It may seem somewhat far-fetched if not evidently nonsensical to speak of “musical” painting or “visual” music, because the two art forms do not seem all that closely connected, but in the case of Tod Williamson’s painting this connection is both tangible and, I would say, “innate”.
Many of us are familiar with Williamson’s painting and appreciate the way he modulates colour and lights, but few are aware of the fact that everything began with music; the artist has a degree in the subject from Belmont University of Nashville.
And music is not just congenial to the painter: it is a form of life and a means of visual expression that is so deeply rooted in his soul that his works contain a poetic quality which I do not hesitate to define clearly musical.
This exhibition features works that are the result of a cooperation between Williamson and American composer Greg Walter, but rather than cooperation we should perhaps talk of teamwork, because each set of notes composed by Walter has been interpreted by a brushstroke on a canvas by Williamson, while every move by the painter has corresponded to a note or a set of notes. The final result has been a symphony.
This is a completely new concept in the history of painting: it may be asserted that the musician has “painted” the canvas, and that the painter has “played” the melody.
Even if many attempts to create a real and intimate merger between music and painting have been made in the art world, it may safely be claimed that an experiment with a work where painting and music is so intimately related as it is in this work has never been made. From Kandinky to John Cage, from Paladino to Brian Eno, musicians and painters have always measured swords, conducting outstanding experiments in order to create a particular sensorial experience, trying to overcome what would apparently seem to be a clear division in sensorial perception.
The “musicality” of Williamson’s works has been evident ever since his early works: his paintings seem to vibrate, and the rendition of an optical/visual vibration immediately evokes a musical vibration. The borders of colour fields are never clear or rigidly determined: the move and “vibrate” before the eye. Even if the global “score” according to which the whole field of the painting is traced, in a precise and clear manner through a sequence of lines or a grid composed of a large quantity of oil colour applied to the canvas and then defined by a palette knife, the whole composition then unfolds in nuances of colours which become hard to distinguish and which form shades and highlights that create a sensorial and optical vibration.
In fact, the works above all appear as scores of the soul, modulations of notes that succeed and follow one another across the canvas, in the brush and hand of the artist, in a symbiosis between painting and music.
Just like figurative artists create visual renditions of people and places, Williamson has made musical notes visible. His works are in other words perceived not only through the eyes, but also acoustically: it is as if notes issue from his paintings, becoming vision and appearing in their visual aspect. His sceneries contain a music, which gradually unfolds and appears before our eyes.
Williamson has composed a visual rendition of a melody on canvas
Painting becomes music, and music becomes painting.
When we stand in front of his works we are “forced” to see and to hear at the same time: the two senses do not exist separately. The sensorial experience is complex and complete. The theme of Williamson’s work remains a kind of abstract landscape formed of horizontal lines, bands of light and skilfully placed shade, but there is something more in this series: the vibration which emerges powerfully from the very lines, from the blurred edges of colour, from the modulation of colour and light which immediately brings to mind a musical score, a “visual melody”, a “visual sonority”.
His works appear as true “sound frequencies”, as “vibrations” of musical instruments, as grids with “scores” and as a visual registration of the sound waves emitted by musical instruments. The artist composes the canvas in the same way as the composer “writes” his music: music for the eyes, music for the soul.
The exhibition is organized in three series of works which correspond to three musical “moments”: the “Frequency series”, the “Grid series” and the “Light series”. As Williamson points out, these series focus on different musical “moments as harmonies, the movement of chords and musical tones.
… “the movements of the (Greg Walter’s) musical melody, so rich and profound, are balanced by the composition as such and by the chromatic hues in the painting”. The result is permeated by sonority.
We are therefore talking about the “polyphony” of a visual work of art: or in other words, a great many sounds that are visualized, made visible on a canvas through a skilful balancing of hues and composition. The chromatic effects which are superimposed on the space defined by the canvas, one of which is lit from behind and from below – and which as Williamson explains are inspired by the chiaroscuro tradition rather than by the lesson of the Californian Light and Space movement – combine in a skilful play of alternations which correspond to the tonal rendition of the notes that succeed one another in a musical composition.
Music is therefore an indispensable component in this visual art. It acts as a melody painted on the canvas, and gives the observer a complete and complex sensorial experience. The horizontal linearity of the background, the squares of the “grid” of the underlying pictorial composition are repeated to the point where they almost form a web which give the composition an orderly appearance: but this order is then upset and disarrayed by an explosion of highlights which make the work vibrate like the chords of instruments vibrate under a musician’s hand. The blurred, fading contours, the light which permeates the surface from behind, the highlights which powerfully invade the composition, all contribute to give the onlooker the impression that a symphony is unfolding before him or her.
One experiences a feeling of alienation before the painting, forgetting the here and now. The sonic qualities of the work become perceptible to the eye: it becomes possible to “listen” to the work, to “hear” the music and its melody, and to abandon oneself completely to it.
Los Angeles
October 2015