Blues for Smoke


of an Exhibition

by Elizabeth O'Ferrall

Published on April 08, 2013

  • Description:

    The exhibition Blues for Smoke, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, weaves together a diverse collection of artistic forms to create an exciting and thought provoking journey for the visitor. Displaying a visual interpretation of the blues, and the deep, often unsettling sentiments behind it is a difficult task. In one of the galleries the wall text provided a quote from the American writer Ralph Ellison that gave his definition of the blues.

    “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” Ralph Ellison, Living with Music: Jazz Writings

    The curators of this exhibition successfully provide a rich and meaningful show that highlights the number of ways a visitor can discover their own personal connection to the blues, while developing an understanding of the influential power of the blues as an artistic inspiration.

    The design of the exhibition seems intent on creating a complex sensory experience for the visitors that is supported by the decision of opening the show with Stan Douglas’ instillation of Hors-champs, a black and white film of a jazz ensemble performing documented by two cameras. This gallery is located on the first floor of the museum, separate from the rest of the show, which is located a few floors up on the third floor. The visitor enters into a dark room with a large screen hanging in the middle. Projecting onto either side of the dual screen are two different films, one is the edited performance as it actually aired, while the other is the complete session that includes outtakes. The music fills the otherwise silent room, and your senses are filled with the performance you are watching on screen, the images of the larger than life facial expressions of the performers, playing their instruments against a white stage set. The notes are both familiar and completely new at the same time. It is the beauty of jazz; the rehearsed, and the unexpected joy of improvisation. The band appears on the screen for about 17 minutes, until it goes black, and only the words Hor-champs is seen in white block letters. It sets the mood for the exhibition, the feeling of both isolation, and the instantaneous connection to the human experience through artistic expression. This acts as an introduction to the rest of the exhibition by immersing you in the visual and auditory experience that will be expanded upon later in the show.

    The wall panel at the beginning of the exhibition acknowledges the roots of the blues in African American society following the abolition of slavery, and leading up to the civil rights movement. It is a form of expression that was inspired by the experience of living amongst the Delta plantations of the Deep American south, displayed by works like Rodney McMillian’s from Asterisks in Dockery, a recreation of a chapel interior done entirely in red vinyl. The tragic source of this art has influenced a wide range of artists, which extends beyond national borders, race, and sexual orientation. It includes artists from film, comedy, all types of music, and the visual arts. The show pays homage to the historical source of the blues as a musical genre, but it also shows how the feelings of loneliness, despair, and rejection are universal, and are not confined to race or geographic location by displaying artwork that cross these socially defined boundaries.

    The blues is not strictly depicted through a historical lens; the curators of the show made a decision to present it first and foremost as an art exhibition that explores a diverse mix of interdisciplinary forms of expression. This is made clear by the limited wall text, the lack of historical context the supplementary education materials supplies, and the choice of abstract art that makes up most of the show’s collection. Blues for Smoke challenges the visitor to answer the question “what is the blues?” for themselves by presenting examples of artistic expression that expands upon the idea of the blues just being a genre of music.

    A considerable amount of time is required to explore the multiple sensory layers of the exhibition in order to fully appreciate the intricate connections between the different works of art. These conceptual ideas are better understood by a more mature audience, and some of the works include themes that might not be suitable for younger visitors, including sex, violence, and explicit language. On my visit I did not come across any interpretive design choices that were particularly geared to a younger audience. The museum does offer family programs in conjunction with the exhibition that provide workshops for children to explore the blues aesthetic, and interpretation of the blues. The information for these events can be found on the museum’s website. I would encourage families to visit the exhibition, but advise them to be aware of the content of some of the artworks on display.

    An intriguing, and quite successful aspect of the exhibition is the audio guide. I was struck by the fact that the information provided was not spoken interpretations from experts about the pieces; instead the audio guide is a playlist of songs chosen by the curators of the exhibition. It is your personal iPod throughout the show, and you have the freedom to skip around, repeat songs, and design your own playlist. The only information it provides is the title of the song and the name of the artist. Listening stations with headphones are located throughout the galleries that play the music that is on the audio guides for visitors who have chosen not to pick one up at the beginning of the exhibition. The music selection also made the experience more relevant to me, and it was through a particular song I felt a deeper connection to the show. The blues is one of my favorite genres of music, and it is what first intrigued me about this show. As I was going through the playlist I came across a song by Junior Kimbrough, a blues musician whose music has been influential to some of my favorite, contemporary musicians. As I listened to his familiar voice I was reminded of a time when I had felt especially moved by one of his songs, and it made my understanding of the exhibition much clearer. I could connect the raw human emotion I heard in his voice to the images that surrounded me on the walls of the gallery. Sound and music are central to the show, and this piece of technology allows the visitor to explore this form of art in a very personal way.

    One of the galleries is filled with different screens showing films that highlight actors, directors, comedians, and musicians influenced by the blues. There is an assortment of televisions, and wall projections set up around the perimeter of the gallery. Some of the screens have headphones accompanying them, while others have sound playing for the entire gallery to hear. There are benches placed in front of the larger projections on the wall to allow for extended viewing. The connections the room makes, just by having these images displayed in the same space, is a bit bewildering, but the more you explore and observe you begin to make sense of it. The galleries leading up to that point also provide enough context to develop an understanding as to why Big Mama Thornton, Trouble Funk, Richard Pryor, and the HBO show The Wire are being shown in unison. There is something very surreal about watching and listening to these films playing simultaneously in a shared space. With the screens facing the center of the room, it is as though the performers are interacting with one another across space and time, overlapping genres, and creating a united voice. This feeling of unity is furthered by the low, singing voice of Billie Holiday that plays over the speakers in the gallery that accompanies the Duke Ellington musical short, Symphony in Black.

    Blues for Smoke is an exhibition that takes a risk by bringing together diverse artists under one conceptual and abstract idea. It expands the preconceived notion of how to define the blues, and for that matter any artistic movement. It takes time, and thorough investigation to build meaning in the gallery experience, but if one is willing to invest the time and think deeply about the issues being presented you will be rewarded with an incredibly enlightening experience.

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