Art, music, and language mingle at the Ossia Fine Arts Space

By Lisbeth Redfield

Chicago rumor is a bit vague on where to find the good art galleries. But if you ask the average art patron, especially on this campus, he probably won’t tell you to check out the Fine Arts Building on the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Congress Parkway.

The building is home to an eclectic mix of fine artists, with everything from ballet studios to sheet-music stores renting space. The nine-story historic Chicago building contains a Venetian courtyard, a marble-lined lobby, and old-fashioned elevators with attendants.

On the fifth floor of the building, you’ll find the Ossia Fine Arts Space, a small gallery devised and managed in the spirit of the building itself. Curator Karen Schulz-Harmon is a professional cellist active in the Chicago music community as a performer and teacher. Oh, and she also runs an art gallery.

Schulz-Harmon imagined the gallery as a part of a movement to “bring the arts together in a unique space where different art forms could be combined simultaneously.”

Fittingly, the Ossia Space houses exhibits and concerts on a regular basis.

The most recent exhibit, Text and Time, which opened October 21, is the embodiment of this combination. The exhibit joins the works of brothers Brett and Drew Baker in an exploration of language through multimedia, visual art, and music.

Brett Baker is a New York–based, Guggenheim-winning abstract painter; his brother Drew, a Chicago native, is a composer. Text and Time is a collaborative piece that seeks to overcome apparent barriers between the spatial and the aural/acoustic through that which is both—language.

In the work of each artist, conventions of language experience (visual/reading—aural/recitation) are subverted and reconstructed.

Text and Time sounds interesting on paper. The exhibit poses the question of how you might relate two strongly non-verbal media, especially—paradoxically—around verbal communication. The experience of attending the exhibit’s opening, however, was rather more than simply academic.

Ossia’s white walls were still mostly white, and the paintings hung carefully separate from one another: individual ideas connected by proximity. Most of Baker’s paintings were linear, with layers of browns and russets painted on thickly, but here and there—as in the arresting “Fernande I”—I was caught by a stroke of vibrant blue. Baker had devoted two walls to pieces that dealt more explicitly with language. Working from the poems of Paul Celan and St. John Perse, Baker had created pages of fine paper, each with a single, shaky, type-written letter in the center.

As Baker described in his exhibition statement, “the scale of the letterforms in relation to the surrounding space of the page reforms the familiar immediacy and ease of language into a physical construction. The eye can no longer easily corral letters into words and words into sentences.” The text, then, is dismantled and expressed in a simpler form.

A quartet of violin, clarinet, cello, and flute presented Drew Baker’s composition “Inter” at the opening. Composed mainly of chords, “Inter” was a musical representation of the speech act. Baker explained his composition process, describing how he had recorded himself reading a line of poetry, slowed it down, and used the cadences of his speech to inform the movement of his music.

Like the discrete paintings and the carefully arranged sheets of white paper, the spare chords of “Inter” are deceptively simple and deceptively similar. Just as you draw closer to the paintings and see the layering of strokes, or closer to the “Line” pieces to see the single letter, Baker’s chords shift into separate pieces.

“I’m interested in close listening,” Baker remarked at one point, and the shape of Inter certainly proves this, answering the sparse elegance of his brother’s “Line” pieces with a pared-down shape of musical expression, emphasizing physical movement rather than clarity.

Art and music tend to be treated as different fields, compatible but not partners. Text and Time challenges this common misconception by using the two media as a way to explore a similar expressive concept. The results are strange, haunting, lovely, and more than enough excuse to wander through the Fine Arts Building picking up cards and looking into galleries.