Can music affect how the visual artist works? Jamie Harper gets down with the beat at the Black Box in Belfast
Walter Pater would have us believe that 'all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music' and, despite the fact that I have never heard of Walter Pater, I choose to believe him. I’ll believe anyone called Walter – to this day I insist that Disney films are documentaries.
Music’s ability to inspire feeling, to colour mood and to articulate emotion in the inarticulate is unsurpassed in the arts. Tonight at the Black Box in Belfast we find ourselves skidding down the Parnassian slopes, scraping knees and elbows in the process, and trying to do something different.
Whitehaven artist Jamie Harper has teamed up with the Black Box’s regular DJ Radbadio (Christian to his friends) to produce two paintings on site, in real time, in conjunction with the music; effectively reversing Pater’s dictum – this time music will be expressed through the medium of paint.
The Black Box is busy. Its usual ambience – that of a student union bar for middle-aged academics – seems energised by the idea of art actually happening here, rather than clinging to its walls, unbought, for a couple of weeks before disappearing. (Helena Hamilton’s Lock Up Your Soul in the Brain of My World, a site specific installation, is, however, remarkable and makes journeys to the toilet rather more exciting than usual).
Harper explains how he is interested in the way that the music affects his choices, moving through him and informing the shape of his brush-strokes, their speed, and the quality of the line. Watching him work on the big screen (there is a camera mounted over the canvas as he paints flat on the floor) is oddly disconcerting.
His head and hand rarely appear in shot and the brush’s bristles are a blur, but there seems to be something else happening too, a kind of time-lapse jerkiness that seems to objectify and distance the real-time performance. Nevertheless, the action of the brush appears to skip frames, to make impossible leaps.
The paintings are in black, white and pearlescent shades, and the developing image has the hyper acceleration of a silent film, as though Harold Lloyd were pushing a brush across canvas for your delight and delectation. One almost expects to see caption cards appear describing the action as it happens.
This is no Beatnik-chic action painting: the images chosen are concrete enough – literally. In fact, they are portraits of Belfast buildings chosen from a selection via Facebook earlier in the week.
Harper isn’t interested in expressing the music per se. He doesn't throw cans of paint at the wall with every Wagnerian crescendo. Rather he’s interested in the way the music affects him, the physicality of Radbadio’s beats as they judder through his body; the way the groove drives the brush in his hand.
Does it work? There is a loose-limbed kineticism to the paintings; a scratchy electricity informing them. A real energy bursts from the intersecting lines, great gobbets of paint flung over the canvas.
I would say there is a definite expressionistic musicality to the finished paintings. There is an odd sense of community here: the reference materiel was chosen by the people, the images are of where the people live and they’re being painted in front of them. This is local art in action.
At the end of the evening one of the paintings is even given away to a member of the crowd whose birthday it is. She goes home delighted as the owner of a piece of art that she saw being created. Community arts don’t get much more communal than that.