featured gallery for July 2012

Overnight Wave (For Arthur)

My mind drifted out to sea at a performance of avant-garde musician Arthur Russell's Instrumentals this spring at The Kitchen. Though Russell died of complications from AIDS 20 years ago, as the ensemble launched into Instrumentals, he felt very close to the moment and my mind and emotions raced the whole evening. The concert was long. First performed in 1975, Instrumentals was composed to be played live alongside landscape photographs by Yuko Nonomura and was originally conceived as a piece, that by relying heavily on improvisation and repetition, could last up to 48 hours. A lot of people got up and left before the show I attended in March was over. They weren't displeased, just sated. I, however, found myself alternately moved to tears and dancing in my seat. I'd be fixated on the non-verbal dialogue between musicians, then drawn into the landscapes projected on the wall behind them. I could have listened all night, the short repetitive melodies buoying me along like waves. I started to think a lot about the photographs and wondered who decided to pair these images with this music. Did Russell take them? Were they new or old? Which came first, the music or the photos? Before long I was asking myself what Russell's music looks like. Many contemporary musicians have covered Arthur's songs and cited him as an inspiration, but how does visual art relate to this man who was so much a part of the SoHo and East Village scenes of the 70s and 80s?

For this Web gallery, I've made selections from The Frank Moore Archive Project at Visual AIDS to create a visual tribute to the musical world of Arthur Russell. To hear Russell's music for the first time is a moment of great discovery. I first came across his music on Myspace and the first song listed on his profile was "A Little Lost." Before the song was even finished, I knew it was one of the best songs I'd ever heard. It's a deceptively simple pop song full of sweetness, innocence and love. And yet, there's complexity to Russell's cello and plaintive voice in "A Little Lost" that makes it endlessly replayable, an aural fortune telling fish that reveals your own mood. As I began to look at work in the archive, I tried to let things reveal themselves to me the way Russell's music takes hold: over time. It was important for me to keep in mind the idea of discovery, so it worked out beautifully that the only artist's work in this month's Web gallery that I knew previous to my research was the New York photographer Vincent Cianni. The works vary in media and style, from the conceptual (Robert Blanchon) to the illustrative (Eduardo Mirales), but taken together, the images are an evocation of the atmosphere and romance often present in Russell's music.

To sum up Russell quickly is an impossible task. His music collapses genre and collides scenes, sometimes sounding as if it was made by 10 different people who've never met and wouldn't necessarily want to hang out. As I found works in the archive that reminded me of Russell's songs and then laid them all out to begin my edit, I realized that unless I provided a secret decoder ring to each gallery viewer, I'd produced not mystery, but incoherence. I focused, then, on works that I hope will read as a kind of story book inspired by lyrical motifs found in some of Russell's many aquatic songs. Having grown up as far from the sea as a boy could be in small town Iowa, Russell was continuously fascinated by watery worlds. As you head to the beach this summer, I hope you find something treasured in this Web gallery. I've made a YouTube playlist that includes the songs that directly inspired the images I chose. I invite you to learn more about a favorite new artist in the archives at Visual AIDS and to go swimming in the music of Arthur Russell.

For more information about Arthur Russell, visit:

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a film by Matt Wolf

Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92, biography by Tim Lawrence

Arthur Russell Music Archive

Arthur Russell on Audika Records