To offer even a superficial gloss over the impact that eighty-two-year-old composer and musician Roscoe Mitchell has made to avant-garde jazz would be an article unto itself. Suffice it to say that the restless Chicago native (whose 1966 free-jazz debut “Sound” still exudes the fresh humor and playfulness of an aural freak-out over fifty years later) has spent almost six decades at the helm of some of the most important, creative, and confounding music this nation has ever produced.
Now we get a look at what he does in his free time, on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey.
“Keeper of the Code” is a career-spanning survey of Mitchell’s paintings that stretches back to the furthest reaches of the 1960s, but it lacks anything from either the 1980s or nineties, and there’s maybe one work that could plausibly be called from the seventies. As the press release admits, Mitchell returned to painting in earnest during the pandemic and this is an exhibition of recent works. And there’s a lot of them.
Lost among the seventy-plus pieces on display, one gets the overriding sense that Mitchell is laid back, having a ball, and just cranking these diminutive Day-Glo canvases out. They feature all manner of patterns and people, figments and fauna. But rather than being authoritative visual statements that have been poked and prodded into shape, abandoned and revisited, anguished and celebrated over, each tightly composed piece is rather more like a note, or a passing phrase in an extended solo. Part of a summative whole, but individually, mostly unremarkable.
There are exceptions to this, of course. Of the small selection of twentieth-century work on display, Mitchell’s early oils possess an eerie, almost sinister-surreal quality. Though they’re not thematically or compositionally much different than the more recent works, the fussiness and occasional unpredictability of linseed oil lends a labored quality to the painting’s surfaces, something many of his vivid, gingerly touched acrylics sorely lack. Occasionally, as in 1966’s spectral yellow and green “Drum Rise,” the surface simmers to fevered pitch and erupts in a viscous impasto. Hot like the searing notes of an alto placed high in the mix, it’s both jarring and satisfying.
In the midst of this jam-glory-fusion of color and pattern, the how of these paintings: the canvas, the color, and the composition, is clear, but the “why” remains elusive. Is this the cosmic vision of an aural traveler trying to map the sound of his life-journey in two dimensions? Or just a blazing window onto a fluorescent pastime? Mitchell has taken his many bands, groups and gigs to shores of the new land and back. For his painting to do the same, it will need a touch of the loose improvisation and creative freedom that blows from the reeds of this wailing colossus of sound. (Alan Pocaro)
“Keeper of the Code” is on view through March 11 at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 West Fulton.