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John Cage's avant-garde mind on display in Seminole Heights

TAMPA

The exhibition at Tempus Projects, "Things Not Seen Before: A Tribute to John Cage," isn't easy to get to or easily gotten into, but the effort will be worth it before it closes on Feb. 5.

This year is the centenary of the great experimental composer and artist, who died in 1992. Independent curator Jade Dellinger has assembled a collection of works by Cage, by those who knew and worked with him and by a younger generation who have been influenced by him.

Tempus is a small gallery in a converted garage in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa. You shoot past it if you don't know to turn into the small drive that leads to the gallery with minimal signage. And there are no regular hours. Its manager, Tracy Midulla Reller, has a day job teaching art at Hillsborough Community College and opens it up by appointment.

But this show is worth those inconveniences. Dellinger has mined his many contacts to illustrate Cage's reach throughout his life and after his death.

Like the logistics of this exhibition, its subject isn't easy. Cage is one of the most avant-garde artists of the 20th century, a painter, printmaker, writer and composer, the last for which he is most famous though some balk at even calling him a composer because he was more interested in random sound than formal music. Arnold Schoenberg, his teacher and mentor, said, "Of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor — of genius."

Several TV monitors in the tribute loop videos documenting Cage and honoring him. A Tribute to John Cage by Nam June Paik is probably the most famous. Paik (1932-2006) is considered the first video artist and was a leading member of the Fluxus movement, the Neo-Dada group inspired by Cage's philosophy of chance and randomness and his use of everyday objects in his music. Contemporary sound artist Andrew Deustch's Empty Words Four, a collaboration between Cage and him, features Cage "reading" from his Empty Words text. In that text, extracted from writings by Henry David Thoreau, Cage reduces language to unintelligible sounds of words and syllables, making them purposefully "un-understandable … because when it's understandable, people control one another and poetry disappears." It blurs the line between musical performance and performance art, an ambiguity that is signature Cage.

Photocollages by Paik also document his Good Morning, Mr. Orwell from Jan. 1, 1984, in which Cage and other artists performed around the world simultaneously and were linked via satellite to a television feed, the first such art installation.

As we know, many musicians are, like Cage, also visual artists. Several subscribe to the Cage tenet of indeterminacy, or chance, in art and music. A drawing from David Byrne's book Arboretum (published by McSweeney's in 2006) is a flow chart (Byrne calls it a tree) that explores the levels of sound between silence and cacophony that include categories such as "airplane overhead," "traffic noise," "animal sounds" and "imaginary voices." Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth is also a sound artist and printmaker. Three of his prints use records.

Cage's Prepared Piano, in which he put objects on or between its strings to alter the sound, is a progenitor of later manipulated instruments used by both musicians and performance artists. Laurie Anderson's famous audio violin, with audio tapes and player replacing the strings, and Christian Marclay's windup guitar embedded with small, working music boxes are examples here.

One of the most fascinating works is a lithograph from Cage's The Mushroom Book. Among his many interests, his love of mycology — the study of mushrooms — seems anomalous. But he was an expert on the subject (though he almost killed himself and several of his friends serving them a poisonous variety one evening) and the limited edition book he created with botanical illustrator Lois Long — copies of which are quite rare — is both homage to the fungi and a type of participatory art experience. He had maps of his mushroom-hunting expeditions and annotated them with notes about what he was thinking or doing when he came upon an outcropping. The maps become texts with overlapping notes mostly indiscernible. (One charming and readable note is "strawberries" with an arrow locating an unexpected find of the wild fruits during one tromp.)

This is a personal show for Dellinger. In 1988, when he was 18 and living in Land O'Lakes, he wrote his first letter to Cage. Cage replied and a correspondence began that lasted several years in which Cage was always generous with his opinions when the young art student asked for them.

Dellinger kept them all but didn't include them in this show except for the title, written in a letter from Cage and reproduced in his own hand along with a tracing of his hand he sent to Dellinger.

"I would send the early letters registered mail," he said. "I would put them in a folder, then a big envelope because I thought that would make them seem important. He used one of those folders to trace his hand and send it back. But one day, he wrote to me, 'Please don't send any more certified letters. It obliges me to walk to the post office.' I was this kid making John Cage walk to the post office to get my letters."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

with notes about what he was thinking or doing when he came upon a outcropping. The maps become texts with overlapping notes mostly indiscernible. (One charming and readable note is "strawberries" with an arrow locating an unexpected find of the wild fruits during one tromp.)

This is a personal show for Dellinger. In 1988, when he was 18 and living in Land O'Lakes, he wrote his first letter to Cage. Cage replied and a correspondence began that lasted several years in which Cage was always generous with his opinions when the young art student asked for them.

Dellinger kept them all but didn't include them in this show except for the title, written in a letter from Cage and reproduced in his own hand along with a tracing of his hand he sent to Dellinger.

"I would send the early letters registered mail," he said. I would put them in a folder, then a big envelope because I thought that would make them seem important. He used one of those folders to trace his hand and send it back. But one day, he wrote to me, 'Please don't send any more certified letters. It obliges me to walk to the post office.' I was this kid making John Cage walk to the post office to get my letters."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lbennett@tampabay.com.

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Things Not Seen Before: A Tribute to John Cage

The exhibition is at Tempus Projects, 5132 N Florida Ave., Tampa, through Feb. 5. The gallery doesn't have regular hours but is open by appointment. Call (813) 340-9056 or email tempusprojects.art@gmail.com to make an appointment. Free. For more information, go to www.tempus-projects.com.

John Cage's avant-garde mind on display in Seminole Heights 01/28/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 28, 2012 3:31am]

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