By Richard Ades
My Free Press preview of Gallery of Echoes describes it as an experiment in “art appreciation.” If that sounds dull to you, buck up. Shadowbox Live’s offbeat show does try to be educational, but it works even harder at being entertaining.
Taking a break from its usual skits and rock cover songs, the troupe spends about two hours examining 21 pieces from the Columbus Museum of Art’s permanent collection. It does this with the help of narration, dance and video projected on a 9-by-27-foot screen. Best of all, it does it with original music composed and performed by an in-house band called Light.
Seriously, no matter how impressed you are by the show in general, you can’t help being blown away by the music. Shadowbox has thrown original numbers into its shows from time to time, but these pieces are in a class by themselves. The best ones complement their respective artworks perfectly, and all are flawlessly performed by Stev Guyer, Gabriel Guyer, Jennifer Hahn, Matthew Hahn, Brandon Smith and Brent Lambert, along with occasional vocalists and a host of auxiliary players.
Other elements of the show also have their moments, sometimes even overshadowing the music. That’s the case in the first number, based on King Lake, California, an 1870s oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. Though the music for this piece is not particularly memorable, the video images allow viewers to feel like they’re exploring Bierstadt’s untamed Western landscape.
When a segment is really cooking, though, all of the elements combine to create an experience that stands on its own, regardless of how you feel about the featured artwork.
One of my favorite pieces is based on Bird, a sculpture by Ohio State-educated (and environmentally conscious) artist Aldo Casanova. While the band plays one of the show’s nicer instrumental numbers, a succession of actors pose and strut across the stage in the guise of bizarre, mutated birds. Brava to Linda Mullin for the ingenious costume designs.
Another favorite is Shadowbox’s take on The Assassination by James Ensor. As the video explores every detail of the grotesque painting, the band nimbly picks its way through appropriately shrill music with unbelievably intricate timing.
Since Shadowbox bills Gallery of Echoes as an aid to appreciating the featured art, it’s fair to ask whether it accomplishes its task. In this respect, it’s a mixed success.
The narration sometimes offers valuable background information, as when we’re told that German/Danish artist Emile Nolde created Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943) after the Nazi Party had forbidden him from painting. But the video then goes on to insert images of marching soldiers and even Hitler himself in the midst of the swaying flowers. It seems like overkill, and it doesn’t help us to understand Nolde’s position as a Nazi whose style of art had fallen out of official favor.
Art enthusiasts may also be bothered by various segments’ attempts to interpret their respective works. One of the joys of great art is that it invites viewers to come up with their own interpretation.
Yes, Gallery of Echoes does sometimes work as an unusually lively class in art appreciation. But it’s best enjoyed as an innovative show that uses classic artworks as a jumping-off point: the inspiration for graceful dancing, colorful costumes and some really fine music.
Gallery of Echoes will be presented through Sunday (May 4) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Remaining show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40, $20-$35 for students, seniors, military and Columbus Museum of Art members. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.
You’ve seen the show, now see the art
Despite renovation projects now going on at the Columbus Museum of Art, 11 of the 21 pieces featured in Gallery of Echoes are currently on display. They are:
▪ King Lake, California by Albert Bierstadt
▪ Thunderstorm by Arthur Dove
▪ The Assassination by James Ensor
▪ Into the Past by Hananiah Harari
▪ The Swimmer by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
▪ Sunflowers in the Windstorm by Emile Nolde
▪ Female Nude by Pablo Picasso
▪ Bouquet of Light by Christopher Ries
▪ Melanie, the Schoolteacher by Chaim Soutine
▪ Cornice by George Tooker
▪ Portrait of Andries Stilte II by Kehinde Wiley
For more information, visit columbusmuseum.org.