Blues For Smoke

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) recently unveiled BLUES FOR SMOKE, a major interdisciplinary exhibition exploring a wide range of contemporary art, music, literature and film through the lens of the blues and "blues aesthetics." The exhibition, which will run through Jan. 7, 2013 at MOCA'S Central Avenue wing, features works by more than fifty artists from the 1950s to the present, including many commissioned specifically for the occasion and others never before shown in Los Angeles, as well as a range of musical, cinematic and cultural materials.

"Though it takes up ideas from the past, this exhibition is pitched at the present moment," said MOCA Curator Bennett Simpson. "The questions and topics the blues makes us think about, from ambivalent feelings to form as cultural expression, are fundamental to recent art. As I see it, the blues is about anticipation."

Roy DeCarava
Hallway, New York, 1953

Certain works in the exhibition--for instance, Romare Bearden's collaged narratives of everyday life, Roy DeCarava's atmospheric photographs of music halls, or expressionistic depictions of music legends in paintings by Bob Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jutta Koether--fall within familiar blues territory. Others communicate various aspects of the blues without naming them.

In addition to the numerous artworks that feature music or have audio components, the exhibition offers a range of listening posts and video viewing stations as well as displays of books, photographs and other documentary material.

Basically, the exhibition is a set of themes and feelings inspired by the blues. MOCA's galleries are packed with such goodies as David Hammons' Chasing the Blues Train, an installation that hasn't been seen in the USA for some twenty years; and Martin Wong's La Vida, a joyous, life-affirming painting that depicts an entire Harlem tenement and its inhabitants. Also notable is Beauford Delany's 1968, iconic portrait of Charlie Parker.

Melvin Edwards
Write When You Can, 1991

Those who can't make it to MOCA can see interviews with such blues artists and academics as Deacon Jones, Henry Rollins, Garth Trinidad and Cornel West by clicking on

Running side by side with BLUES FOR SMOKE is another important exhibition, Taryn Simon's A LIVING MAN DECLARED DEAD, an elaborately constructed photographic work which investigates such challenging subjects as victims of genocide in Bosnia, test rabbits infected with a lethal disease in Australia, and the living dead in India.

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