The resonant surface explores musicality in the visual arts

Enter The resonant surface at the Irvine’s Institute and Museum of California Art, one has the impression of entering an exotic world, perhaps from another time. The viewer first sees a film, The soul of the cypress by Dudley Murphy, with Debussy’s impressionist composition “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” playing in the background.

The 1920 film is a visual symphony, mixing cinema, dance and music. It features a young woman, dressed in a Flapper-style outfit, sensually dancing among the cypresses of Point Lobos on the California coast. The woman is a Dryad, a spirit living in trees, according to Greek mythology. Hearing a man play a haunting tune on a flute, the Dryad is freed from the captivity of a twisted cypress tree – and the two bond erotically. The remainder of the 10-minute film takes the viewer on a journey uniting immortal woman with mortal man.

This 101-year-old film forms the backdrop for the 24 paintings in the exhibition. Subtitled “Movement, image and sound in Californian painting”, The soul of the cypress also illustrates the harmony of visual images, nature and music that characterizes the entire exhibition. Visitors from The resonant surface are encouraged to slow down, hear music in the paintings, and imagine images and colors in the music. To do this, curator Erin Stout, PhD, presents a variety of late 19th to mid-20th century Californian paintings that incorporate rhythmic abstractions, sound and color references, and other multi-sensory subject matter. She explains that the exhibition explores our perceptions and other senses beyond vision in art.

Amedee Joullin: Marsh at Sunset, Near Mt. Tamalpais, circa 1896. Oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (UC Irvine Institute and Museum of California Art, Gift of the Irvine Museum)

The “Correspondences” section emphasizes the artistic genre of tonalism, postulating that music can evoke images and that it is possible to see sound and hear color. In the Tonalist movement (1880-1920), artists emphasized mood, sentiment, and haze in their work, using grays, blues, browns, and golds, and suggesting that the forms of their paintings were associated with music. Swamp at sunset, near Mount Tamalpais (1896) by Amédée Joullin is a vast grassy, ​​vegetated marsh landscape in various browns. At Calthea Vivian’s morning fog (1915) is a golden-hued vision of tall trees saturated with misty morning light. by Maurice Brown Mount Cajon (1917) is a California landscape that depicts grasses, bushes, trees, and mountains in earthy colors bathed in sunlight.

Calthea Vivian: Morning Fog, circa 1915. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 15 1/16 in. (The Buck Collection at UCI Institute and Museum of California Art)

The ‘Rhythm and Abstraction’ section emphasizes the evocative use of line, form and color. Styles include Pointillism – the dense application of individual dots of unmixed paint to form images, and Divisionism – dabs of paint, working similarly to Pointillism. Both styles originated in Europe in the 19th century and were employed by West Coast artists in the 20th century. The didactic for this section explains, “When viewed up close, these works approach pure abstraction, reveling in their investigation of the nature of color itself.”

John M. Gamble: Calce de Oro (Poppy Field near Banning), probably completed 1939. Oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 40 1/8 in. (UC Irvine Institute & Museum of California Art, Gift of the Irvine Museum)

William Henry Clapp Countryside road (1943) employs the classic pointillist technique to illustrate majestic yellow, blue and purple foliage. From afar, the painting reveals the flickering interplay of sunlight and shadow. John M. Gamble Calce de Oro (Poppy Field near Banning) (1939) is a pointillist landscape displaying a wide field of orange flowers, among blues and greens. In Divisionist by William A. Gaw Crescent City Lighthouse (1920), splashes of colored light create sunlight on water and rocks, creating a lively coastal setting; the paint applied in a thick layer adds texture and depth to the work.

Gordon Onslow Ford: Constellations and Grasses, 1957. Casein on mulberry paper, 38 x 56 in. (The Buck Collection at UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, © Courtesy of the Lucid Art Foundation)

The ‘Dynamism and Flow’ section includes works by Knud Merrild, who first used the term ‘flow paintings’. His Asymmetric symmetry (1943) was created by pouring household paint onto a liquid surface and then tilting it to allow the colors to combine. The resulting abstract painting is smaller and more docile than most of Jackson Pollock’s works, but embraces a similar spontaneity. Dynamically Abstract by Gordon Onslow Ford Constellations and Grasses (1957), also in this section, combines a series of overlapping circles in blue, white and brown with tall grasses in green. The result is an ethereal vision, suggesting music from heaven.

Morgan Russell: Synchromy in Orange, 1922. Oil on canvas on cardboard, 18 x 10 3/4 in. (Buck Collection at UCI Institute & Museum of California Art)

The “Visual Music” section features the work of Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright who created the Synchromist movement in the early 20th century. This movement was based on the arrangement of colors in paintings in the same way composers write musical compositions, while using the geometric shapes of Cubism and vibrant colors. This section includes the Synchromy in orange (1922), about which he wrote: “It is only by a sense of continuity or curve that one can produce on us such an emotional effect as that of music. This sense of color curves somehow transports us and not just up and down or side to side like line does, but is a powerful way to pull us through space back and forth. in waves.

Macdonald-Wright’s The Peak (1955), one of his last synchromist paintings, is also included in this section. It combines bold bands of primary colors, arranged in an abstract manner, with flowing lines, evoking an Impressionist piece of music, perhaps that of the French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925).

Oskar Fischinger: Triangles / Blue Triangles, 1949. Oil on Masonite, 27 3/4 x 21 5/8 in. (The Buck Collection at UCI Institute and Museum of California Art, © Courtesy of the Elfriede Fischinger Trust)

Another artist from “Visual Music” is Oskar Fischinger. His Triangles / Blue Triangles (1949), an abstract composition of intersecting forms, suggests both music and cinema, and he was also an experimental musician and filmmaker. The didactics of the exhibition explains: “Fischinger’s paintings, which sometimes served as studies for his films, play with our perception of depth and movement through the careful layering of form and color. In these examples, the shapes seem to recede in space and dance smoothly across the surface.

Alongside this exhibition, IMCA presents a range of experiential programs for interaction and exchange with the public, addressing what it means to resonate. These include programs examining the power of the voice, a series of bilingual art talks in Spanish and English, lunchtime lectures, an audiovisual performance by a student of UC Irvine a cappella VocaLotus group, and a virtual screening of films by Dudley Murphy.


“The Resonant Surface” is on view through February 19, 2022 at the Institute and Museum of California Art., 18881 Von Karman Ave., Irvine; Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; free; imca.uci.edu.

John Bond Francisco: Scrub Oak in a Canyon, possibly c.1910. Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 34 in. (UC Irvine Institute and Museum of California Art, Gift of the Irvine Museum)