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December 3 - 28, 2003 at L.A. Artcore, Downtown

by Peter Frank

By now, the interrelation of art with music is a modernist, and even post-modernist, trope. Artists and musicians alike have been exploring the formal, experiential, metaphorical, and practical parallel between, and/or fusion of, the two discrete disciplines for at least a century and a half. Desy Safán-Gerard is something of a traditionalist in this regard. Indeed, as a lyrical (neo-)abstract expressionist working with established paint, paper, and print media, Safán-Gerard is a traditional modernist in every regard.

“Boulez’s Rituel”, 2003,
acrylic on canvas, 40 x 54”

Producing paintings that emanate from sources as diverse as Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 15, an Astor Piazzola tango, a jazz-rock drum solo, and compositions by Pierre Boulez and William Kraft, Safán-Gerard wants to engender a body of work that captures not the music itself, but her comprehension of the music. Still, her deliberately close reliance on music, to the point where so many of her canvases and works on paper seek to embody specific musical compositions--that is, to re-present the compositions in a formally measured, if still gestural and subjective mirroring--is unusually bold in its stylistic confidence. Yet it is unusually self-effacing in the thoroughness with which it places itself at the service of other art-works, musical though they may be.

The term at hand is ekphrasis, the re-stating of an artwork in another art form. W. H. Auden’s poem describing the events in Pieter Breughel’s Fall of Icarus is frequently cited as a literary example of ekphrasis; Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, recapturing the images in the memorial show of his painter friend Viktor Hartmann, and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s evocation of Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, are, er, picture-perfect musical ekphrases. The kind of ekphrasis Safán-Gerard practices, however, is based in the far less literal method(s) of reconfiguration posited by Wassily Kandinsky nearly a century ago. Seeking a way out of pictorialism and into abstraction, Kandinsky (following George Santayana’s dictum, “All the arts aspire to the condition of music”) strove for a painterly expression as disembodied yet affective as music was (or at least could be). In Kandinsky’s wake, visual artists as diverse as Frantisek Kupka, Morgan Russell, and Oskar Fischinger (the father of Fantasia--Walt Disney being the surrogate mother) sought to capture not simply the general condition of music in their painting (or filmic animation), but the specific condition of individual, pre-extant musical works. As opposed to Kandinsky’s musically motivated abstraction, theirs was an ekphrastic abstraction, and Safán-Gerard’s is as well.

Unlike many musically motivated artists, ekphrastic and otherwise, Safán-Gerard has not sought to devise any system of equivalent translation. Rather, following Kandinsky’s more generalizing lead, she interprets specific compositions in generalized terms, using them to provoke the execution of gestures and colors typical for her--myriad lines, loops and ribbons of pigment cavorting and clustering on luminous, saturated fields. The relative sobriety or tang of the colors, and especially the relative placement, frequency, and density of the lines, function to echo the form of the music in question. Indeed, her planar compositions often seem like very loose notations, even reading left to right like scores in several instances. They rarely ape the bar structure of musical scoring, however; Safán-Gerard is not interested in practical precision any more than she is in pictorial precision.

Within her approach, the gestures and abstract images adhere carefully--as “objectively” as possible-–to the sounds and sequences she hears; her approach itself, however, is entirely subjective. Its lyricism and animation, however, mark it, universally, as musical in spirit.