Though impossible to prove, it is plausible to hold that those art-forms we have come to regard as separate—music and the visual arts among them—emerged together in human prehistory, bound up in ritual and the need for human togetherness. That these have emerged in modern culture as distinct cultural traditions can be seen as a mixed-blessing. Individualism, narrow-focus, and a self-conscious relationship to a specific history of making are undoubtedly responsible for much excellent work. They remain invaluable for many artists. And yet, there are risks inherent in overspecialization.
Locally, an excessive silo-ing is evident in the compartmentalized spaces—and distinct audiences—for the various arts. While it’s not uncommon to have a musician at an art opening or to have an illustrator do an album cover, truly inventive or unconventional collaborations between sound and sight are relatively rare.
Harkening back to early 20th-century cabaret while (literally) adding a personal spin, “Apple: Tree” is long-gestating “passion project” for local mezzo-soprano Caitlin Mathes, a distinguished opera singer and actress. Working with her long-time pianist-collaborator Avedis Manoogian, and adapting a century-spanning collection of musical material, Mathes has created an interactive performance incorporating the abstract paintings of her father, Al Mathes. For the show, The Cherry Artspace has been filled with a hodgepodge of rolling chairs and a piano-on-wheels. Guided by the lighting and rounding the room, both performers and audiences move from painting to painting—each paired with a song. Loosely narrative, the sequence traces an emotional path from lovesickness and strife to reconciliation and cautious hope.
Although I have yet to see the performance, it’s hard to miss the ambition and creativity (and hard work) that have been poured into this project. The verve emerging from the rehearsals is palpable. And the paintings look striking in this unusual presentation.
Done on overscale sheets of Mylar, the senior Mathes’ recent acrylic paintings have been hung around the Cherry’s pleasingly rough-textured space. More so than the heroic “handwriting” associated with classic Abstract Expressionism, they recall the furtive little gestures, accidental-looking textures, and stylized harshness of more contemporary painters as varied as Antoni Tàpies, Cy Twombly, and Gerhard Richter. A J.M.W. Turner-esque atmosphericism evokes landscape. Some pieces have been attached directly to the wall with pins or magnets. Others hang freely in space like screens—calling attention to the translucency and feel of the supports. Sponged and scraped as well as brushed and laden with drips and smears, they offer an artfully contrived feel of being found rather than created.
Most of the paintings are predominantly grisaille (gray-ish), with little bursts or tinges of unexpected, sometimes discordant color. Standing out in this regard are the yellow-brown infused “Slow like honey” and “Non, Je Ne Regrette,” with its rich purples and blues. (Each painting here is titled in accordance with its intended musical accompaniment. The former joins a nineties Fiona Apple song, the later one of several tunes here associated with Edith Piaf.) Merging black and gray with a splash of sunset orange “Pirate Jenny” is reminiscent of one of Turner’s stormy seascapes yet largely stripped of his characteristically warm color and light. It serves as a backdrop—if that’s the right word—for Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht’s chilling revenge-murder tale from their Weimar-era “Threepenny Opera.” (Fussing with a pirate ship silhouette projection was underway during my visit.)
His use of Mylar springs from his previous career in landscaping, where he used the material for drafting. So too, his sensitivity towards the way these paintings occupy physical space evokes his training as a sculptor.
Central to the cabaret tradition is its capacity to transgress established boundaries: between popular and high culture; between the arts; between various cultures and languages. Returning to the Weimar Republic, “Alles Swindle” (sung in English), is a cynical indictment of societal greed set to an infectiously jaunty tune. More up-to-date, Mathes and Manoogian offer inventive reconfigurations of the David Byrne/Talking Heads classic “This Must Be the Place” and—bringing us into the current century— Björk’s hopeful, uplifting “Unison.”
It’s a local rarity to see merger of visual art and music—and elements of theatrical storytelling—as ambitious and idiosyncratic as this one. Evoking a condition of synesthesia and unhinged narrative, “Tree” promises to be an exciting event.