Tad Mike on Barry Le Va

Barry Le Va: In the Realm of Bach, Voltage and Love

Just as the needle threads in and out on both sides of the surface being sewn, so also the mind plunges down and reappears, tracing and linking with its strands the surface of things which is the world, the canvas of categories. It forms patterns on the latter, and their first outlines…Embroidery.1
Paul Valéry

Falling upon the sheet, a touch germinates its presence on paper when a line takes on weight and mass greater than the obvious. Language is the house in which we live, perhaps, but the most beautiful moments of drawing, as in music, occur when a work leaves the constrictions of matter and resides elsewhere. Ideas of the imagination speak in art through means that leave language without its cord. Losing oneself in a work is always la petite mort that perpetuates this search.

Art does not always reveal the hand of its creator. Considering the drawings of Barry Le Va, the question is immaterial. His touch is personal. It is physical and direct, unapologetic for its resolutions on paper. Marks reside confidently: his embroidery, two-sided. One side we see, the other requires us to listen. These drawings form with a synthesis of marks that denote a beautiful drawing, but have elevated the invisible experience beyond the sheet of paper and retinal perception.

The mechanics of crafted sound or expression of music never feels distant from Le Va’s scores. He creates sound, silently. From the 1960s to present this music has evolved and shed an innocence of form to embrace what John Cage constructed throughout his œuvre: a compendium of moments in which Nature has a way and means of extolling her designs. Works created in a nonchalant, happenstance style feel perfect in completion. Accepting of gravity, liquid, air, and light, even Le Va’s darkest works have breath.

Le Va works in the two-dimensional plane with self-correcting momentum. His investigations are visible and working through them causes something essential to emerge. No matter the fundamental starting point – an elemental chart of chemical compounds, a schematic voltage diagram – the resulting investigation is full of feeling and arrives at that juncture known as art. The painter Joan Mitchell said, “It’s sort of like the more you listen to a chord the more you understand its parts.”2 Those parts for Le Va, charts of isotopes or spatial resonances created by a single dowel pivoting ink on paper, specify a specific feeling for form and its contrapuntal relationships.

Referring to works in his Accumulated Visions series, Le Va states:

They are almost too complicated to talk about because their compounded perspectives form a maze of information – a maze of thought. Though it’s simple enough information that’s being presented, you can’t retain it because the concepts overlap and cancel each other out. So what is in the space is the residue of an activity that you haven’t seen performed, so you can only guess what it was from the residue. You have to be able to imagine that you can see through walls of those sculptures. They are about being inside and projecting beyond the room.3

As if speaking about the overtone series in music (a chain reaction of sound in which the sounding of one pitch on a piano or in an orchestra activates identical and different pitch in a higher and lower register), Le Va proposes a fundamental principal of the physics of sound. His choice of the word residue is telling. His embroidery requires the viewer to participate with his sculpture as well as his drawings; the reverse side always situating itself in the invisible.

In BWV 1061, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most thrilling concerto works for two pianos and four hands, the premise Le Va expresses is demonstrated by way of point and line. Music accumulates in the fugue. The listener comprehends emotionally and subconsciously, following the overlapping sounds, but it is impossible to separate the strands of musical thought completely and with certainty. It is the harmonic residue moving forward that enthralls.

As within the music of Bach, the forms Le Va postulates contract with an emotional resonance while remaining upright in their character. There are no grandiose empty gestures in Le Va’s drawings. Each line or atmospheric ambiance functions in unison with the whole. Le Va searches for an accountable sensation, the body, its geometry and formalities of reach, counting and flex all form armatures which position man’s shifting relationships to the tangible forms life sits astride.

  1. Valéry, Paul. Cahiers/Notebooks I. Ed. Brian Stimpson. Trans. Rachel Killick. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2000. 45. []
  2. Mitchell, Joan. Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter. Dir. Marion Cajori. New York: Art Kaleidoscope Foundation, 1993, 54 minutes. []
  3. Le Va, Barry. “A Conversation: Saul Ostrow and Barry Le Va.” Barry Le Va: A Survey of Drawing 1966-2003 and Two New Sculptures. Zurich: Edition & Verlag Judin, 2003, 28. []
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Jess Nix says:

Consistent with his description of Mr. Le Va’s works as having two sides—“[o]ne side we see, the other requires us to listen”—so it is with Mr. Mike’s essay: on the surface it offers insights into Mr. Le Va’s work specifically, while on another level it provides insights into the mind of an artist during the creative process.

Mr. Mike’s essay is personal and intimate. It bespeaks an intimate understanding of Mr. Le Va’s work as well as Mr. Le Va himself. Reading the essay, one gets the impression that Mr. Mike considers both Mr. Le Va and his works old friends with whom he has spent many hours conversing and exchanging ideas. Mr. Mike obviously hears the music that silently plays in Mr. Le Va’s works and has the unique ability to make his readers hear that music through his essay. His essay could easily function as an essential companion to Mr. Le Va’s work that would enrich the experience of viewing it for casual viewers as well as experts.

While revealing an intimate knowledge of Mr. Le Va and his works, Mr. Mike’s essay also offers a distinctive insight into the creative process. He seamlessly relates how Mr. Le Va’s works interweave elements of physics, geometry, poetry, and music; in the process of relating these diverse considerations to Mr. Le Va’s works, one can tell that Mr. Mike has grappled with each of them in composing his own works. His essay calls upon everyone—from casual observers to working artists—to look beyond the surface of an artwork and consider the diverse, sometimes contradictory elements that inspired and directed the artist in creating the work.

In the end, Mr. Mike’s essay is an important comment not only upon Mr. Le Va’s art but also upon understanding artists and the art they create. Like the art he describes, Mr. Mike’s essay has multiple layers requiring careful study and consideration from a broad range of perspectives. No matter how many times one reads Mr. Mike’s essay, it always offers something new to ponder.