What if You Could Hear a Painting

What if You Could Hear a Painting


[MUSIC PLAYING] I became really interested
in sound in painting, I think, almost
since the beginning. When I first
started making art I was trained in
very academic ways. So I learned to work from
the model, the kind of thing I teach now– I teach foundation drawing,
so this very old-fashioned way of learning to draw. I think, like many
artists, I went through the process of
working very realistically, then working more
expressionistically, and then realizing slowly and
slowly, that I got interested in the surface of the painting. So I was very interested in,
not just what I was painting– the figure, because I was
mainly painting figures, I was in very beginnings,
doing figurative work– but interested in the
way the paint surface would go long, long,
short, long, short. So it almost had a sound to me. And so the paintings
were getting very built up over time. And looking- this was now in the
’80s– and actually I brought some– since this is for a
library of production– I brought some books
that I have covers of. So this is one book. And you can see
how the paint is– this is my expressionistic
phase, we might say– so I went from realistic,
to impressionistic, now expression– so the
paint got very built up. And here is another
one where you can see that the
figure is very small, but the surface is
very, very rough. The surface started
to take on dimension. Oh, I brought another one. So this was a drawing
when I was a student that became the inspiration for this
story by Jayne Anne Phillips. So this still moving into
the expressionistic stage. So the surface had
gotten really built up, and I was really getting
conscious of this movement of the surface. And also, as it got built
up, it got really heavy. So then I started
painting the paintings on boxes instead of
canvas because the canvas would sag because of the
heaviness of the paint. So then I had these
boxes I was painting on. And that was one big
step towards, at least, moving the paintings into space. And then the other
big step was I had been paying
all these figures, so I was a figurative
painter, as you can see. And people would say to me,
oh I like that painting, but the woman
looks so sad in it. And I would say that, yeah, but
that green underneath the red– don’t you like– and I realized that
I am showing people the figure, when what I’m really
interested in is the paint. So then I took a painting,
and I painted the parts of it. So then the figure
was gone– well, the figure was sort of
maybe just the corner of a skirt or
something like that. So it had a
figurative feel to me, but it was not
very much built up, and really about that
green underneath the red or whatever it was
I was interested in. So now I had this sort
of abstract paintings that I was painting on boxes. And one day I came
into my studio and I thought, oh they look
pretty good on the floor. Why don’t I just leave
them on the floor? So I started to realize
the painting don’t have to go on a wall, they
could go on the floor. And then I said thinking, well,
they could go across the room, actually. Why does it have to
stay on one wall? So then I did a painting that
stretched across the room. So it was like a
big beam that you had to actually go underneath. So all of this was moving,
now, the painting into space. But I was still
very much interested in this idea of sound. But there were a
number of obstacles, and I still wasn’t there yet. So at some point, the paintings
were getting really big, and I had this idea to do
an updated baroque ceiling painting. So I decided I
would make paintings that were on the ceiling,
and they would flip over from night to day. So it would be like you look
up and you see those sky paintings, but this one would
change from night to day. So I worked on it
for a long time. I had all the boxes that I made,
the different parts of the sky, and one side was blue– and then I realized I don’t
know how to get them to flip. I don’t know anything
about motors. I don’t know any
of these things. So I was really beside myself. And someone said my
how are you going to– And I said, oh, I can’t– I’m in such a
horrible situation. I want to make this painting,
and I can’t make it, and– And they said, I know
this retired mechanic, I think he works with artists. So I called him,
and I went over, and I said this is
what I want to do. And said OK, come back
a couple of weeks. And I came back in
a couple of weeks and he said, OK, we’re
going to do this. It’s going to have bicycle
chains, and we’ll use motors, and we’ll do all this– And I said great. And he said I thought
$3,000 would be fair, as a price for doing this. I would say the project was
really a $30,000 project, but anyway, I panicked. And he said to me,
what’s the problem? I said, I don’t have $3,000. And he said to me, don’t
you have a grant to do this? And I said no. And he said what are you doing? And I said I really, really
want to make this piece. So he said to me, all right. Why did you come here, and
I’ll teach you how to weld, and how to use the
milling machine, and how to use table
saw, and you do the work, and I’ll charge $2.50 an hour
to use the shop and dinner is thrown in. I said great. So I had the best
education of my life. I went there every day, learned
how to use the various tools. The book that you
have now, the What if You Could Hear a Painting
is dedicated to them. Because they really
made it possible for me to move into
the realm of sound. So we made the updated
baroque ceiling painting. And then I wanted to
make another piece. And I sort of kept going to
the shop and making work. And at one point,
I heard this piece by George Antheil called
the Ballet Mecanique. And I thought it was
fantastic, and on the way home I had an idea for a new piece,
which would be a painting, it would move
across the room, it would trip up another painting,
it would cause a buzzer to go. So I was always interested in
sound, but I’m not a composer. So I thought well, at least I
can use buzzers and things like that that’s– so I went to the
machine shop and I said this is what I want to do. I want to have a painting
go across the room. Do you think it’s possible? Yeah. Cool. Let’s get George. So their friend George
came, and we talked about what I wanted to do. And they said, yeah,
yeah, yeah, but Mary, you’re going to have to
now learn a little bit about circuitry because
it’s ridiculous to do all this mechanically. So that piece they
did help me with, and then I started
to learn to program. So I could program
my own pieces. Because George would do
the programming for me for some of my work, and
then I’d always have things I wanted adjust or
something, and I didn’t like bothering him. So I found a way to
learn programming and George helped me. So at about this time,
I was on a residency and I met a composer, and
we were very much in sync. And I said to him,
you know, I’ve always wanted to do work
for sound because I think there’s a real
relationship between painting and sound. And I would say your
sounds match my aesthetic. So anyway, he said, yeah,
let’s do something together, let’s collaborate. So he gave me four
different sounds. And was saying,
Mary, why don’t you make one of
multisided paintings. So my paintings had then, now
started being inside rooms and moving or flipping. And he said why
don’t you make one of your multisided paintings,
and they could just move like moving speakers. And I said well, that’s an idea. So I made four boxes, so
five-sided paintings, you know, top, bottom, side– and two sides were
polished aluminum, and the rest were my
typical heavy paint, and the top surface
was very thin and was attached
to a transducer. So the top of the painting
actually became a speaker. So he gave me four
different sounds, and each box plays
the sound for it. And sometimes the two
sounds run at the same time, sometimes one is just
playing, one time or another. And I programmed them
so that they move across the room on the floor. And I painted them
gray like Whistler– there’s another artist– Whistler every knows
from Whistler’s Mother. But he also was very
interested in nocturnes and in the relationship
between music and sound also. So this is an
homage to Whistler. And the paintings are
kind of dusty-gray with polished
aluminum on the side. And his paintings
were this gray, those nocturnes are
very gray and mystical. Anyway so the
paintings move and– I call them paintings– they
move and they pass each other, and you can see them reflected. And it’s a very
melancholy sound, and they never meet,
and they just– and then another composer asked
me if I would work with him. And he gave me a
piece, and it relates to another book which is
eerie, After Dark by Murakami. I hope I said it right. One way you could
say it, it it’s a story about a woman
trapped in a television set. So he did a whole opera, and
he gave me the prelude for it. And he asked me to
do something with it and to bring it to China
to perform in a concert. So I thought, OK, I’ve
got to get on the plane, and I’ve got to get it in China. And so I’d made a box
that I brought onstage, and then I unwrapped
it, and took off the top, which was
an ink painting that, again, had a speaker. So it played– the speaker
played the sound made for the paint– for the
[? bar. ?] So I put the speaker down, let it up so it does– so it was in a concert hall,
so first the pianist plays. You know, the first
composer came out, and they redo the stage. The next person
comes out and plays. And then they redid the stage. They pushed everything aside,
and I brought the box out, and the box performed. There was no other performers. The box performed. And the box, once I opened
it an put it to the side, it starts to open these flaps,
and as it opens the flaps– it’s all light inside
like a Pandora’s box– it plays the sound that
was composed for it. So it plays its own sound. So there was that piece. And so I was doing
a number of things with composers, which really,
really interest– it’s been a delight. Like working with mechanics,
it’s changed my life. But I still wanted to deal with
the issue of the paint surface. So I was now working
with composers whose aesthetic was
parallel to mine and doing pieces
that combine the two. But I wanted to go back to
the surface of the painting. So I was talking
to a friend of mine who works a lot with
sound, and he actually audified earthquakes– Florian Dombois. He actually came here
and did something with [? DBC, ?] and
he told me well, Mary, the problem is you
need really dense data. Because sound needs
a lot of data. So you’re going to need a
very, very good scan in order to have enough data for someone
to translate into sound. So a friend of mine is a doctor. And she said oh,
I’ll ask around and. There was a doctor
Brett Bouma at Harvard, and he said, oh, he could
get one of his residents to scan the painting for me. So they scanned the
painting for me. They scanned five
parts of the painting because one inch is
very big for them because they’re doing
things in the brain. So he scanned the
painting for me. And then I asked
my friend, Florian, I said can you
translate it to sound. He said no, but you
really need someone with a musical ear,
which I don’t have. So I’ll introduce you
to another Florian– Florian Grond in Montreal. And I’ll do a
virtual introduction, and he would be better
than me to do this. So Florian Grond
and I met via Skype. And I told him the
project, And he said, yeah, I would be interested. And I went up to Montreal, and
I told him what I wanted to do. So he said, yeah,
he could do it. So he took that data– he
also audified sculptures for the blind, so they
could hear sculptures– that’s one of his projects. So he has an algorithm
that he has set up. And one of the
things that we did that’s different than what
artists and scientists have done in the past is, typically
people focus on synesthesia– on translating color into sound
because it’s color frequency and sound frequency. So this makes more sense. And some people say
they have synesthesia, so they see sound and
color at the same time. I don’t think I
have this quality, but I was thinking
that it’s really the surface of the
painting that, when everyone looks at painting,
I think they don’t just look at it– they look at it quickly,
but I think your brain takes in a lot of information. And artists, often when
they look at a painting, look at it very, very slowly. They’re looking at all
of this kind of thing, which I think everyone does
anyway, you just aren’t aware. You’re not so conscious
of this time passing. And the ear is really good at
things that pass over time. So anyway, he created
all the sounds for the different
surfaces of the painting. And we chose a route that would
kind of look like a drawing through the painting and
turned it into sound. And it’s based, like
I said, on the depth. So, the sound, if it’s far away
it’s a very reverberant sound, and if it’s close up,
it’s a very sharp sound. So it sounds very
close or very far away. And the sound he used
was human vowel sounds because he said they’re the
least source-identifiable. So you can’t usually identify
just a vowel sound by itself, and then he stretched
it out a bit. So the painting has a voice. But I don’t want to just
say, here’s the painting, here’s the sound. That would be sort of boring. So I made a structure
where the painting hangs in a room like an
artifact, and as you come close to the structure,
a plate moves in front of it, so now you can’t see it. And then a little
window starts to open. And as it opens,
you hear the sound. So you start to realize
there’s a relationship between the surface
and the painting, which is what I’m interested in. So I was hoping to get other
people interested in it. And there’s also a light
lit across from it– this was actually Florian
Grond’s idea, which is great– and it creates a
little eclipse effect. So as it opens, you’re,
like, watching an eclipse. So I did that. And then a curator
saw the work and she said, oh, Mary, why don’t we do
a show of your work in painting and sound because this
is kind of interesting. So anyway, I had
a show in Montreal that just closed in November,
which was looking at my work, this beginning of
working with sound, so the cars on the floor,
and the box opened up, and a few other pieces,
up until the latest piece. And the latest piece was– I took the sounds that Florian
Grond had devised for me, gave them to the composer who
I worked with for the box, and he turned them into a fugue. So now the painting can sing. So then I recreated the little
white parts that were scanned, and I have created
a stage-like setting where the paintings move
back and forth, like a fugue. One’s in reverse,
one is staggered. So that’s the latest thing. So this is sort
of the long story of how I got interested in
sound and where it’s going now. I also think that a challenge
for every artist is to become– I was very aware of when
I was making these more traditional-looking
paintings, that I was working in a century-old tradition. And I was aware that I
wanted to be involved with what’s going on today. I wanted to make painting
relevant to today, but I didn’t know how. And I also found that people
don’t look at Paint the way– they don’t take time
to look at paintings, so I wanted to slow
people down to look at what I’m interested
in and to keep painting interesting to viewers today. And so I have seen, when
people come into a show, they stay a long time
with the paintings. And I think they stay a long
time because there’s a sound. And they’re listening to sound,
how it unfolds, how it moves. And I think it does the
same for the sound– by having something moving,
one stays with the sound longer as well. That led me all into this long
trail of working with sound. In some ways, I’m sure
coming back to my teaching because I teach just
foundation drawing. I have taught, in the
past, similar classes, and I’m very proud that
a number of my students still stay in touch with me. I didn’t encourage them. I never talk about what I do
in my class, but some of them started to move paintings into
space as well, and some of them became interested
in architecture and went on to school
in architecture. But anyway, now I teach
foundation drawing. And it was my basis,
the way I learned. So I think it’s a
very valuable tool. So I’m very happy to teach it
because I think this training that I had, this
academic training is not so commonly taught. And so it’s a very easy way to
teach all the students to draw. They all have the ability to
draw at the end of the class because they go through
the various steps, and they learn the various– you could even say
they’re tricks– of how to draw. But they can easily draw
a scene in front of them. So I’m very happy to do that. The first day of class
I always show them the film Christo’s,
Running Fence. And it takes a semester to
learn these kinds of skills. But I do want them to
think outside of the box, whether or not they decide to
do it, or whether or not they like what Christo does
doesn’t so much matter to me, but just to have them
aware that there’s other ways to think about it. And I still think I’m a painter. I’m sure that I’m
the only person on the face of the earth
that thinks I’m a painter, but it’s my first love and
what drives everything. So for them, I show
that and I ask them why I would show such a
work for a drawing class. And of course, the answer is
that it’s a line in space. That piece is very
much a line in space. And so one could
consider it a drawing. So I plant the seed
in their heads. And whether or not it stays
or they do something with it, I don’t know, but I plant it. And I think all students
have to find their own way. But having a foundation in
drawing never hurts anyone. When I was working
with the mechanics, it was very helpful
to be able to draw. This is how we could
work things out. I’d say I want to do
something, but they needed to see tangibles. So this is what I’m
doing with the students, and then with my own
work, I’m going back to– I showed The Fugue
and that piece that– and there’s some things I
would like to fix on it. Not only, when I
have an exhibition, not only is it the
piece, but I always take into consideration the
whole space, the whole room. So I usually go out
early and install. And each piece it’s basically
designed for the whatever space it’s in. Design is kind of
weird word, but I’m trying to, in each
case, orchestrate the space as well as
the piece, the space in the piece in the space. So the piece is often modular,
and I can stretch them out or conflate them. So The Fugue, when I
showed it in Montreal, I think that I would
like to compress it some and control the lighting more. I’ve been thinking
more about lighting. So I just moved to a new studio,
and I’m very happy with it, but it took me a while
to get it set up. And I will start
setting up the piece– resetting it up and
figuring out how to fix that that bothered me. And then you know,
I just realized I don’t have an idea for
something after that. I have The Fugue. The thing I have
after this is that’s exciting me and getting me–
well, actually that’s not true. There are things. I have been asked, but
I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this in time– to recreate Robert
Rauschenberg’s Open Score, which was a piece he
did for 9 Evenings, which was a collaboration in
the ’60s between scientists and artists. It’s legendary, and was
probably the first– if not the first, it was one of
the most well-known and large attempts for scientists
to work with artists. And it’s really amazing
because, in those days, they didn’t have
computers, so everything was done with circuitry. So it was very
complicated what they were doing– things
that would not be so complicated to do now. And so, actually, I
had asked the library to try to get me the
schematics of that piece so that I could look at
the circuitry schematics and see if I could then
translate it faithfully into software. And it uses things
like infrared filming. They’re playing tennis in
the Armory in New York. And it every time the ball hits
a racket, a light goes off, and in the end,
it’s all a darkness. But the audience
is all projected onto screens in infrared. And in those days, infrared
was only used by the military. So even to get the cameras to
do this was very difficult. So anyway, there’s someone
in Montreal, [INAUDIBLE],, who wants to
recreate that piece. And I have been trying to
get a hold of the schematics so I could try to
help with that. And so that’s one thing
that I’ve been sort of working on the back burner. And then another thing that
I’m more forward because I’ll be in Berlin this summer. And last time I was in Berlin
I spoke to a theater director about doing a theater
piece together, which I’m very excited about. It’s very much in the planning
stages, so I’m a little– so I’ve been doing now– I had the library order me some
books on Robert Lepage’s work, just to start getting
ideas about theater, because I haven’t worked
in theater before. But a lot of things, obviously,
I’m doing is kind of stagings. And in fact, The Fugue, I would
say, in fact actually I do now, refer to it as– Because I’m doing
the video of it. And I was writing
the description for the video of it, and
I referred to The Fugue as kind of like
an operatic setup. Because you have the
little paintings moving on this platform, and they
all have their own voices. So you could think of it
like an opera, actually. So I’m now thinking how I could
do that on a much larger scale. And what kind of issues
come up and how– and I would really like to play
with lighting more because it’s something I haven’t dealt with. And I think by being in
a theatrical situation, I could do that. And in fact with Delay,
the piece, the first one that Florian and I worked
with that we scanned, that piece, Florian the
composer, kept telling me, Mary, you want to have
a light across from it. And I kept saying,
no I don’t want to have a light across from it. I don’t know what
you’re talking about. Because if there was a
light across from it, when the person would
walk in front, of course, you couldn’t see the piece. So I thought he was crazy. And when we were installing
it– and this was in Norway– he asked the people in Norway if
they had a stage light around. I thought, oh no, he’s
on that idea again. So they brought a stage light
down, and I thought, all right. I mean I have to be polite. I have to try to stage
light because he’s been so helpful to me. So we put the stage light up,
and I saw that eclipse effect. I was on cloud nine for days. That was the most
brilliant thing ever– that makes the piece. So it’s now in total darkness
lit by the spotlight, and now we have
this eclipse effect. And people just sit on the side,
so they don’t go in front of it anyway. I don’t know what
I was thinking. So with The Fugue, I also
tried some lighting things, and then I’d like to play
around with that more. And the piece that
the director was– he gave me a postcard of
Lyonel Feininger’s work. His work is very much– it’s cubist, so it’s very much
sheets and things in between, which reminds me of The Fugue. So I’ll see what he
comes up with and– I use to, in the
past, I would have the idea for the baroque
ceiling painting or whatever. And then lately,
since composers have wanted to do something with
me, they give me something. And then I sit on it for awhile
and see what might come up. And then I usually refer to
another piece in the past. Like Delay actually,
on some level, it reminds me of Duchamp’s The
Large Glass, which was actually originally called Delay– longer title, but it was– and I didn’t know that until I,
actually, I finished the piece, that Duchamp had
originally called The Large Glass, a delay in
glass or something like this. So anyway, my instinct
must have been right. So I usually get the
sound, sit on it– this somehow reminds
me of something that refers to paintings,
so the works always have a reference to a past,
and then this updating it. So that’s what I’m
looking forward to. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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