MOCA's 'Blues for Smoke' Exhibit Raises the Question: What Does 'the Blues' Even Mean?

David Hammons' Chasing the Blue Train
David Hammons' Chasing the Blue Train
SJ O'Connell

Music scholars, art curators and grumpy old men playing chess in the park have long debated the definition of "the blues." They will never reach a consensus. There are many irrefutable images of the blues: juke joints, a roadside chain gang, Son House's metal-clad ring finger. But it is also the bedrock of many cultural pursuits, if not all. The blues can be anywhere: an overheated engine, a barking dog, a well-worn Chicago Cubs hat.

MOCA, with their new exhibit "Blues for Smoke," has added a warehouse full of ideas that help to further expand the notion of the blues aesthetic but won't get us any closer to a consensus definition.

The essence of the blues rarely radiates from the temples of high art in Los Angeles. With their freshly-painted white walls, deliberate lighting and inflated financial value, these institutions seem the farthest from the blues a person could possibly get. The MOCA's Geffen Contemporary space has at least a little grit. The former police garage has layers and layers of paint over their uneven cement floor and the exposed pipes seem almost quaint in their functionality. But a deeper connection to the blues lies in the museum's address.

A little over three miles south of MOCA, Central Avenue was the hub for black culture in Los Angeles. A sprawl of clubs and auditoriums around Vernon Avenue hosted every purveyor of that sound from the large bands of Duke Ellington to the bellowing Paul Robeson to the ribald observations of comedian Redd Foxx. Despite the cultural definition of "Central Avenue," this vital cornerstone of musical history, particularly the blues, is not much of a factor in the exhibit. Instead the they start the clock at 1950, ten years past South Central's heyday.

The title of the exhibit is a pleasantly obscure reference to jazz pianist Jaki Byard's 1960 solo release. Curator Bennett Simpson explained the reason: "In the process of researching the show I began to listen to a lot of Jaki Byard. He was one of the most versatile and creative piano players of his day. I liked his reverence for tradition and innovation. I liked the kind of poetic, elusive metaphor of smoke: it disperses vision, it comes before or after fire, it gets in your eyes."

And the exhibit does infiltrate the senses. A cacophonous blur is unavoidable as the sounds of a tender rendition of "Body and Soul" blends with various spoken word pieces and performances ranging from Cecil Taylor to De La Soul coming from mounted headphones. How does Simpson feel about the sound bleeds? "I love it!" I loved it too, but I'm not sure about the security guards.

Rodney McMillian's from Asterisks in Dockery
Rodney McMillian's from Asterisks in Dockery
SJ O'Connell

The exhibit is a mish-mash of mediums. A large projection of a Kara Walker piece hides a small room displaying all 60 hours of HBO's series The Wire. Jean-Michel Basquiat's lengthy Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi Delta painting greets those entering Rodney McMillian's floor-to-ceiling red vinyl chapel installation, from Asterisks in Dockery. Roy DeCarava's John Coltrane photographs share a common wall with David Hammons' sprawling Chasing the Blue Train, an engaging combination of a model train, a pile of coal, piano lids and bop-equipped boomboxes.

Any attempt to define a musical genre is difficult and it is rather hard to absorb the sprawl of ideas in this exhibit and come away with a unified emotion. Are there interesting works? Yes. Is it great to see and hear some of this work in a major institution? Definitely.

"It may not be the blues you recognize," said Simpson. That might sound like a cop-out but it is also an entirely reasonable statement. This isn't the blues defined. This is Bennett Simpson's blues defined and there is plenty you won't recognize. And that's a good thing.

Follow Sean J. O'Connell on Twitter at @CultofSOC and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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Museum of Contemporary Art (The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA)

152 N. Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012



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