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Not So Still Life, With Music

Behind the art of Ralph Gilbert

By: Alexander Gelfand

TALKING ABOUT MUSIC, it has been said, is like dancing about architecture.

But how about painting about music?

Painter Ralph Gilbert has a few things to say about that. And well he might: Gilbert, who is a professor in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University, recently completed the first six in a series of 20 oil paintings commissioned by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience to accompany its 20 themed volumes of Jewish music.

Gilbert traces his interest in depicting music and musicians to his father, who had been a great fan of classical music. "He was a poor Jewish kid in New York," Gilbert says. "There was no way he was ever going to have music lessons. He never learned to play anything. But he was a totally devoted listener." When his father passed away some 10 years ago, Gilbert began sketching chamber musicians at work as a kind of homage to his father's passion. A few years later, he was asked by The Temple - Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, Atlanta's flagship Reform synagogue, to create a proposal for a mural. Still drawn to musical subject matter, Gilbert crafted a study of Moses's sister, Miriam, playing the tambourine. That led to a series of works depicting Jewish musicians. And that, in turn, led to Gilbert's work for the Archive.

From the outset, Gilbert wanted to portray how music conveys emotion on what he calls "a gestural level." Mute the sound of a live performance, he says, and you will still see the performers communicating emotion through their very bodies: the way they hold themselves, the way they move, the glances they cast. But capturing that kinesthetic quality on canvas is not easy.

"It's challenging to convey motion in a still form," Gilbert says. "A painting is virtually simultaneous; you see it all at once. When something is static in that way, you look for means to depict motion in a static context."

Somehow, Gilbert manages it. You can almost see and hear the jazz trio portrayed in "Swing His Praises" steaming ahead at full throttle: the drummer with his sticks poised to strike, his gaze locked on something just beyond the frame; the pianist deep in concentration, his shoulders hunched ever so slightly towards the keyboard. Often, one has the sense of having walked into the middle of a performance: of catching the eye of the conductor in "Symphonic Visions" just as he is about to let his baton drop, or of slipping into the back of the theater in "Great Songs of the American Yiddish Stage" long after the curtain has been raised.

Often, too, there is a sense of intimacy to these works, either because the musicians are lost in some interior world, like the violinists in "The Classical Klezmer"; or because they seem to be looking direcly at you, their faces communicating the complex emotions that real musicians project in live performance. Through some kind of visual alchemy, Gilbert is able to use these various effects to suggest momentum in a motionless medium.

Incorporating the specifically Jewish themes of the volumes also posed certain challenges. "I didn't want these to be Jewish paintings by virtue of ethnic stereotyping," Gilbert says. "But they still had to make reference to Jewish culture and tradition." Gilbert's solutions are subtle, but highly effective. The cellist and flutist in "Intimate Voices" seem to emerge from a kiddush cup, a "shared chalice" that is itself a "symbol of intimacy." The arms of the conductor in "Symphonic Visions" echo the shape of the shofar, or ceremonial ram's horn, behind him, while simultaneously evoking "the most ancient call to prayer."

Gilbert also wanted to strike a balance between honoring the Jewish content of the volumes, and attending to the more abstract and formal properties that give a work of art general appeal; between creating paintings that were inherently Jewish in terms of subject matter, and creating paintings that succeeded on a purely aesthetic level. "They had to be appropriate," he says, "but also work as independent works of art."

Nothing could be more appropriate to the Milken Archive, which seeks to preserve and promote not just Jewish music, but good Jewish music. Each volume in the Archive is made up of pieces that were chosen not only because they bear a clear connection to the American Jewish experience, but also because they stand on their own merits as significant works of art.

Now, thanks to Ralph Gilbert, they'll have faces to match.

For more information about Gilbert, please visit http://www.ralphgilbert.com/

Not So Still Life, With Music: The Milken Archive of Jewish Music Presents Paintings by Ralph Gilbert ran April 9-24, 2012 in conjunction with the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture's Violins of Hope project.

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