Piano Works Make Music

Andre Petterson: Voice

At the Bau-Xi Gallery until April 30

Robyn Moody: Harp: Phase 1

At Access Artist Run Centre until April 23

About 1664, Jan Vermeer of Delft painted The Music Lesson. In a beautiful domestic interior, sunlight streaming through leaded window panes, a woman stands at a clavecin, her back to the viewer, her instructor standing attentively beside her. The Latin words inscribed on the raised cover of her instrument translate roughly as "Music is the companion of joy, the balm of sorrow". Some art historians believe that Vermeer may have intended this inscription for painting as well.

The impulse to make music is such a fundamental aspect of our shared humanity, it's hardly surprising that visual artists, over vast stretches of time and place, have incorporated images of musicians and musical instruments into their work. Harps and panpipes played by mythological beings in ancient Greek and Roman art; David composing the Psalms in Byzantine art; court musicians playing wind and string instruments in a 10th-century Chinese scroll; angels singing and strumming lutes in Italian Renaissance paintings; a courtesan with a samisen in a Japanese woodblock print of the mid-18th century; Pablo Picasso's recurring motif of guitars and guitar players, Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art Girl at Piano-a neat homage to Vermeer.

In the early 20th century, artists sought to free themselves of the need to merely depict the making of music (or anything else, for that matter) and analogized their practice to it. In the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, visual artists have employed sound itself, either to shape or amplify an installation or performance, or create a sound environment, sound sculpture, or work of interactive art.

And, yes, a strong tradition of visual artists making music and sound prevails in Vancouver, one of them being Andre Petterson, whose exhibition, Voice, is on view now at the Bau-Xi Gallery. Petterson, who plays both piano and drums and has performed for years in rock and jazz groups, has created a series of works that express his connection to that aspect of his history. Two visual motifs dominate his show (mostly mixed-media on panel, but also including two sculptures): the piano and sheet music.

The former is realized in photographs of old, upright pianos, usually with the keyboards isolated by expressively applied, monochrome passages of white, black, or brown (which may mimic, obliterate, or extend the piano shape). The latter is realized in textured, monochrome panels scribbled over with abstracted and nonsensical musical notations. Squiggles, jots, dashes, and scrawled lines approximate notes, staffs, clefs, and bars. These are determinedly modernist works, gestural, calligraphic, with their roots firmly planted in abstract expressionism.

The most appealing works in the show, Eclipse Variation 1, 2, and 3, combine both the piano motif and the musical notations. The formal structure and visual play of this series depend on the contrast between the black and white piano keys and their interactions and illusions with the geometric pieces of white paper placed on and around the keyboard before it is photographed (or perhaps while it is being fiddled with in the computer), and the white, grey, and black passages of paint overlaid on and around the photo image after it is applied to the panel. Bars, dots, and scrolls are scribbled over the white, as are hand-drawn lines extending vertically from the keys. In a related series, Eclipse 3 uses rectangles of paper and paint to evoke a theatrical setting, of which the keyboard is the stage. This work is indeed companionable to joy. It's contemplative, too, as the best jazz is.

At Access, artist Robyn Moody (a graduate student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax) has converted the gallery into a high-tech harp, whose "strings" are laser beams which appear as 24 lines of red light running from one end of the long, narrow space to the other. Mounted on the south wall of the gallery, parallel to the laser beams, are rows of small speakers, each emitting a sound when the corresponding laser beam is "plucked" or "strummed". The sounds produced are not musical notes, however, but phonemes ("the building blocks of language", the artist tells us in his statement), revealing Moody's fascination with linguistic forms and structures and their relationship to music-the intersection of the concrete and the abstract, the incomprehensible and the universal. As with Petterson's nonsensical musical notations, Moody's harp produces a nonsensical language of stuttering oo, ah, er, sh, je, ow, ow, ow, neh neh neh, wh, wh, wh sounds, 48 in total.

The fine red lines beamed across the darkened gallery, occasional puffs of manufactured smoke, the slight physical sensation of the laser beams on hand or finger, the rather sorrowful and repetitive phonemes (sometimes triggered by the smoke, after you've walked away from the work)-all contribute to the sense that a ghostly being is trying to communicate with you from another dimension, trying to organize abstract sounds into a meaningful language. The thrill is that you are the intermediary here, the collaborator in this spectral scat singing. Dup dup dup weh weh.