Jazz composer, pianist and synthesizer performer, bandleader, and Afro-Futurist thinker Sun Ra not only divined a quintessentially cosmic music, but left behind questions about his mind. In her exhibition The Journeyman, at Chicago-based non-profit threewalls, Cauleen Smith probes Sun Ra’s legacy, a research-intensive project that stems from a 2010 residency at the same space. Smith, primarily a film- and video-maker, recorded musical performances, cataloged Sun Ra’s personal library, and gathered stories and recordings to reconstruct the musician’s mythos. Her research is as much about the search for the man as the man himself, self-reflexively revealing a veil inhibiting total knowledge of any subject. Grappling with the temporal gap that precludes any verification, Smith offers a book of sketches and notes, interviews with Sun Ra scholars and collaborators on the musician’s lore, and a 2-LP set, Black Utopia, that includes original music and lectures, packaged in hand-printed sleeves. The exhibition also houses two facilities: The El Saturn Research Library and The Recorded Memory Studio, the latter tripling as a screen for a slide lecture, an active performing space, and a platform for improvisational possibilities. Smith’s presentation does not inscribe finality, but rather offers the possibility that she (and her audience) could become meaningful collaborators of Sun Ra rather than second-hand storytellers or re-enactors of historical possibilities.
A couple of neighborhoods over, photographic prints are framed and crowded into the long and rectangular space operated by design firm/gallery Public Works. Over a number of decades, Storm Thorgerson (often through his collective, Hipgnosis) staged these images for album covers—they form a procession along the walls, their scale challenging the memory of their eventual strictly-square format. The music and Thorgerson’s art are inseparable, the images seem branded permanently by the albums they illustrated and the band members they depicted. Hanging in the gallery, the photographs—more 90’s than Pink Floyd era, though old favorites are there—are like silent movies, visualizing the event of the records listed as captions. (The exhibition is called Computers Have a Lot to Answer For, a boast declaring Thorgerson’s ability to stage images without digital editing in post.) His most interesting imagery questions the sobriety of the photograph while capturing the character of the music. As only one example, see the cover for Pink Floyd’s concept album Wish You Were Here for which he had a formally dressed man set on fire shake hands with another businessman. The photograph demonstrates the disingenuousness of the optical and pairs perfectly with the suspense, rhythmic movement, and landscape that characterized the music and the culture of listeners buying the record.
What unites these two exhibitions is that they reveal a broader resistance to restricting music to the sonic. Thorgerson and Smith attend to a desire for more. The photographic prints hanging in Public Works catalog the unique power of perspectival positioning, the punch of the color red, the mystery of veiling parts of the human anatomy, the construction of curious characters with the touch of a prop or sculpture, and other modes of impregnating a scene with the promise of action. Smith’s journey is completist, an attempt to reproduce an entity whose pioneering role in Afro-Futurism credits not merely the man’s style, but the potential of his approach to music and technology of instrumentation, of his thought and his body. With its library divided into subjects such as Occult & Magic, Bible Study, and Technical Manuals, with its stage, with its publication, The Journeyman does not simply expose, it ushers its viewer outward into the generative space of the stars, fractals, and the ineffable. Smith explains that music is only one force behind Sun Ra, one potential channel of energy.
Storm Thorgerson’s photographs encapsulate concept albums—and their political resistance, unwavering audacity and energy, and so much more—creating powerful images to hyperextend moods and messages contained in sound. Beyond research, Cauleen Smith spotlights a microphone inviting us to transform Sun Ra’s residual vibrations of into new creativity. Together, the two artists and their projects take that productive energy that music inspires and answer the call to action. Smith and Thorgerson successfully integrate their own practices to extend the platform for musical experience; Smith goes so far as to generate mechanisms for exchange and lovingly orchestrates new musical ventures.
All images courtesy of threewalls and Public Works.
The Journeyman is up through October 20; Storm Thorgerson is up through November 2.