In a gallery at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, a toy train winds its way around a landscape littered with upturned piano lids and a mountain of coal to the music of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and James Brown.
Dubbed "Chasing the Blues Train," artist David Hammons' exchange between "music and labor, sound and movement" is in the United States for the first time since 1989 as part of the show "Blues for Smoke" - a major interdisciplinary exhibition several years in the making that curator Bennett Simpson says "is in some ways about the blues" but "may not be the blues that you recognize.
"It's an attempt to put things together that might not always have gone together but could go together; that should go together," he says.
Taking its name from Jaki Byard's 1960 album, the exhibition, on view through Jan. 7, explores a wide range of visual art, music, literature and film through the lens of the blues and "blues aesthetics." It features the works of more than 50 artists from the 1950s on, going back and forth between group galleries of different themes and rooms centered on individual artists' major statements.
In the exhibition, visitors will see Stan Douglas' video installation "Hors-champs" (1992). The video captures the "social and political worlds bearing on a jazz performance session, staged and recorded in a Paris television studio, in which four musicians interpret Spirits Rejoice (1965), one of the seminal compositions of 1960s free jazz .
There are narratives about everyday life as seen in the tenement windows of Martin Wong's painting "La Vida" (1988) and expressionistic depictions of music legends in paintings by Bob Thompson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jutta Koether.
Some works simply suggest the blues, including Jack Whitten's "Black Table Setting (Homage to Duke Ellington)" (1974), which he produced by raking devices over a canvas layered with acrylic inspired by the "sheets of sound" he heard in music.
In her first attempt at drawing, sculptor Rachel Harrison pairs Amy Winehouse, the late British R&B star, with the iconic imagery of Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and others in a series of untitled colored pencil on paper works from 2011 and '12.
And Rodney McMillian has created a walk-in red-on-red chapel room dubbed "From Asterisk in Dockery" - described as "a footnote to one of the sacred homes of blues mythology." That place, Mississippi's Dockery Farms, was where legendary bluesmen Muddy Waters, Charley Patton and Lonnie Johnson were sharecroppers during the 1920s and '30s.
In addition, the exhibition presents a range of listening posts and video stations as well as contextual displays of books, photographs and other documentary material.
"For a long time in the kind of unorthodox art history that we all use there was an unspoken prohibition about voice, and personal expression," Simpson says. "This exhibition doesn't worry about that."
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Blues for Smoke
What: An interdisciplinary exhibition exploring a range of contemporary art, music, literature and film through the lens of the blues and "blues aesthetics."
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Jan. 7.
Where: The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles.
Admission: $7 and $12; free for members, children under 12 and everyone from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays.
Information: www.moca. org or 213-626-6222.