Variation on a Theme

Note: Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 451° F is in its final production and exhibition phase; Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28° F was borne out of that work, conceptually, and elaborates on its themes and central questions; it is in its research and development phase.

Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 451° F

Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra is a painting and video project which explores the gradual dissolution of culture in contemporary society through the symbolic ruin of a personal and cultural icon, the violin. Using the violin as a metaphor, I raise questions about the relationship between advancing technology and diminishing cultural heritage. I invite the audience to consider what makes the instrument precious in his or her own experience, and the impact of its loss.

As the only child of a piano teacher, I was instructed at an early age to choose an instrument and stick with it. At age eight I selected the violin, and at eighteen I put it down. The years between were fraught with accomplishment and ambivalence; as a child, I excelled at violin, but as I approached adolescence, lessons and practice became increasingly obligatory. Since then, the violin has shown up in a recurring dream: I stand on stage at a recital and the pages on the music stand are blank, I have no memory of the melody, and the ensuing silence is paralyzing. The violin has reappeared periodically in my paintings, and its image has become central to my personal iconography.

We are all haunted by our unrealized pursuits, and anxiety is the material of our collective nightmares. I am interested in both iconography as a social construct, and the images that endure in our collective memory. How does personal observation inform collective experience? How are images tied to memory and social consciousness? And what is the role of pictorial representation in visual culture?

For a period of nine months I solicited violins beyond repair from instrument shops nationwide. After collecting nearly one hundred violins, I piled them in a mountaintop clearing and burned them at dusk. Observing the site from six o’clock p.m. to six o’clock a.m., the documentation of the event is the source material for the series of large-scale paintings that depict the pile of violins in various phases of ruin: at sunset, illuminated by the lowering sun; at nightfall, in stages of burning; and at dawn, the charred remains. A video accompanies the paintings, documenting the pile from sunset to sunrise.

From the parable of the burning bush to the tradition of burning books, burning is a symbolic act, if sometimes a regrettable one. While the violin is personally significant to me, I am concerned that its value is becoming obsolete to later generations. Due to increased emphasis on technology and decreased emphasis on the arts, youth are less likely to learn to play an instrument in school, attend the symphony, or experience live performance. On this trajectory, subsequent generations would be less likely to pass values of musical heritage onto their children; we are at risk of its eventual loss.

To re-familiarize myself with the instrument after an eighteen-year hiatus, I resumed violin lessons and incorporated music practice into my studio practice. The exhibition of this project includes a personal live performance of Beethoven’s Romance for Violin in F Major Op. 50, from the Romantic period, that of Francisco de Goya, whose historic paintings inspired my images.

Departing from and expanding upon my former work, Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra propels my practice into the future. Whereas my past paintings and drawings were fragmented narratives along sociopolitical themes, this project returns to my earlier interests in metaphor and allegory. My prior work was largely figurative, and now the figure is omitted; the absence of the figure emphasizes the viewer’s own relationship with the objects. And this is my first project that includes a video component to ground my paintings in the concept of time; in retrospect, this time-based undertaking provided the impetus for the project’s continuation into temporal explorations of season and climate.

Originally exhibited under the title Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra, the second phase necessitates a subtitle, hence the designations: 451° F (combustion temperature for wood); and 28° F (temperature for snow accumulation).

Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28° F

Whereas the incineration of violins is a controlled event—a prescribed burn—exploring the influence of culture, I am also interested in the influence of natural circumstances—or environmental impact—on heritage. During the painting of the burning violins when I was focusing on the behavior of fire (motion, heat, translucency, sound), I found myself regularly contemplating the character of fire’s atmospheric antithesis: snow (tranquil, cold, opaque, silent). If violins are to an orchestra as kindling is to a fire, so are trombones to a symphony as brass is to corrosion.

For Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28° F, cast-off symphony orchestra instruments will be piled in a remote landscape against a turbulent grey sky and approaching snowstorm. Depicted in a series of paintings and accompanying video, the ensuing storm will gradually cover the instruments in snow.

As the landscape becomes less distinct with the falling snow reducing visibility, so will the imagery sequentially diminish in clarity, obliterating the recognizable landscape and instrument forms. Accordingly, the series of nine large-scale oil paintings will transition from representational imagery to non-objective color-field abstraction; and as the storm subsides, the series will return to clarity and realism, revealing the snow-covered pile of instruments. The accompanying video will document segments of the event, revealing glimpses of the instruments between periods of whiteout conditions.

The significance of the inclusion of instruments beyond violins—strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion—is two-fold: material and sound. Whereas the flammability of wood objects is suitable for cremation, wood and metal both degrade in water, with freezing conditions alluding to cryogenics and preservation. The contrast between sound and silence is an integral component of the project, with the implied noise of so many loud brass and percussion instruments quieted by the very condition of their un-use; the sense of muteness is further heightened by a muffling blanket of snow. While in the paintings the concept of silence is pictorial, in the video the soundtrack will capture the subtle sounds of a snow squall, which, after amplification, will be faintly audible alongside the paintings in exhibition.

Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra probes into pertinent contemporary issues such as unprecedented cuts to arts funding and staggering reductions to the arts in public education. What is the impact of reduced funding for the creative sector on creativity in innovation? In what ways does this silence us, as a culture? How does the marginalization of the arts disproportionally affect low-income families, and lead to greater opportunity disparity in adulthood in an increasingly segregated society? How does the neglect of a rigorous arts education affect the next generation of arts donors, and the long-term sustainability of the arts? How can the cast-off instruments of a musical tradition be renewed, through art, to activate this dialog?

From fire to ice, Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra becomes a metaphor for the impact of climate change on cultural heritage. What is the effect of rapid industrial and technological growth on both culture and the environment? How quickly will global warming impact human diversity and cultural traditions? Why is the debate about climate change so closely tied to culture, values and ideology? This project invites the audience to reflect upon the rapidly changing landscape of our times.

And as the scenery changes, so does my process. While my work has typically been grounded in representation, this project challenges my discipline to become fluid between representation and abstraction, merging divergent approaches. Inspired by historic paintings ranging from the turbulent stormscapes of J.M.W. Turner (Romanticism), to the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko (Abstract Expressionism), I will conduct research on, and travel to visit, works by significant Romantic and Modernist painters; I am particularly interested in the common aesthetic quest for the sublime (Edmund Burke c. 1757) in the otherwise disparate Romantic and Abstract Expressionist philosophies.

As a classically trained violinist, the performance aspect of Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra has become central to the project through the inclusion of music practice in my daily studio practice, and by personalizing the content of the work for public exhibition. My former recurring nightmare of the blank pages of sheet music has been diminished by committing the music to memory; now, the repetitive dream has shifted to the bow hair falling out, or the strings breaking—other ways that material and confidence erode. With my departure from Classical musical literature to a Modernist solo composition (in which Romanticism’s tonal melodies transition to atonal works in the Avant Garde, such as Arnold Schoenberg), I am especially interested in how dream-state instincts pertain to Modernism’s allegation that subconscious motivation fosters a universal experience of art. And, with the clearing of the storm and the return to representation, Arrangement for a Silent Orchestra: 28° F speaks to the shared contemporary experience of a precarious global iconography.

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