Visual Arts , — November 8, 2011 14:54 — 0 Comments

Mother May I

Beth Fleenor’s performance/installation Mother May I, now at Jack Straw Studios, is both personal catharsis for the artist, and creative engagement of the world at large. For Fleenor, this work is “about reconciling the relationship I had with my mother,” but it is also a moving into, a moving through what she calls the “many part system.” On one wall of the Jack Straw Gallery, a large web of white strings connects many different points which are each marked by three small pieces of paper. The pins that secure the string are surrounded by a white piece of paper, a black piece of paper, and a piece of paper with an abstract word printed upon it. In effect, Fleenor has created an external set of psycho-emotional coordinates.

The black and white paper, along with words such as “fear,” “addiction,” “love,” “insecurity,” “family,” give spatial dimension to a complex interior life. Within the web are five cross-stitched wave forms: blue thread woven into white fabric gives the graphic representation of previously recorded passages of music from which Fleenor and fellow musicians then create new improvised music.

The visual aspect of Fleenor’s work is overwhelming. The maze of potential meanings resists an easy gaze. The eye is forced to move along from point to point, word to word, without comprehension of any unified whole. Though the cross-stitched wave forms do provide some balance to the work, the overall sense is one of labyrinthian depths swirling beneath and beyond the surface swells.

So there was some relief when the musical performance began. Fleenor filled the room with one low note from her clarinet, and then another. It took a moment to realize that she had looped the two notes in a seamless current of sound. In fact, it wasn’t until she began playing a series of long, mournful phrases over the top that I noticed. The music seemed larger than the room.

She performed solo for half an hour, improvising two pieces from the score of the visual field. The music moved through lyrical passages and primal bursts, and back again. The experience attained the nature of ritual, a ritual comprised of both tribal and cosmopolitan dimensions. At one point, Fleenor put the woodwind aside and used her voice to incant voluminous melodies and howl with the guttural tones of a tortured beast.

A duet with David Moggia produced a variety of atmospheres. Moggia used coffee mugs for percussion and a old-timey jug-like effect, his voice kazooing and ballooning against the warmth of the clarinet. One memorable passage featured an old fashioned music box on a loop surrounded by human breath: heavy sighs and intakes, burps, moans and gasps. I could not help but think of a child’s inconsolable anguish.

Art often works as a publicly sanctioned transmutation of private sufferings. Fleenor’s installation/performance fits this bill. The map of her personal experience on the gallery wall becomes our personal experience in its extension through sound. The theme of interconnectedness comes to include us. We each become points in the web of the “many part system.” Of course, this is always the case, but we forget it. Fleenor’s prodigious and compassionate work reminds us.

-Caleb Thompson


Beth Fleenor is a Seattle -based composer, multi-instrumentalist, and dynamic generative artist. Originally from Bristol, TN/VA, she received a bachelor's degree in music from Cornish College of the Arts. Currently she can be found performing with Crystal Beth, Bling, Figeater, Owcharuk 5, Double Yoko, Chick Influenza, Seattle Jazz Composers Ensemble, and projects of the Monktail Creative Music Concern.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney