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Visual music

New Orleans native Marcus E. Brown paints what he hears



Marcus E. Brown does something you probably haven’t seen before. Perhaps you’ve read or heard about something like it, something somewhat resembling his most recent artistic experiments, but nothing quite the same, mainly because what Brown does, how he does it and, most notably, what he does it with, are distinctive unto him.

“Right now, the simplest way to explain to people what I do,” says Brown, “is that basically I’m painting with a microphone.”

Brown is a musician and painter who has developed a way to seamlessly weave the two expressive forms together. Not only does he create wildly original, handmade instruments—artistic sculptures in their own right—but recently he’s combined his creation of nontraditional instruments with the creation of otherwise traditional visual art. By painting with a microphone—or, more specifically, with his self-designed “megelectro brush,” a tool made of small barbecue skewers and highly sensitive microphones—Brown now simultaneously paints vibrant and abstract landscapes and improvises jazz-inspired soundscapes (think Tom Waits meets The Postal Service) in live performances that are as striking aesthetically as they are sonically.

“What I’m doing,” he says, “is collaborating with musicians in the performance process and essentially having jam sessions. We all play our instruments, and I’m jamming with the painting itself.”

Brown, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and native of New Orleans, started developing what he calls “electrosonic painting” a year ago when he was evacuating his hometown in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Brown grew up immersed in music and played both bass and saxophone, but even as he started in college to perform with his handmade instruments—he counts over 100—the music was always separate from his visual artwork. He could make something and then play it, but never make and play at the same time.

During the evacuation, however, Brown, who was working on large-scale paintings depicting his travels, was inspired by what he was leaving behind. He mentions voodoo, and how “the voodoo carver takes the wood and treats it almost like it’s a person, almost like it is a being of its own.” He mentions gumbo, and how he follows “a tradition of using multiple mediums in my work like a New Orleans chef uses multiple ingredients to create a dish of gumbo.” He mentions jazz, and how he “always wanted to be a performer” like those he grew up surrounded by. And he mentions one of his mentors, New Orleans artist John T. Scott, and how Scott successfully meshes printmaking, painting and sculpture.

“He’s not a sound artist like I am, but he does work in a lot of different mediums,” says Brown, who now lives in Portland, Ore. “One of the things he said was, ‘If I walk into a room full of people speaking several different languages, everybody in the room would say that man’s brilliant.’ The contradiction is that Scott works in several different mediums and critics have said that he’s not focused…I’m hoping to do what [Scott] does: speak in multiple languages so I can communicate to a larger audience.”

In Portland, Brown’s been able to hone his technique and now uses his megelectro brush almost exclusively when creating new work. He’s also playing with more musicians during live shows—at his debut Missoula performance Friday, Aug. 4, at The Loft he’ll be joined by local drummer and longtime friend Damon Metzner and Portland bass player Eric Bigger, who’ll be intermittently playing some of Brown’s other original instruments. The accompaniment frees Brown to do less looping and layering of his percussive brush strokes and focus more on interacting with the other players. The painting itself, meanwhile, is something Brown lets develop without the same purpose he applies to the music.

“I’m really concerned with the sound and what I can pick up from the situation, because for me the painting, the actual painting, it’s almost like automatic drawing,” he says, referencing the free-form style popularized by surrealists and often featuring an artist working blindfolded. “I don’t go to a painting in the performance knowing what I want to paint. The sound decides that for me. It’s almost like I don’t need to decide—I need to decide what colors I’m putting on my brush and maybe I’ll decide what rhythm or sound I’m starting something off with—but by the end of the process I never know what I have except an abstract painting.”

He adds: “It’s an exploratory process for me, the musicians and everyone watching. The painting is abstract, but at the same time, at the end, you can find hundreds of strokes that you recognize. You know where they came from based on the music that was happening at the time. You see it all develop.”

What Brown is doing is similar to what art critic Roger Fry described as “visual music” in 1912. In the early parts of the century, abstract visual artists saw music as the purest form of artistic expression, and through various experiments the likes of Mikalojus Ciurlionis, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Frantiek Kupka and Georgia O’Keeffe created two-dimensional compositions that aimed to emulate the dynamics of music. Last year, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., presented the first U.S. exhibit to examine this style, and lead curator Kerry Brougher wrote that the show’s unifying element lay in the artists’ “explorations of ideas related to synaesthesia—primarily, a unity of the senses and, by extension, a synthesis of the arts.” Brougher suggests that as technology evolves, so will the “visual music” style.

In a sense, however, Brown’s already there. His performances have already emulated the dynamics of music in both his paintings and, more directly, the sounds he broadcasts while making them.

As Brown continues to explore his new mixed-media form, he’s less interested in gaining gallery recognition and more focused on taking his shows to larger, nontraditional crowds.

“I’ve trained and practiced as a professional visual artist,” he says, “but I was always really encouraged when I got outside of the gallery setting and outside of the white wall ‘this is art’ setting, because I reach more people with the performances. With the performances, people can actually get into it, they can feel like they are participating in an event rather than having something set up to just look at. It’s not just art or music. It’s unique like that.”

Marcus E. Brown performs and paints in the second floor of The Loft Friday, Aug. 4, beginning at 8:30 PM. Brown will be joined by musicians Eric Bigger and Damon Metzner. Prior to and during Brown’s show, The Loft hosts photographer Rowan Metzner’s display of post-Katrina images, Utopia, State, and Anarchy, on the third floor. Both events are free.

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