Friday, October 8, 2010

Hot Licks, Crazy Chops, and All That Jazz

Hot Licks, Crazy Chops, and All That Jazz

By Tom Wachunas

Aegolius could stand it no longer. They had been walking in silence for what felt like too long since the music ended, and he simply had to know. “So then,” he asked Nyctea, “did you like the concert?”
She stopped walking and, still looking straight ahead, answered slowly, “I think…it was very…cool. Isn’t that the word you use for this kind of music?”
“Oohh yes, YESSS,” Aegolius gushed. “Very cool indeed! And that axe man! Crazy chops!”
“Crazy chops?”
“Uhmm…he is an excellent guitar player.”
“Ahhh,” Nyctea nodded, a gleam forming in her eyes. “Now I remember. Supermurgitroid!”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

While some of the slang indigenous to the jazz music of the 1940s and 50s is not commonly used anymore, it is nonetheless a language as unique as the music it described. My own appreciation of language often compels me to find, or invent, descriptors appropriate to the art I encounter. And so it is that the art of Elizabeth Babb presents something of a challenge, albeit a delightful one. Her oil and water media paintings, along with woodcut prints, are currently on view through October 30 in the Main Hall Gallery at Kent State University Stark, in a show called “Jazz Zounds.”

I’ve often gone to the world of music to get at defining the spirit of various artists’ visual explorations, and it’s apropos here, given, for starters, the show’s title. Babb is clearly enamored of jazz – here the kind of jazz with wildly variable rhythms, textures, and shifting, organic thematic structures.

When I spoke with her, the word ‘intuitive’ crept into our discussion, which was understandable enough. But she’s somewhat reticent in latching on to the term, seeing it as too suggestive of generic associations with femininity. Fair enough. Improvisatory, then. Ahh, now we begin to get at how her pictures seem to formalize the energy of musicians exchanging free-form, spontaneous solos that thread through and around a melody.

Beyond musical metaphors, there are clearly other influences afoot. Several of Babb’s paintings have a distinctly, though not strictly Cubist esthetic at work – mostly in how the picture plane has been fractured and fragmented, its ‘space’ pushed forward into flat shapes of varying size and character. Those shapes, in turn, are often embellished with ornamental flourishes of brushy arcs, dots, and stripes, and always painted with confident, expressive fluidity. This, combined with an electric palette reminiscent of the Fauves from early in the 20th century, as well as a design sensibility sympathetic to Art Deco configurations, makes for a hybrid body of work (these pieces are from 2005-2007) that is at once visually busy and intricate, and unashamedly decorative.

“World on a String” is a marvelous example, with its staccato arrangements of hot and cool accents, improvised and into an architectural and figurative landscape of sorts. And the stunning black-and-white woodcuts (three called “Jazz Man”) are intimate, playful nods to Picasso-like portraiture.

So, Expressocubideco is one possible assignation. Then again, I can just as easily defer to…supermurgitroid. Crazy chops, man.

Photo – courtesy Jack McWhorter: “World on a String,” oil, by Elizabeth Babb, on view in “Jazz Zounds” at Main Hall Gallery, Kent State University Stark, through October 30. Gallery hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to noon.

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