a craggy, weathered nomad.  In reality, he looks absolutely boyish, somewhat like the clean-cut, wholesome youths I remember from TV shows in the early 60’s, and dresses conservatively, commonly wearing jeans with a collared, button-down dress shirt.  Even at the age of 47, he continues to maintain this fresh, youthful appearance.  I like the fact that Callahan doesn’t fit the mold; his music is certainly pretty unique.

In 1966, Callahan was born in Maryland but spent a fair portion of his childhood living in England where his parents worked for the National Security Agency.  Early on, while performing under the name “Smog”, Callahan produced experimental music, played on less than top-of-the-line equipment, which he self-released.  Eventually, he evolved into a sophisticated, lyrics-oriented songwriter.  Now his musical accompaniment sounds professional, and he records on high quality equipment.

Callahan’s songs tend to be melodically simple, with repetitious chord sequences, and lyrically complex, often without a chorus.  His singing is slow and deliberate, the words clear and easily understood.  Callahan sings about ordinary things, making his listeners see them in a new way.  Often his songs are confessional, addressing the intimate, internal workings of his mind.  In researching this entry, I read a lot of reviews of his music and regularly the critic would call his work “depressing”.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I find many things depressing: the NRA, Vladimir Putin, beauty pageants, pretentiousness, religion, sports fanatics, global warming… I could go on forever.  But I don’t consider an intelligent, thinking person evaluating himself and his surroundings within an artform as depressing.  I actually find Callahan’s music uplifting.

Callahan has produced a lot of music, most of it good, but my favorite albums of his are A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (2005), Woke on a Whaleheart (2007) and Apocalypse (2011).  I include here “Baby’s Breath”, a song about commitment and transformation.

Oh young girl at the wedding
Baby's breath in her hair
A crowning lace above her face
That will last a day
Before it turns to hay

Link to “Baby’s Breath”:

By the way, one of the articles that I read while researching Bill Callahan was Pitchfork’s “A Window That Isn’t There: The Elusive Art of Bill Callahan” by Mark Richardson.  I think the piece is well-written, comprehensive and insightful, and I include a link to it below should you want to know more about this enigmatic artist.

Laura Marling – It almost pains me to state this, but here’s another extremely talented singer-songwriter who got an early introduction to music.  Marling’s the child of a music teacher who began teaching her guitar at the age of three.  Her father ran a recording studio.  Being English, it seems inevitable that blue blood flows in her veins; her father is Sir Charles William Somerset Marling, the 5th Marling Baronet.  I will try not to hold this bit of silliness against Laura, but it will not be easy.  At 16, after years of studying guitar and mixing with first class musicians at her father’s studio, Marling dropped out of high school, moving to London to pursue her music career.  There she collaborated with several indie folk groups (Noah and the Whale, for example) and became romantically linked with a number of talented musicians.  Her first album, Alas I Cannot Swim, was released in 2008, and, since then, she has produced three exceptionally good albums (I Speak Because I Can (2010), A Creature I Don’t Know (2011) and Once I Was an Eagle (2013).  Marling currently resides in Los Angeles.

I’m pretty sure that Marling’s the youngest artist that I’ve covered within this topic.  She was born in 1990, which makes her just 24 years old.  I was surprised to discover that she is so young because I have listened to her music for years now and always find her songs to be so adult, almost motherly in a knowing, authoritative way.  Her voice has a rich, mature timbre too.  Strangely enough, in interviews Marling seems pretty insecure, concerned with presenting a carefully constructed persona, wary of exposing too much of her personal life.  She also tries to distance herself from her songs, insisting that they are works of art, not confessions or reflections of her inner being.  I’m never quite sure how to take it when artists commonly claim that their work is not about their lives.  I guess all art is a fan dance.  The artist turns one way, fluttering some feathers, and the fan slips downward; she spins on her heels, retreating out of the spotlight, and when she emerges from the darkness, the fans are newly positioned, offering potentially rich rewards to the patient voyeur.  When the curtains close, the audience is left thinking that they’ve seen a lot more than has truly been exposed.

Female folk singers are regularly declared to be heirs apparent of Joni Mitchell, and Marling is no exception.  In her case, the appellation may be justified.  Already, at her very young age, she has produced a lot of great music.  I can’t think of a single song of hers which is not listenable.  Her lyrics are smart and inventive, deceptively simple but forged in sophisticated poetry, and her voice is rich, deep and supple.  At times, her singing slows to a decadent drawl or halts altogether to become briefly conversational.  Marling appears to have been endowed with “the goods” and has developed “the smarts” to exploit them effectively and judiciously.

Below is an excerpt from “I Was an Eagle”

So your grandfather sounds like me
Heads up shoulders back and proud to be
Every little girl is so naïve
Falling in love with the first man that she sees

I will not be a victim of romance
I will not be a victim of circumstance
Chance or circumstance or romance, or any man
Who could get his dirty little hands on me

Link to “I Was an Eagle”:

I hope that in covering this topic I have introduced my readers to a few artists with whom they might not have been familiar before.  During the writing of this piece, I realized that none of the artists included is really that obscure, most having been established for years and having produced at least several albums.  Honestly, it takes just two lines of a song and a couple of bars of music for me to know I’m interested in hearing more of an artist’s work, but it takes years and a couple of albums to lend me comfort in endorsing his or her music.

As always, I encourage you to comment here, but, if you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Entry - 3.22.14

You reach a certain vintage to find your peers lamenting the lack of good music these days and waxing nostalgic about the incredible songs of their youth.  “Good music”, of course, was the stuff made in the 60’s and early 70’s, an amazing period of exploration and invention, after which music took a hiatus from which it never returned.  When I hear a friend or coworker expressing this opinion, I can’t help but recall how my parents’ generation responded to the very music which they revere.  “It’s not music; it’s noise.”  “How can you listen to that garbage?  I can’t even understand the words.”  And the constant request… pleading… demand: “Just turn down the volume.”

Back then, it was frustrating that the adults had closed themselves off to new music, and it surprises me that members of the very generation that ushered in so many vibrant and fertile musical trends are now following in the footsteps of their parents.  Because the truth is if you are willing to explore a bit you will find that there is always good music being made.  But you’re probably not going to hear it on the radio.  And you will not see one of these talented, independent performers of serious music climbing up the podium to receive a GRAMMY Award.  Perhaps, thankfully not.

Primarily, I rely on word of mouth to discover new music.  Whenever I sit down with someone whose judgment I respect, one of the first questions I put to him or her is: “So, have you been listening to any interesting music lately?”  You’d be surprised to learn how effective this kind of communication can be.  My other source of information is the written word, articles and reviews, which I come across in magazines or on the internet.  Depending on the quality of the writing and the esthetics's of the reviewer, relying on the recommendations of a stranger can be a hit-and-miss proposition, but luckily the internet provides ample opportunity to listen to recordings and watch live performances.  It’s easier now than ever before in my lifetime to explore the labyrinthine cellars of the music world to experience the work of nonmainstream artists.  Perhaps my opinion that there is a lot of good music being produced at this time results from this improved accessibility or maybe music simply cycles like the stock market, but I feel strongly that right now we are experiencing a musical renaissance that without doubt rivals the achievements of the 60’s and 70’s.  Certainly, the ability of little known and financially strapped musicians to produce, independently, high quality recordings that can be disseminated on the internet has fostered a fertile environment for new talent to develop and produce work that explores creative avenues that may not have been commercially viable a decade or two ago.  There is so much good material out there and so many talented artists just starting their careers that I am often inspired to marvel at how lucky I am to be experiencing this incredibly rich period in music history.   

I thought I might take a moment to introduce my readers to some of my recent finds.  I will limit myself to contemporary folk artists because if I didn’t limit the scope of my sampling this could become a year long project.  I must admit I’ve had a weakness for folk music ever since, back when I was in my teens, a musician friend introduced me to traditional folk music, songs about milkmaids getting knocked up by unscrupulous lords and starving poachers getting hanged in the town square, all performed on authentic instruments.  Almost concurrently, I was becoming interested in a new breed of folk musicians that was producing original material that addressed social, political and personal issues of the present day.  I was listening to people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, June Tabor, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Renbourne, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Nick Drake and Robin Williamson.  Since those days, I’ve witnessed folk going through many transformations, some good and some bad.  Somehow the stars all seem to have aligned in the last decade or so to establish an environment that embraces a new sensibility in folk, one that prioritizes creativity and expression over commercial concerns.  The result has been some really great music.

Jake Smith
The White Buffalo – Jake Smith, who performs under the name “The White Buffalo”, is a singer/songwriter from Southern California.  With a voice I sometimes mistake for that of Eddie Vedder, Smith can produce folk with a barroom brawly, rock-rooted edge to it, or he can sing a gentle, sensitive song accompanying himself on solo guitar.  He’s written and performed a lot of music, and I’ve yet to come across a song I didn’t consider “listenable”.  He’s at his best when he sings about rebellion and loss.  I haven’t heard a song that better captures the sense of disillusionment and betrayal that pervades our lives today than “Wish It Was True”.

Mother, I tried to do right by you,
To do what you asked me to.
I did wrong, and I knew.

Mother, I tried to behave for you.
Now I'm a-diggin' a grave for you.
It was all I could do.

Find a way back home, make everything new.
I wish it was true.
(Jake Smith, "Wish It Was True")

Link to "Wish It Was True":

Joanna Newsom
Joanna Newsom – Another Californian, Newsom was born in 1982 and began studying harp and piano at a very early age, the harp being the instrument for which she holds the greatest affinity.  Her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), left me pretty impressed.  The music was spare and innovative with the harp predominating, and Newsom’s voice was unique, high-pitched and squeaky, somewhat reminiscent of traditional Appalachian singing, but always clear and precise, which is critical since her lyrics are complex and dense.

Ys Album Cover
I purchased Newsom’s second album, Ys, as soon as it became available in 2006.  Something happened when I first listened to this album which had never happened before and has not happened since.  I played the album through in its entirety, in total silence, without saying a word, and then listened to it a second time.  I turned to my wife after our second listen and declared in awe, “Music will never be the same!”  Ys is an incredible accomplishment.  The sparse orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks are magnificent, intensifying the emotional content of the songs without overpowering Newsom’s vocals and harp playing.  I cannot recall ever hearing words more complex, beautiful and evocative, Newsom’s lyrics being reminiscent of, at least for me, the poetry of Sylvia Plath.  The themes of the songs are timeless, strangely modern and archaic simultaneously.  My favorite song, “Emily” which is addressed to Newsom’s sister and wrestles with cosmic themes, is unquestionably a masterpiece.

There is a rusty light on the pines tonight
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow
Down into the bones of the birches
And the spires of the churches
Jutting out from the shadows
The oak and the axe, and the old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow
And everything sloped like it was dragged from a rope
In the mouth of the south below
(Joanna Newsom, “Emily”)

Of course, Ys didn’t change all music going forward.  I don’t believe the album got much attention at all.  But, unfortunately, Newsom did change.  An operation on her vocal cords left her voice deeper, huskier and not so clear.  Her “independent” credentials took a hit when she married an SNL comedian.  And her third album, Have One on Me (2010), a 3 CD set comprising about 3 hours of recordings, was a disappointment.  The arrangements, cloudy, clunky and deliberately, I think, reminiscent of saloon music, are uninspired and repetitive.  The lyrics, so critical to Newsom’s art, are unintelligible and overpowered by the music.  I kept coming back to this album, thinking I had to be missing something, hoping to detect a spark of Newsom’s former magic, but to no avail.  I can only hope that future efforts will reaffirm the genius that Ys revealed.

Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen – From St. Louis, Missouri, Angel Olsen is just beginning her music career but is already a powerful presence in contemporary folk.  On an early EP, Strange Cacti (2011), and her first full length album, Half Way Home (2012), Olsen sings in her incredibly mournful voice accompanying herself on solo guitar, probably the best format for her music.  Half Way Home, in particular, is a great album, containing some of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, addressing themes of loneliness, rejection and desire.  “Safe in the Womb”, included on Half Way Home, is one of the first songs Olsen ever wrote, surprisingly innovative and confidant for an early work.

Subtly shedding back the years
And after it all we soon disappear
Yes, into the dark depths we all soon disappear
Out of this labyrinth that makes our, our world
How do we ever know the light inside ourselves?
To know that the skin that we wear is raw
That we can be anything if we know anything at all
Yes, we can be anything if we know anything at all
(Angel Olsen – “Safe in the Womb”)

Link to “Safe in the Womb” (you’ll need to crank up the volume):

As with the work of many contemporary folk artists, the lyrics of many of Olsen’s songs can be vague and ambiguous but, all the same, strike a powerful emotional chord in the listener.  When I listen to her music, I have no doubt that I’m receiving the intended message; this is part of the illusion, the magic, of her art.  Olsen is very open about this aspect of her song writing:

“So I’m sitting there in the middle of a song and thinking, ‘I write songs!  That is so weird.’  How did I write all of these songs?  I don’t even know what they mean!  And I’m singing them with meaning, sort of.  I enjoy singing the songs a certain way, but I don’t even know how the writing even began.”
(Angel Olsen – Pitchfork Interview January 24, 2014)

Just last month, Olsen released Burn Your Fire for No Witness, an album on which she is accompanied by a full band.  At my first few listens, I was disappointed in the new sound, finding the bigger, jazzier arrangements distracting from Olsen’s voice, which is really a treat to experience, but with further exposure, I’ve come to really admire most of the songs.  By the way, not to mislead you, there are also a lot of pared down songs on the album, which should satisfy early fans, like myself, who want to hear Olsen’s vibrato without competition from a host of instruments.

Basia Bulat – Her mother being a piano teacher, Bulat, a Canadian of Polish descent, began studying music at a very early age, which may serve to explain how she’s been able to master so many instruments (autoharp, piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele, sax and flute) at such a young age.  Though she studied English while attending the University of Western Ontario, she continued to hone her music skills.  While she received her education her apartment became a gathering place for musicians.  It was these early jam sessions that led to reluctant public performances and then to a recording session from which most of the songs which formed the album Oh, My Darling were to come.

Bulat has a powerful, husky voice which exudes an irresistible joyous energy.  Often her singing will peak in a crescendo that conjures up images from nature, the wind sweeping down a mountainside or a wolf baying in the night.  Her music certainly seems based in wilderness, a feeling of wide-open spaces is unleashed in all her songs.  She usually accompanies her singing on the autoharp, an instrument with a simple, twangy voice anchored in North America’s settlement era.

With her second album, Heart of My Own (2010), Bulat really hit her stride.  An energy and rawness in the music creates a mood of a pioneer hootenanny which Bulat tames at will, backing away from the full band sound and permitting a tinge of vulnerability to enter her voice.  A week spent in the Yukon playing at the 2008 Dawson City Music Festival has been credited by Bulat as having had a profound influence on her music.  Without a doubt, the songs that comprise Heart of My Own embody the spirit that drove urban city dwellers of the East to venture into the harsh, unsettled environs of Alaska and Canada’s Northwest, the mad craving for mythic gold playing the metaphor for the yearnings of the human heart for love and companionship.  For Bulat, these quests, however destined for disappointment and disaster, do not justify regret and mourning; instead, she revels in the spirit that sparks the desire to take risks, to place all one’s chips on a single bet.

you found it in the deepest thorns
got it out from the darkest wells
bring your heartstrings with the bales
up there on the hills they're climbing on
and if I hadn't drowned up there
in the night before the storm took hold
I know I would find them gold
up there on the hills they're climbing on
(Basia Bulat – “Gold Rush”)

At the end of last year, Bulat released Tall Tall Shadow, a successful album that continues to address themes, musically and conceptually, that were taken up on Heart of My Own.   The album is very listenable, with more complex arrangements and a greater variety of instruments backing up Bulat’s voice.  Tall Tall Shadow certainly represents a more finished product than either of Bulat’s prior albums.  It may be only a matter of taste, but I missed the immediacy, energy and rawness that make Heart of My Own such an exceptional album.

I now realize that this entry is getting a bit long with my still having several more artists to cover.  So, I think it best to address this theme in two entries.  Part II will follow next month.

As always, I welcome any comments you wish to make here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Entry - 2.15.14

I work near St. Peter’s Church at the Citicorp Center located in Midtown Manhattan and often look in on art shows that the church hosts in two spaces that are reserved for exhibitions.  The church’s stated mission is to offer “gallery space to artists whose lives and work explore the many dimensions of spirituality”…luckily a restriction that would not exclude the work of any artist that I can think of.  The gallery guidelines invite both established and emerging artists to submit proposals for exhibitions, which means that the quality of work found there can vary greatly.  I find this in no way a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s terrific that a location in Midtown that gets a ton of foot traffic is available to unestablished artists.  There are times that I pass by the church, peer through the windows and am so unimpressed with the artwork on display that I walk on by, but occasionally I see a show there that I really enjoy.

In September of last year, I noticed from the street that the church was exhibiting some competent figurative work and made a mental note to myself that I should get over to the gallery to take a look.  About a week later, I made good on my intention, visiting the show on my lunch hour.  Immediately upon entering the gallery, I recognized that the work was far better than I had anticipated.  I quickly took in the room: the paintings were medium sized, the vast majority being figurative.  Compositions were original, pared down and cropped innovatively.  The paint handling was assured and organic, the artist’s brushwork more intuitive and spontaneous than my own.  Coloristically, the paintings worked for me, the artist successfully integrating saturated, artificial colors with more subdued flesh tones.  The artist had mastered perspective and anatomy.  Most of all I was impressed with how the artist painted flesh, probably the most difficult substance to depict with all of its subtle nuances, surface variations and tonal changes.  Occasionally, I noticed, here and there, a little flattening of form which I assumed resulted from working from photographs.  But, in general, the figures had weight, occupied space and were lit by a definable light source.  Additionally, the paint never got muddy, the darks staying active, the highlights pure and bright.

I was impressed.  I glanced up at the wall to see the artist’s name: Daryl Zang.  I was pretty sure from the subject matter that the artist was a woman (which, incidentally, is the case), and beyond that I didn’t need to know much more.  I think it’s always best to go into a show “cold”, and let the work speak for itself.

The first wall I approached was hung with a series of female nudes, which I found to be very competent.  I’ve discovered since then, as I suspected at the time, that these are self-portraits:
“I’ve been asked many times why I paint self-portraits.  The truth is that it kind of happened on its own.  I’ve always loved figurative drawing and painting and when I found myself home alone with a new baby I used myself as a model out of convenience.” – Zang

Zang - Sinking

Zang - Stripped

Zang - Drained

It’s not easy to suffer the scrutiny and commentary that a nude self-portrait initiates, and I commend Zang for her courage.  The works are very attractive, my favorite being Sinking, with its complex interlacing and overlapping of form.  This painting projects a more intense emotional state than is asserted in many of her other paintings, a contained anguish, that I found very moving.  But I suspect that Zang found this work, though quite successful, lacking in personal authenticity because it represents an artistic cul-de-sac, no other work in the show exploring similar emotional states.
The remaining works in the show addressed themes of motherhood, relaxation and pleasure.  As with the nudes, the vast majority of these works testified to a technical competence and exhibited a facile ability to devise innovative compositions.  There is no doubt when looking at these paintings that Zang is presenting specifically a female perspective.
“My work tells the story of my experiences as a woman, focusing on the moments that cause an internal shift in my thoughts or emotions.  At home as a new mother I painted about pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood, exposing all the uncertainty, isolation, and exhaustion as well as the tenderness.  When it was rest I craved, my work became about restful moments and quiet relaxation.  As my children grew older I found inspiration in the joy they discovered in each day and cherished our time together.  Now I can focus on how my own personality, opinions, and relationships have developed over the years.” - Zang
I think it’s wonderful that Zang is presenting images that explore the intimate moments in the day of a stay-at-home mother, especially considering how, in recent decades, the responsibility of child rearing has been disparaged and assigned to outside help.  Zang is inviting us to walk a mile in her shoes, to experience the private pleasures, the minor setbacks, the moments of exhaustion that define her day.  Strangely enough, for Zang, it was taking on the responsibility of caregiver that provided the impetus to focus on her painting.  For most artists, the distractions and interruptions that come with caring for babies and young children would become debilitating.
“My painting career truly came into focus after the birth of my first child.  Ironically, at this time, I found it unthinkable that I would have the time or energy to take painting seriously.  I found an escape in my studio and turned to self-portraiture in order to make sense of all the emotions that had arrived with this new phase of life.  I created imagery that was honest and infused with a female perspective which I found difficult to find elsewhere in art." - Zang
When successful, these works embody a candor and intimacy that is very moving.  In paintings such as Roots, New Beginning, Pause, All That Glitters, Second Reading, Cared For and Bliss, Zang excels, finding a balance between the personal and the universal, presenting images that are innovatively elemental and emotive.  In execution and subject matter, these paintings are reminiscent of the work of Janet Fish and Philip Pearlstein.
Zang - Roots

Zang - New Beginning

Zang - Pause

Zang - All That Glitters

Zang - Cared For
I would suggest that better judgment could have been exercised in naming some of the paintings.  I think Roots is too specific and strips the image of some of its mystery, while Drained and All That Glitters are cute and a bit precious.  In Bliss and Cared For Zang successfully tackles challenging subject matter: reflective surfaces, moving water and transparent mediums which distort imagery.
There are also a vast number of images that document the small pleasures that Zang indulges in during her day, pleasures that sustain and buoy her spirits: an afternoon nap, a good book, a cup of coffee, a hot bath, a glass of wine.

Zang - Centerpiece

Zang - Appreciation

Zang - Time Out

Zang - Cupcake

Zang - Indulgence
I guess this is all well and fine.  After all, Zang is telling a story of sorts, presenting a narrative constructed of moments in her day.  Most of these works are expertly executed.  I can’t help but admire the hand depicted in Appreciation or the glass of wine in Cupcake.  But as I was looking at many of these works, an uneasy feeling was welling up in me that the subject matter would be better suited for a facebook cellphone snapshot posting than serious art.  You know, “Tortellini al Forno at Olive Garden last night” or “Celebrated anniversary with bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape…Awesome!”  Of course, it could be said that my gender precludes my fully appreciating the subject matter, but I would be equally unreceptive to images painted by a male artist of the gung-ho gang gathered to watch the Sunday football game or documenting workout equipment at the local gym.  At the show, I found myself studying many of the paintings seeking within the agreeable imagery a greater depth, something more profound.

Zang - The Gift

Zang - Bliss
For instance, looking at The Gift, I wondered if the unusual cropping, the low perspective offering a generous glimpse of leg and thigh, the manner in which the frilly hem of the dress echoes the tissue paper packaging of the present suggest a slightly sinister interpretation involving a quid pro quo relationship.  Or when I look at Bliss, I can’t help but recall the long tradition of bubble imagery in art which goes back to the Renaissance, referencing the Latin expression, homo bulla, which translates roughly as “man the bubble” and serves as a metaphor for the transitory nature of human existence.(1)  In Bliss, is Zang bringing to our attention the brevity of pure happiness in our ever-changing lives and, taking this a step further, commenting on the fragility of life itself?  I’m not sure.
I hope this entry doesn’t read as too critical of Zang’s work.  From reading through passages on her site, I really got to like Zang.  She seems to be a great parent, a sincere chronicler of her creative process and motivations, a diligent artist struggling to produce high quality work.  Hopefully, if she were to read this entry, she would follow her own advice regarding criticism:
“As an artist’s circle of peers, galleries and collectors expands so does the noise of other’s suggestions and opinions.  You have to see through your own lens though.  This is true no matter what you do.  It takes strength to filter a lot of that away, but it is the only way to find your inner voice.  Only in believing in yourself does the true magic happen.” – Zang
I don’t believe that criticism is a bad thing.  I’m always pleased when my work elicits a strong response, good or bad.  My favorite comment I received when last I showed was: “Depressing, Almost evil, reflection of today’s world”.  Ultimately, the role of all art is to draw attention, to communicate, to move one’s audience to respond.  Zang should be pleased that her work motivated me to write this entry a full five months after seeing her show.  Her paintings testify to her technical abilities; it seems likely that, with continued dedication to her craft, Zang, who’s already exposing a rich and rarely explored perspective, will find themes and subject matter that more aptly convey the depth of emotion which her personal experiences inspire.  And, who knows, someday in the future, I might be wandering through the galleries of a major museum and come across a Zang hanging right along with Caravaggio’s The Foot Massage of St. Paul, Cassatt’s My Most Excellent Vibrator and Picasso’s Double Latte.
To see more of Zang’s work and read her own writings about art and process, please visit her site at: www.zangstudios,com.
All comments are welcome here.  If you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at:
(1) Erika Langmuir, Imagining Childhood