Arts / Galleries

Art and Music Come Together With Houston’s Own Artsy Composer Jason Moran Uniting With Experimental Icon John Cage

Moving Across Time at the Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery

BY // 05.29.23

John Cage has established himself as an inimitable eccentric nonpareil among music composers, especially of the experimental variety. Likewise, Houston’s jazz maestro Jason Moran thinks outside of the box and challenges the status quo with genre-bending works. Living and working in very different eras, both Cage and Moran also forged identities as abstract visual artists.

The Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery exhibit called “Jason Moran & John Cage: Across Time,” on view through this Saturday, June 3, places both composer artists in an intriguing aesthetic conversation.

Although known primarily for his music, the late John Cage always maintained close connections to the art world.

Cage provided abstract soundscapes for Works of Calder (1950), a Herbert Matter-directed short film focused on abstract expressionist Alexander Calder. In 1968, Cage played a game of electronic musical chess titled “Reunion” with his friend Marcel Duchamp in Toronto, Canada. Cage also provided music for director Alexis Krasilovsky’s short film End of the Art World (1971), which featured Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Wavelength (1967) director Michael Snow, who recently passed away.

A still from director Allan Miller's documentary on John Cage, "I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It" (1990). (Courtesy Allan Miller and Kanopy)
A still from director Allan Miller’s documentary on John Cage, “I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It” (1990). (Courtesy Allan Miller and Kanopy)

Towards the end of his life, Cage focused more on making his own abstract art. His Medicine Drawings (1991), displayed at Pazda Butler gallery, capture a fixation with earthy paper making inspired by Chinese medicine. This set of works showcases an enduring interest in nature: woody detritus, twigs, bark, dried herbs and leaves.

Cage produced several series of drawings including Medicine Drawings at Rugg Road Paper & Prints in Boston. His smoked paper works Global Village 1-36 (1989) and The Missing Stone (1989), along with the Extended Lullaby (1994) sculpture, reveal an interest in different types of abstraction. His 1986 concert with Sun Ra goes against the idea that Cage’s work was antithetical to jazz.

In contrast to the earth tones of Cage’s work in the “Across Time” show, the Gampi paper works of Jason Moran are dominated by the color blue. Vaguely reminiscent of Yves Klein’s usage of blue in abstract forms, Moran’s blue spine-like biomorphic forms suggest quietude and change. The color blue inspired the Miles Davis modal jazz classic Kind of Blue (1959) and John Coltrane’s Blue Train (1957).

Yet Moran’s message to viewers is not overtly jazzy. Rather, he hints at jazz within titles such as Before the Downbeat (2021) and What Happens After One Measure (2021).

Jason Moran's "Before the Downbeat," 2021. (Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)
Jason Moran’s “Before the Downbeat,” 2021. (Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)

A Houston native and product of Third Ward, Moran often cites John Biggers as a neighborhood and artistic hero. A graduate of Houston’s Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, Moran has often incorporated art into his repertoire.

In 2015, Moran and his wife Alicia Hall Moran created STAGED: Three Deuces in tribute to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom for the Okwui Enwezor-curated 56th Venice Biennale. He also created the soundtrack for artist Glenn Ligon’s film The Death of Tom (2008). And much like Cage, Moran’s connection to art spans several decades.

While the Pazda Butler exhibit focuses on art and not music, the dialogue between Cage’s and Moran’s work makes sense. The verdant surroundings and palm trees outside the gallery provide a hidden oasis and break from the fourth largest city in America’s hustle and bustle.

It is a uniquely beautiful setting for a thoroughly thought-provoking show.

“Jason Moran & John Cage: Across Time” is on view at Josh Pazda Hiram Butler Gallery through this Saturday, June 3. For more information, go here.

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