We tend to consider music as an art of harmonies. But, really, it’s about managing the dissonance. Without dissonance, there is no movement or development. Music and the visual arts are two of our cultural pillars of nonverbal thinking, practices in which there is no doubt that the fluent artist is doing something intelligent and intentionally structured that goes beyond words in its form. active.
That instrumental music and abstract art share common qualities is quite easy to sense for most awake people in this cultural moment: shapes, phrases, beats, tone, colors, intensity, silence, etc.
I have long admired the tonal, checkered abstract images of Henry Wolyniec. He uses printing techniques there, but there is no doubt that they are abstract paintings through and through.
Wolyniec’s works in ‘Relief’, currently on display at Speedwell Projects, primarily feature single-print forms placed loosely enough that they appear and disappear from the notion of the grid. He works on colored paper, so even the background space provides a contextual tone.
Tonality is something anyone who has ever heard music understands, but because music operates beyond common verbal labels, it occupies a space that we generally agree we don’t need words for. We can feel it. We like it or we don’t like it. Either it works or it doesn’t. And that is enough for us precisely to “understand” or “obtain” a given job.
Wolyniec’s images work for me because, like most viewers, I “understand” them: I respond to them. I feel their tonal movements, their dissonant shifts, their harmonies, their logical systems. I like their textures and compositions. They are satisfactory.
For many abstract painters – and their audiences – establishing and communicating a system is enough. It’s like a groove in music, or an idea delivered in poetry. But Wolyniec’s musicality goes beyond this simple standard of abstraction. His works employ a practical grammar of tones and textures. He floats shapes on top of each other, and then causes them to fade behind or come back to the fore. His notions of color, form and texture can certainly be described in visual terms – and yet I believe that each of his images far exceeds my ability to convey what you would make of them.
Disjointed sets of ink or dotted rectangles of paint appear and disappear from our visual scan of Wolyniec’s paintings. Glancing at the works is one thing, but even 10 seconds in front of a single piece begins to deliver their shifting tonality and melted musicality. And his sense of design – a complicated word going back to the original Italian term for “to draw” (disegno) – is rich enough to develop over time, a key quality of the original Italian term “composizione”. Indeed, when people like Michelangelo or Raphael were discussing composition, they were talking about how the narrative qualities of the work (for example, the story of Saint George and the Dragon) unfolded visually in relation to the elements. verbal history. To be totally geeky about it for a while, their understanding was rooted in the art of classical rhetoric, which, in turn, incorporated “modes” – the different scales of music and the moods they represented. Any set of notes played on the white keys one at a time up to an octave on a piano is a different “mode”. And while we now roughly recognize only the major (C to C) and its relative minor (A to A – Aeolian), our classical ancestors enjoyed them all, to the point where the B to B (Locrian) was forbidden in ancient Greece. . (Imagine that soul-altering blue note sung like a passing tone by your favorite ’50s jazz singer.) It’s the stuff of “modes,” and it’s been long and deeply tied to painting. It is useful to relate the modes to the “genres” of painting (landscape, portrait, etc.), but we have now largely forgotten the depth and sophistication of what the expectations set by a rhetorical mode would have been – since the term “rhetoric” now has a pejorative meaning. cast iron, but I mean it in the sense of classical scholarly art.
Is this relevant to the photos of Wolyniec in “Relief?” Yes: I have no doubts.
I am absolutely not suggesting that we should think in these terms when looking at Wolyniec’s work – quite the contrary. Of course, we can analyze, say, Bach in terms of music theory, but ultimately Bach’s greatness is most apparent when you switch off your verbal faculties to listen, feel and enjoy. My aim is to suggest that Wolyniec is a brilliant systems-oriented visual artist and to open up dialogue about how and why his work is so compelling. The last thing I want to do is kill his work to dissect him. “Shut up and listen,” comes to mind. See it with an open mind. Maybe talk about it later.
My experience of ‘Relief’ reminded me of a combination of Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’, a slow piece of shifting neutral tones (imagine Wolyniec’s rectangular, printed shapes) and Philip Glass’s insistently intense shapes that float fanatically and modulate muscularly (note that the basis of this musical term is “mode”) little by little over time.
Although most of the works don’t make obvious musical references, I see in “HW18.28” a specific set of musical references, including felt dots (as in the case of fuzz) that look a lot like clarinet or saxophone keys/pads arranged to refer to both the musicality and the system-oriented form of the instruments. Black, yellow, red and blue, it is jazzy, fun and no less playful than brilliant. And make no mistake: it’s awesome.
“Hw18.25” opens more playfully on its light autumn red paper. Wolyniec pushes its off-centered rectangular grid to discard the idea of visual symmetry and play on the notion of space; and this happily bouncing piece pushes down to the left. His dots remain absolutely abstract and rhythmic, often jumping just outside the gathered rectangular grid.
Wolyniec includes a set of wall sculptures in “Relief”. These use wire mesh for their loose, organic and rather glandular shapes. The structural logic matches his work, not least because these tend to develop from the inside out. (They’re covered in something like papier-mâché and then painted over.) Just as his 2D works give off a sense of time, they visually transition from feeling 3-D to feeling 4-D. But while the paintings (or mono-prints – but let’s not get bogged down in such vague distinctions) all seem to find ultimate relief in tonal resolution, the wall sculptures seem to intentionally combat the notion of resolution, that fundamental end of music. . It’s all too easy to imagine that this is new to Wolyniec, that he hasn’t yet found a way to fully complete or complete them. But I don’t think so. It’s like he’s looking for a way to create whole shapes that fight resolution, completion…relief. I find them disturbing, but after a while I had to conclude that this was precisely Wolyniec’s point: “Relief” is resolution, but in the end it all doesn’t work.
Courtesy of Wolyniec’s photos, I left Speedwell with Eric Satie’s beautifully sleepy “Gymonpedias” gently sailing through my head. The floating chorus of the piano reminded me of the role of repetition in music and the visual arts – a quality we claim to disdain so deeply in conversation and prose. But in the repetition, we find ourselves. We find structure and systems. This is how we recognize the things, places and people we love. To use the musical term, this is how we know we are home.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: