Opinion: Multimedia Mindmeld

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson filled the rear gallery of the Parrish Art Museum with music and spoken word. Jennifer Landes

  Laurie Anderson is not the kind of artist audiences are late for and she is not  the kind of artist who is late for them. Patrons who came early to see her perform in the rear gallery of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton on Sunday night looked surprised to see the multimedia artist, who arrived early herself, walking the galleries of the “Juliao Sarmento: Artists and Writers/House and Home” exhibit wearing a plaid flannel shirt, leggings, and sparkly ballet flats.
  She was asked by Terrie Sultan, the Parrish director and the curator of the show, to interpret the text from the short story “Raphael,” written for the exhibit catalog by James Salter. The result was a kind of seamless and endless conversation in which art was talking to letters, which then responded to art, and art talking right back again.
  The story itself was not quite inspired by the art but seems to reflect back shard-like themes that resonate throughout the gallery and Mr. Sarmento’s work. Emotional violence and violation, headless females, the global economy, thoughtless deeds, a certain unknowability between the sexes, treachery, the distance that occurs between humans — even now when we are so connected by machines and technology, all came to the fore. That Ms. Anderson was the one delivering the words through her own electronic technology only helped underscore many of those themes.
In her approach to this exhibit, Ms. Sultan took a rather South Fork tradition of interconnectedness between writers and artists and transposed it to the wider world of contemporary art and ideas. Mr. Salter, who has a house in Bridgehampton, was at the reading of the story on Sunday. Mr. Sarmento was born and raised in Portugal and still lives there, even as his art is exhibited internationally, and could not attend.
  His compositions, which incorporate fragments of bodies, text, book jackets, album covers, plants, and building exteriors and floor plans, are evocative and promote a certain narrative impulse in the viewer. Scenes with women are crackling with sexual and emotional tension, even when it is just one woman, fully clothed. The black dress all of his female figures wear in the Parrish show achieves different forms, while the mannequin-average body it hangs on never really alters.
   These are forms that exist only from the neck down. They are headless and sometimes footless as well. The black dress seems to function much in the way a record sleeve or book jacket would: Beneath it lies some content, but the absence of the head and/or the soul suggests that only so much can be revealed.
    The initial and facile message seems to be that this is the only worthy part of a woman’s body, but viewed over a variety of works these figures and the different contexts Mr. Sarmento puts them in suggest more of a bemused reverence, or a symbolic norm. The implication instead is that women reveal only as much as they want or need to, leaving men to struggle with the rest. The conflation of houses — exteriors, interiors, or a basic framework — with the female figure has a similar kind of effect, a sense of longing for security within a cold construct.
    Mr. Sarmento does not like to reveal too much about his work, but he understands that therein lies its power. These are works that can be returned to again and again and the viewer will always find something new in them, which seems to be why it is important that the meaning not be too blatant. At the opening he had said that when his work is finished he likes to “feel that I’m going in the right direction, but I haven’t gotten there yet. It is that little thing that is missing that makes me go forward.”
    Even before Ms. Sultan brought them together, Mr. Sarmento was using text by Mr. Salter in his work. Barbara Goldsmith, who was visiting the artist in his studio on a trip sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art, recognized the text right away and told Mr. Salter that he was being quoted in the work. Mr. Sarmento also incorporated a Salter book jacket in one of his paintings.
    Mr. Salter said that after hearing Mr. Sarmento talk in the gallery, he was convinced that they had “virtually nothing in common,” with the exception of James Joyce’s observation that “chance provides me with what I need.” Over all, however, Mr. Salter said he needed “to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.”
    Ms. Sultan said the similarities she saw in the two men were in themes that arose in their work — the use of observations, memory, narrative, and a certain sensuality or eroticism — that can be suggested or more blatant, depending on the piece.
    The story “Raphael” centers on an affair in Paris and the aftereffects on the participants and their families. Betrayal, violation, and the messiness of sexuality and emotion coming together are all encountered. Confusion and dislocation are other elements of the plot that steer the overall sense of the imperfection of daily life ruining something that was far more beautiful when it was removed from it.
    Ms. Anderson’s haunting and slightly brooding introduction on electric violin shifted to a more ambient hum when she began the reading, punctuating certain lines with keyboard notes or fuller musical progressions. Her voice had a soft purr that made it seem as though it was coming from inside one’s head. It seemed the perfect vehicle to communicate the sensual joys the characters having an affair in Paris were feeling.
    At the central point of confrontation between the cuckolded husband and his wife, who was furious he had read her diary, she opted to switch to a voice distorter that made the bitter words she uttered even uglier than they were on the page. Its deep timbre underscored the dark desperation of one character and the other’s angry reaction to emotional violation. The effect made the exchange surreally brutal, the way it would likely feel internally to characters going through such a clash, even though the battle wasn’t outwardly violent.
    Although Ms. Anderson said after the performance that she had been on a “benefit binge” for several weeks, performing around the country for various causes and institutions (she was the featured artist at the benefit for LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton last summer), she seemed fresh and in command of material that was not even her own.
    She said that she had improvised most of it, trusting in her understanding of her instruments and interpretive style to transform the story into her own meditation. The choice to use voice distortion at the climactic confrontation, she said, was appropriate to the violation that the husband imposes on his wife by reading her most intimate thoughts and the brutality of those words that described her affair.
    It was this assuredness in her mediums that made the work transcendent in a synthesis of sound, written word, and visual art on the surrounding walls.