San Francisco

Jack Ox

Catherine Clark Gallery

For over twenty years, Jack Ox has devoted herself to giving visual form to music. Using a system as fascinating as it is Byzantine, Ox has worked her way through painted performances of music as diverse as Gregorian chant, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Bruckner. Her latest performance was based on Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, or “sonata of primal sounds.” In Ox’s version of Schwitters’ noise poem, each utterance (or, for that matter, the silences between them) had been meticulously interpreted in her paintings as a combination of dissected, reassembled images and solid bands of brilliant cadmium hues. Complicated rules based on musicological theory dictated the content, color, and orientation of each and every segment, whether the fractured views depicted were interiors—views of the Merzbau—or scenic landscapes in Norway and England, where Schwitters spent several years in exile.

Considering the extent to which every aspect of Ox’s paintings is determined long before each one-by-eight-foot section is painted, the sheer beauty exuded by a wall of them is as much of a surprise as Schwitters’ gutteral grunts and screams must have been to his audiences in the ’20s. As fanatically system-oriented as she is, Ox clearly intends to visually seduce her viewers into spending enough time with the work to appreciate the musicopoetic level on which it is intended to function. With a little study, it’s certainly possible to perceive these bands of color and image as silence and sound, possible to get a sense of the complicated rhythms of the work. But to appreciate these paintings, it is by no means necessary to do so.

Something about the painted segments—the scale on which they are realized, perhaps, combined with the way they are arranged in stacked rows like lines in a giant musical score—suggests that they are meant to be read from a distance of a few feet (as if one were conducting) rather than scrutinized up close. The light, flexible panels on which Ox paints enhance this sense of movement, suggesting simultaneously props, text, and scenery. Multimedia art has certainly been around for a long time, but it is what Henry Sayre called “performability” that identifies Ox as a member of the generation of artists who came of age in the post-’68 era. There is something almost old-fashioned about her insistence on using painting, the most traditional of art forms, as her vehicle for performance. Still, by choosing to interpret Schwitters’ poem, she has clearly moved her work to a new level of complexity. She has also chosen a work entirely appropriate to the philosophy of our time—one rooted in Dada and Futurism rather than in a pure, cool formalism. As David Antin once put it, “From the modernism you want, you get the postmodernism you deserve.”

Maria Porges