Review: Sun Ra exhibition




Michael Tucker, in Arles in southern France, sees an art exhibition featuring two rooms devoted to the multi-faceted work of Sun Ra

Towards the end of the 19th century the painter Vincent Van Gogh fell in love with Arles, the ancient Roman town in deepest southern France, on the banks of the Rhone. He expressed the hope that a community of artists might gather there to seek inspiration from both each other and the southern sun. Sadly, the painter's dream was never realised. And, truth to tell, for many a subsequent decade Arles was scarcely the most exciting place to visit for anyone looking for traces of Van Gogh and his time there, or for evidence that his art had left a lasting creative legacy in the region.

Recently, however, things have changed - big time. Each summer, Arles now hosts one of the largest and most prestigious photographic exhibitions in the world. Le Parc des Ateliers, a new, ultra-contemporary arts venue designed by Frank Gehry, is in its final stages of construction and, earlier in the present decade, The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh opened. Its impressive exhibition spaces flow superbly within a prestigious, fully renovated and restructured 15th century residence in the heart of the town. Each year the foundation aims to place aspects of Van Gogh's work in creative dialogue with that of some of the leading visual artists of our time, such as David Hockney, Roni Horn and Alice Neel.

This year the foundation's curator, Bice Curiger, outdid herself with a superb show, Hot Sun, Late Sun: Modernism Untamed. This featured a choice selection of Van Gogh's work together with consistently arresting pieces by Adolphe Monticelli - an influential precursor to the Dutchman - as well as Pablo Picasso, Sigmar Polke, Giorgio De Chirico, Germaine Richier, Alexander Calder, Joan Mitchell, Etel Adnan - and Sun Ra (pictured above right).

Two handsome rooms were devoted to the multi-faceted oeuvre of the late (yet for many, still very much present) heliocentric king of Afro-Futurism. One of these rooms was next to a gallery with three superb late, large canvases by Mitchell: No Birds (the Francophile American's tribute to Van Gogh's Wheatfield With Crows) and the surpassing diptych Sunflowers. It's often claimed that a special symbiosis obtains between modern jazz and abstract expressionism - typified by the use of a Jackson Pollock image for the front cover of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz recording. I have a fair amount of sympathy for this idea and so it was a real treat to be able to contemplate the sweeping largesse of Mitchell's painterly abstractions while the compulsive shape-shifting grooves and moods of the soundtrack of a 32-minute 1972 Sun Ra performance for French television spilled out (but not obtrusively so) into the gallery space.

Sun Ra specialist John Corbett contributed an excellent essay to the sumptuous 230pp-plus exhibition catalogue, looking in detail at the beginnings of the Sun Ra mythology in mid-to-late 1950s Chicago. I hadn't appreciated fully to what extent Sun Ra (1914-1993) pioneered the idea of artist-owned record companies, nor the extent to which he and his inner circle were involved with all aspects of album design and production. The exhibition featured many striking examples of Sun Ra LP and single covers, beautifully hung and lit. There were also various vitrines with fascinating contextual information, a range of listening posts and, best of all, several (separately housed) film loops. Featuring the aforementioned 1972 performance for French TV, where the Arkestra was joined by African-inspired dancers in trance mode, a performance given for the 1970 Nuits de la Fondation Maeght concerts at Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and extracts from John Coney's 1974 film Space Is The Place, these registered clearly and cleanly on the relatively big screens supplied.

The exhibition, which runs until 28 October 2018, was complemented in September by an evening conference and a DJ set. Published at €30 by the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh (ISBN 979-10-94966-14-3) the fully illustrated French/English catalogue is well up to the standards one has come to associate with Curiger: for many years a leading art historian and curator, in 2011 she was director of the 54th Venice Biennale. Like the exhibition, it's a must for all Sun Ra enthusiasts.


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