The last reason that any New Yorker descends into the subway is to encounter art. It's true that Keith Haring started out as a graffiti artist there, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority occasionally commissions works to lighten the commute. But for the most part, the subway is utilitarian at best; at worst, it's claustrophobic, smelly and inconvenient.
But viewers stepping into one of the subterranean galleries in the new MAC will encounter a surprisingly enchanting evocation of New York's most moving district: the subway line. Jim Hodges' video installation "Subway Music Box" presents seven floor-to-ceiling video projections cycling 24 different musicians, all of them playing in the subway system.
On one screen, a portly Japanese man, his legs jammed under a synthesizer, resolutely sings opera arias to waiting commuters, while on the screen next to him, a young black man idly plays a keyboard with his left hand, holding up a trumpet to play with his right. Across the room, a screen shows a roped-off section of a station (Grand Central?), where a musician, standing mostly in shadows, plays with an electronic mixer. A sign in front of him announces proudly that he sells CDs. Throughout the gallery, the sounds from each of the seven screens mingles, creating the aural equivalent of a jewelry box: a mixed, glittering collision of mismatched music.
The work is the third exhibit in the museum's Social Landscapes series, which Curator of Art Jochen Wierich describes as "a loose thematic 'umbrella' to showcase three artists who we thought were significant for this region."
By including Hodges, who lives and works in New York, the museum was giving the region a chance to re-encounter one of its successful native sons. Hodges studied painting at Fort Wright College before moving on to Pratt. His subsequent work, some of which draws on his return visits and impressions of Spokane, has received critical praise in the art world.
Nevertheless, Hodges' contribution doesn't initially conform to a museum-goer's idea of a landscape. "Hodges is an artist who, at least to me, pushes the concept of landscape to a new level," explains Wierich. "Landscape as I understand it, is never pure nature, never an untouched raw environment. It is always something already manipulated or transformed by humans."
The transformations brought about by the musicians in the artistic landscape of "Subway Music Box" itself are occasionally dramatic. In one projection, a young black man in jeans and a red sweater, his head topped with an Afro, grooves back and forth to "The Pink Panther" as he plays it on his trumpet. When he's finished, the image changes to a gaunt young man in worn clothes and vest, his sleeves pulled down almost to his fingertips. He tunes his violin, closes his eyes, tips his head, and plays beautifully, barely comfortable with himself but lost within the music.
Somehow, projected onto the wall of a museum, it all seems much more magical than it might in the subway. "Hodges' 'Subway Music Box' makes us aware of the human desire to bring beauty into a cold and raw environment," concurs Wierich. "Sure, these musicians play to make money, but Hodges' piece makes such a great statement about the human need to create beauty where it is least expected."
Like a typical resident of any area, it wasn't until he was away from New York for a while that Hodges was able to focus on the beauty of what was previously a part of his daily environment. "I was not able to actually make the piece until I left the city for a residency in California," says the artist. "From there it became more interesting to me, as a potential space to respond to. The idea of the piece had been hanging around my head for a few years. The distance of being in California allowed me the freedom to enjoy the subway like a tourist. My relationship was changed, so I could make the piece."
Far from merely representing Hodges' perspective of the subway for viewers, however, the work allows them to enter the enhanced landscape themselves. As viewers pass through the gallery, they block the video projectors, and their shadows merge with the crowds on the walls.
"I certainly wanted the shadows of viewers to disrupt the image and in a way become part of the scene," says Hodges. "That was very important."
Aside from putting the viewer into the context of the work, however, it also makes a statement about the surrounding landscape: the museum. So often, as we pass through a museum, we are like commuters: sometimes oblivious and sometimes enthralled in the presence of art. But we're always going elsewhere.
And to hear the subway musicians, you have to go underground -- even in Spokane.