All That Jazz
By Susan Moir Mackay
May 26, 2008 - 8:59:37 AM
Kandinsky, Composition VII
My children and their friend, who share my ecclectic taste in music, are not impressed. I am playing an old Miles Davies cd in the car....our favourite place to have a 'car party'. The saxophone skips and dances over and around the sound of a deep throbbing cello. There seems to be a rhythm, then it falls over as a note slips down unexpectedly.
I am surprised how passionately the children dislike it. BUT today I cant face the hard core punk that is the only alternative I happen to have in the car. We have a lot of driving-well as much as one can do in Grand Bahama-and we listen to the CD a couple of times, between stopping in and out of shops.
Eventually there is a deep silence. A deep and unusual silence. Normally there is a cacophony in the car ranging from singing along to fighting and general squeals of excitment and conversation. The next time we are in the car, Caitlin, my daughter's friend shyly asks for that music again. This time they listen and start to chant along to it. My son, Dylan, makes up a dance for different rifts and uses various parts of the car as his drums.
I really don't know anything about music, but it fascinates me. The music seems so random, disjointed, yet beautiful, challenging, and fulfilling. I understand the moments of silence when the children seemed to have to ingest then digest the music. The complexity of the music needs time and space to understand. Understand what though? On thinking about it, it seems that it's the lack of structure, or maybe the determining of a deeper structure, that challenges and then seduces the mind.
It makes me think about art. About composition. About hidden structures in apparently random and chaotic images. About satisfying complexity.
Composition is the term used for the hidden structures in art work. It is the acknowledgement of the way the eye wanders across a page. How an artist can manipulate the viewer by certain techniques. The eye is moved across the painting by the image of a reaching hand, then immediately brought to the ground by a pole that interjects and cuts through by a fallen branch, returning our eye to the starting point.
We are talking about structure.......Structure......my friend tells me I have issues. Who doesnt? But yes, I am a self-confessed structure phobe. I don't like to be told what to do or how to do it - I am not comfortable with rules and regulation-(especially seemingly arbitrary beaurocratic ones) YES, I have issues with structure but that would be a strong aversion to 'human', manmade, structure.
But the structure of nature-now that's a different thing. There seems to be endless mathematical theories describing the essence of natural structure - a human attempt to quantify what we can see in the natural world. Not a mathematician, my thoughts about, and preference for, some idea of a natural structure are merely a result of observations and a small amount of information. I understand that there is the golden rule - a sacred geometry of divine proportions that is present in everything from the swirl of a seashell to the structure of the human body. As well, a Geography professor explained to me a 'chaos theory'. whereby within a set number of years the normal and typical will have an explosion of violent and apparently chaotic events, however even this abnormal activity is recognised as part of a system. I find this subliminal and at times disturbing chaos theory, a pattern more interesting - and relevant as a human and an artist - than set patterns that do not allow for the winds of life, or indeed the seas of change.
When looking at how western civilisation has structured so much from politics, society, landscapes, to even child rearing, I wonder. Without sounding too esoteric, I wonder if we have lost the ability to trust or at least acknowledge, this deeper structure - this undying, continually existing, elastic structure. That, yes, does create a specific species of plants or animals - and of course a race of humans- all similar within type, but never exactly replicated.
So how does this apply to art? Well, all too often our eyes, so habitualised with human structure, can be uncomfortable with art that appears chaotic or obviously disresonant. I love that art can challenge so deeply our cultural preoccupation with strict ideas of cleanliness and order, our neurotic anal retentive tendencies, our expectation of clearly defined structure.
Vasily Kandinsky (1866- 1944) left his teaching of Law and Economics to paint. He joined a group of expressionist artists called "Die Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) whose aim was to express the spiritual nature of the world by art. He is recognised as a foreleader of 'abstract art'. Interestingly, his latter work is obviously inspired by musical themes, and he believed that music and colour were inextricably linked. However, his work has a complete air of etherial chaos. Colours smearing into each other in apparent cosmic collisions. His work, however, "Composition VII", was the result of at least 30 preparatory sketches - his care for composition, even in such apparently random and chaotic images, was absolute.
On looking through my favourite art books, specifically to acknowledge compostition, or the apparent lack thereof, I am fascinated that art that has a definable subject, no matter how complex the composition, seems understandable and safe - still, the abstract pieces, no matter how controlled or formalised the composition, are more likely to disturb the viewer.
Interestingly, Jackson Pollock, the king of abstract expressionism, whose work, as I've described before, is free flowing paint splattered and poured randomly over vast canvases. These intentionally abstract works seem to contain an infinitly more rhythmic and natural energy than Kandinsky's carefully composed discourses on the 'spiritual nature' of art. In my opinion, somehow, Pollock's work seems to hold that truth more emphatically than Kandinsky's.
In the film, American Beauty, one of my favourite scenes is the image of the plastic bag being blown by a fickle wind. In the parameters of the film's exposing of the grit of structured suburban living, the trash becomes a sublime experience of nature. An irony, that subsequent emails have noted, with god exasperated, asking us to see the beauty of flowers and trees and other natural joys instead of wind blown trash bags. However the bag in its dancing and enigmatic beauty is almost a metaphor for contemporary and abstract art. It flows within the realm of a hidden natural structure, defying our belief in what 'should' be beautiful, (houses, clothes, marriage, neat yards, with rows of flowers) with an example of something wildly exotic and simultaneously mundane, created by nature and humans, yet in the relationship between those two, at times opposing forces, creating a hypnotic dance.
"Cold Mountain 4" by Brice Marden (b.1938) is sublime. Structured yet abstract, the image is mostly contained by the canvas. The lines twist with no apparent reason or logic, yet as a total image, the wet painterly style and the free flowing twists give the impression of freedom as opposed to containment or ordered structure. The eye is seduced by the erratic and rhythmical movement of the paint over the canvas, and calmed by the subdued palette. There appears to be a hidden internal structure as well as the obvious structure of the forms created by the lines, but nothing feels controlled or difficult. Again my sense is of an expression of a deeper structure, that flows with life, rather than breaking the edges of existence.
Thats my kind of structure! Pure Jazz! And what a beautiful thing, this link between music and art, Jazz and Abstract art, a composition that challenges and opens doors in our mind and soul. Provocative and seductive.
Tomorrow? Sadly, I have a feeling we will be back listening to the hard core punk............! But I must admit that even that is all part of the ebb and flow, a subliminal structure in our experience of chaotic, and naturally creative, life.
About the author:
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Susan Moir Mackay is a professional artist with a B.A. (Hons) in Art and Design from Edinburgh College of Art. She is an impassioned advocate of art and has a deep abiding belief that art benefits individuals and communities. Susan has travelled extensively, observing art in all its forms and has invested much of her time to art education projects, as well as developing her own art works and exhibitions.
Susan currently lives in Freeport with her two children, Fiona and Dylan. She can be reached at
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