On Dec. 3, composer and lecturer Christian Gentry led a discussion in the Rose Art Museum with Professor Susan Dibble (THA) on Elizabeth Murray’s piece “Duckfoot.”
Gentry describes the piece as absurdist, with a little comedy in the composition in a subtle form. To call the painting a “duck foot” contrasts with the conventional standard of beauty, since a duck foot is seen as the most awkward part of a duck. Therefore, “Duckfoot” is not a representational composition, but rather described musically by Gentry as a riff. The major theme underlying “Duckfoot” is the idea of the paradox. There is a constant sense of consonance, but also dissonance, throughout the piece, which creates a pleasing resonance of pushing and pulling the different ideas that this painting lends itself to.
Gentry continued to characterize “Duckfoot” in musical terms in order to give the work a whole new life and different perspective. He said, “talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” meaning that each art form is intertwined with another and contains the same descriptions, just described in different ways. When he first saw this painting, Gentry was automatically reminded of bebop jazz. The loudness of the warm colors, of the reds, yellows and oranges, and the almost three-dimensional sculpture are the main aspects that helped him associate the art to bebop jazz.
The musical features that Gentry tried to get the audience to spot in the work were melody, harmony, rhythm, form, texture and tambour. The “melodious” quality refers back to this interplay between the consonance and dissonance in the piece. There are no right angles throughout “Duckfoot,” as the painting is not a conventional square canvas. The shapes are made up of ambiguous acute and obtuse angles that tweak with the piece’s form. The rhythm and free movement of the piece allows viewers to interpret the clustered shapes and feathery brushstrokes themselves.
The timbre was discussed through the different qualities of the colors and the light harmonies that go together with the color. The free-flowing movement lines work together with regularities and irregularities of musical sound waves through the artwork, which also does the job of occupying spatial and visual mastery. The different contours also create rhythm in the composition through the similar ratios of each shape, all similar in size. Additionally, the arrangement of the objects creates a unity of elements, all together precisely in the spatial realm of art.
The textural elements of “Duckfoot” were also discussed in great detail, especially through the musical definitions of monophony, homophony and polyphony. Monophony is characterized by one clear melodic line, homophony contained more than two melodies together, and polyphony is different, distinct melodies sounding interpedently between each other, with rich, dense sounds. The cracks in the painting show the overpowering nature of the colors, the thread-like texture, and adds a sort of beauty to the piece that marks the artist’s commitment to finishing the painting in different stages, rather than producing the piece in just one sitting. The oil on canvas also contributes to dry and sheen texture. The further up towards the top shapes the viewer looks, the more the viewer can see the sheen smoothness. The independent colors are what ultimately make up the totality of the work, and the roundness of the sound of the piece is described as having a “brassy ring to it and feathery distortions that bleed into the texture.”
Towards the end, the audience attempted to make out figures from the piece. Murray used the domestic life as a theme for a lot of her paintings, so to some, the art looks like the orange figure was a steaming mug of tea or coffee balanced on top of an apple and orange. Another person thought that they saw a foot and a baby cradled in the middle of the piece. Either way, the message of this piece was to give people space to imagine and create their own interpretations about the piece. “The strangeness, weirdness and unknown is ultimately what captures the essence of what art is about.”