Marisa Anderson Into the Light

[Self-Released; 2016]

Styles: Americana, folk, soundtrack, blues
Others: John Fahey, Bill Orcutt, Steve Gunn, Marcia Hafif

The September 1978 issue of Art Forum included an essay by the American monochrome painter Marcia Hafif, titled “Beginning Again.” In it, Hafif writes:

The options open to painting in the recent past appeared to be extremely limited. It was not that everything had been done, but rather that the impulses to create which had functioned in the past were no longer urgent or even meaningful. […] We no longer believed in the transcendency of paint and saw little reason to use the medium of painting for making art.

Hafif felt the looming question of irrelevance upon herself and her contemporaries who had theretofore accessed art by means of the brush: “painting appeared to be no longer relevant, not quite right, and yet the only possible activity for one who has been or is a painter — an artist deriving satisfaction from painting, drawings, the ordering of space, with a sensibility directed to paint, to pencil, to materials in general. But there was no dialogue, no discourse.” Hafif wrote “Beginning Again” to stimulate such absent discourse, intending to state and announce the many concepts that she saw resting stagnant and unnoticed in the work of painters around her. Hafif understood then that, for all the expansion, experimentation, redefinition, and refinement that the practice of painting had endured, the form must be reduced and interrogated on a micro level to retain interest:

It was necessary to turn inward to the means of art, the materials and techniques with which art is made. Artists still interested in painting began an analysis — or deconstruction — of painting, turning to the basic question of what painting is, not so much for the purpose of defining it as to be able to vivify it by beginning all over again. That question led to an examination of the discipline of painting, the taking apart of it as an activity; it led to a restatement of what we already knew along with an investigation of it in depth. We pretended in a certain way that we did not know anything about painting. We studied and rediscovered it for ourselves.

Marisa Anderson seems to be discovering the guitar each time she picks it up. She picks and noodles with a false naiveté: spontaneously inventing improvisations (or stating deceptively simple compositions) that feel guideless and inert, but not wandering. Pieces begin with a determinate momentum and decisively maintain it for their duration. If any development occurs, it is minute and contained within the realms of harmony and melody. That is to say that development is non-expressive and unaccentuated. The result is a collection of pieces that feels insistently hollow — often despite their multi-tracked layers that include dreamy slides, wavering chordal accents, and sometimes contrapuntal keyboard lines or padded textures — underspoken, polished vignettes of Hollywood Americana.

In the early 1960s, guitarist John Fahey introduced the style of composition and performance that he referred to as American Primitive Guitar. Fahey defined this approach through its bonding of contemporary avant-garde composition with the idioms and techniques of American folk and blues. By appropriating these established idioms along with their predetermined attributes (instrumentation, vocabulary, musical form, and repertoire), Fahey adopted a vehicle through which he felt he could better house and communicate experimentation. It is important to note that this occurred at the brink of the American and British blues revival, which involved the digging up and capitalization of black artists who had spent decades unnoticed, as well as the widespread appropriation of blues musical traits by white middle-class artists because of what they heard as a “legitimate” or “authentic” essence. The inevitable and rightful problematization of such attitudes toward the blues tradition (including the use of the word “primitive” anywhere near it) is essential to the development of the tradition of American Primitive Guitar.

Marisa Anderson has been critically positioned amidst other neo-Americana guitar outsiders who have all undeniably been given their space thanks to Fahey and the attitude represented by American Primitive (to name a few of these: Bill Orcutt, Sir Richard Bishop, Steve Gunn, Jandek, and Richard Dawson). A trend within this realm of new American primitive music has been a certain self-consciousness that actively problematizes the very narrative it progresses. This is most readily apparent in the work of Orcutt, who implodes blues guitar through an infusion of noise sentiments and darkly politicized titles, album covers, and repertoire selections (some such titles include: A New Way to Pay Old Debts, Colonial Donuts, and Why Does Everybody Love Free Music But Nobody Loves Free People?), but it can also be seen in the outsider crooning of Jandek and the deconstructive performances of the No Neck Blues Band (this essay begins with the latter example and goes on to excellently survey the state of contemporary American Primitive).

Such self-aware subversion can be seen as a quintessential trait to the New American Primitive. In fact, it has perhaps subsumed the now-petty requirement for the music to be simply “avant-garde” or experimental. As such, it is of interest that Anderson finds herself among such subversion when her music is noticeably tidy and non-intrusive. Instead, Anderson settles on her decisive aesthetic normality upon which an artist with a different (more typical) sensibility would likely develop. Her work is stubbornly underworked, but it doesn’t read as minimalist or ambient by the books. From phrase to phrase, there is often a generous amount of variation in theme and form due to the room left for improvisation; however, the materials Anderson chooses from are often blandly limited to those of a single diatonic mode laid out upon her fretboard. Anderson simply suggests a missing element, which, if fulfilled, would likely satisfy a commercial audience. It’s easy to imagine that missing element being a vocalist, but in the case of Into the Light, the missing element has been stated: “the soundtrack to an imaginary science-fiction western film, the record’s ten songs trace the story of a visitor lost and wandering on the shifting borderlands of the Sonoran desert.”

Anderson’s unprompted soundtrack equates to meandering guitar explorations and investigations that background nothing but the listener’s own environment, adding some cowboy kitsch to her surroundings. This reductive treatment of instrumental Americana guitar is even more non-presumptuous, lackluster, and unfulfilling than some of Anderson’s earlier output (the performances on Traditional & Public Domain Songs, for example, were notably more persuasive and seizing), but it is these traits that make its confidence and self-satisfaction quite subversive. Anderson’s guitar-for-the-sake-of-guitar approach eludes grandeur and self-proclamation.

“Painting has long flirted with emptiness. Think of Malevich, Humphrey, Reinhardt, Marden, Ryman. We could not say of any of these painters’ work that everything else [but] one color has been removed. It is not a difficult task to distinguish between these ‘empty’ paintings. The removal of known subject matter opened the way for other content to enter in. A painting without interior relationships of color and shape is not empty.”
– Marcia Hafif

Like Hafif’s monochromes, each of Anderson’s statements is small, tidy, and empty. Anderson works with the “undivided surface” that Hafif finds necessary for monochrome painting by performing compositions that maintain and repeat a singular formal unit. Of course, I can’t suggest a one-to-one relationship between their work; Anderson is idiomatically grounded, while Hafif suggest choices that are “made without reference to a known esthetic, each decision being weighed on its own, taking into consideration the material and the desired end in a specific process.” However, she notes that the techniques used in monochrome painting are often “traditional time-honed paint procedures… the artist restating, investigating, as though for the first time, the use of materials that have been long known to art.” The difference for Hafif is that such techniques are given a reinvigorated and amplified focus. Anderson picks apart the guitar in a similar way, as if dissatisfied by the development toward aesthetic radicalism and virtuosity put forth by her contemporaries and forebearers. She resists the performance of transcendental catharsis and lets the guitar breathe.

As Hafif puts it:

Tracing magic images, storytelling, reporting, representing in a one-to-one relationship a scene or figure in paint - none of these acts was credible in the way it once had been. Abstraction appeared to be used up; expression through shape and color was very familiar and had become meaningless. The process of flattening out the canvas had reached an end; formalist painting had soaked color into the canvas and moved shape to the edge, presenting an almost but not quite, unbroken field. We no longer believed in the transcendency of paint and saw little reason to use the medium of painting for making art.

Links: Marisa Anderson

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