Perambulating the Bounds

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Pictures of bars

Since Maggie Evans makes a point of relying on memory for her charcoal drawings of the interiors of the bars where her blues band plays, I’ll do the same. I saw the work last night and had a good long talk with her, but I’m a couple of states away from Tennessee for the next few days. So I can’t go back to the gallery to check my details.

First of all, some background. Evans is from Savannah, trained as a visual artist at Savannah College of Art and Design, and she’s also a musician—her dad was a musician, so she grew up with it. She plays bass in a blues trio that works bars around Savannah, and she also has a trio more in a jazz vein where she sings and plays bass. I think this is important for a couple of reasons. First, she’s not a musician who moved into art, or an art school grad whose art school band took off and then got back to music later. From the other side, her music-making sure sounds like it’s not dabbling.

The works at Dangenart are relatively large scale charcoal drawings of the interiors of bars, most often from an on-stage perspective, none showing the band or instruments. You wouldn’t know from the images that music was involved. The view fixes on the patrons. Some of the views are empty of people, others show people sitting at tables or coming into the room. The images are blurred, with liberal use of erasure. In one, a person coming in through a doorway in the back of the room is a ghost, as if momentarily caught in a long-exposure camera shot. All of the details have a spectral quality.

This treatment of the scene takes you in a couple of directions. One of which is to see it as a metaphor for memory, where you remember things hazily. Which is really not that interesting an idea, akin to putting vasoline on a camera lens to indicate a dream sequence. But there’s more. The drawings remind you in mind of occult photography that captures images of the spirit world, and that’s an interesting way to think of how a musician sees the people in the bar. Fleeting presences, not quite flesh and blood. Even in the images empty of people, your mind easily feels the sensation of their traces left behind. (Evans mentioned something like this herself in describing these scenes.)

I came away thinking about how as a musician, while there is a connection with the audience, you also occupy a space separate from the audience. You are embedded in the sounds, get lost in the physical sensation of sound and in the concerns of music making—the details of musical structure, dealing with the technical demands of your own instrument, and playing together. There is a sort of scrim that separates you from whatever goes on outside of the sound world. It even separates you from your fellow musicians as flesh and blood, as you focus on the sound they are making.

The drawings have a dreamy surface, but they are carefully observed, even if remembered. These are working bars, rough spaces where people go to drink and party. The kind of place with stackable chairs with leatherette seats and backings, overbright lights that glare from some corners. Places where the bathrooms are none too clean, and when it rains the bartender puts out a few buckets to catch leaks. Evans doesn’t emphasize the potential squalor in these places, even to romanticize it, but she observes straight enough that you can tell where you are.

These drawings achieve a lot through a pretty simple premise. They’re just drawings of a very common sort of interior. But you are aware of the people who use these places, even when they aren’t present. You are aware of the degrees to which we see but don’t see, and share time with people but remain distant. These pictures treat that separateness matter of factly, not as a cause for sadness. In the same way, there is no great romance of night life here, but that doesn’t mean the images speak the opposite. The spaces are treated as sites of common life. Reassuring and comfortable are the words that come to mind.

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