Why would an American artist in the flashy, pop culture-driven '80s choose to devote eight years of her life to a "translation" of Anton Bruckner's Symphony 8--to producing a 13-part series of paintings that only a musicologist is likely to understand fully?
Because the process represents the kind of mental gymnastics that a concept-oriented artist such as Jack Ox finds engrossing.
Another painter in another age might claim soul-quivering inspiration as the reason for her deep involvement with the music of the 19th-Century Austrian composer. But Ox's vastly ambitious series of paintings are made of dryer, sterner stuff. (Three of them, plus preparatory drawings, are on view at the Fine Arts Gallery at UC Irvine through Nov. 6.)
Constructed with long rows of precut fiberglass pieces, each painting conveys the harmony, melody and rhythm of a different portion of the score by means of an infinitesimally calibrated layering of visual devices--"the way complicated things are built," Ox said with satisfaction.
Ox is an intense and cosmopolitan 40-year-old woman based in Cologne, West Germany, whose interests run toward linguistics and semiotics (the analysis of "signs" in language). Born in Denver, Ox received a rigorous grounding in conceptual art at UC San Diego and a painstakingly acquired education in music theory at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.
As a graduate student, Ox was relieved to find that art could be based on the structures of another discipline, such as music or mathematics--"You didn't have to work out of the Angst of your tortured soul."
Oddly enough, the rather ponderous quality of Bruckner's music and personality appear to suit Ox's obsessively detailed approach to making art, even if she doesn't share their spiritual and cultural sources.
Bruckner was a devout and driven man from the rural town of Ansfelden who laboriously built up his career, beginning with a succession of lowly schoolmaster-organist posts. In pioneering, monumental symphonies, he made use of Richard Wagner's luxuriously unfolding harmonic devices to create paeans to the bounty and beauty of God's creation.
The religious and pantheistic aspects of the music do find their way into Ox's paintings, via glimpses of St. Florian, the monastery church where Bruckner was once the organist (and where, by his instructions, he is buried) and views of the region's Alpine landscape.
But Ox was primarily attracted to the "logical" structure of the Baroque church because of the way it seemed to parallel the structure of the music.
"I appreciate music as if it were a language," Ox said last week, as she began to install her work in the gallery. "I don't paint the music; I paint the structure that has been expressed (in it).
"I love Bruckner's music because he combines Baroque structure with . . . a Wagnerian type of harmony. To blend that into a unified whole is very interesting to me."
As if holding up a funhouse mirror to the architecture of St. Florian, she fractures it into variously compressed or expanded views to mirror precisely the dynamic development of the music. (The imagery moves from exterior to interior views as the music progresses from the first movement to the finale.)
More mysteriously, vertical color bars dance up and down on top of the images--like graduated organ pipes or the patterns created by the hammers striking the strings when a piano is played.
It is relatively easy for viewers to understand that the positions of these bars translate the melodic line of the score. But the reasons behind the specific colors Ox uses are complicated for the non-specialist to grasp.
Briefly, the artist created a special color wheel for each painting that matches an arrangement of the keynotes of major and minor keys--the circle of fifths--to arbitrarily chosen colors. In addition, the degree of purity or "grayness" of each color is related to the degree of consonance or dissonance in the music at that point in the score.
Others, such as painter Wassily Kandinsky and composer Alexander Scriabin, have tried to fuse the auditory experience of music with the visual experience of color. But Ox--whose crisply ordered mind is not one to create free-floating imaginative theories--finds such approaches sloppy and suspect.
After all, she pointed out, so far no artist has been able to find a "universally quantifiable, verifiable and fixed" relationship of harmony, melody and rhythm to the elements of visual art. She believes that her approach--tailored to the specifics of the score she has chosen--offers a definitive way to effect a translation from one medium to another.
Still, the best-laid theories don't guarantee that a work of art will be understood and appreciated by its audience. Ox agrees.
"These paintings were made to stand on their own," she said. "If they don't succeed on their own terms, then they're failing."
One reason for Ox's self-imposed exile to Cologne 10 months ago is the favorable response Germans have to her work.
"(They) know Bruckner, and they're very willing to spend a lot of time (involving themselves in) the concerns behind this work," Ox said. "You don't get the situation of some (U.S.) corporation being interested in your work because it looks swell on the wall."
Within a couple of months after her arrival, she was granted 5 1/2 minutes of fame on West German TV, and she was recently promised an exhibit of the entire Bruckner project at Vienna's Museum of the 20th Century in 1990, at which viewers will "walk through" the music.
Although life in Germany has involved struggles with an unfamiliar language--as well as a long-distance relationship with her husband, Los Angeles-based art critic Peter Frank--it has also meant making a name for herself on her own, a continent away from those who wonder aloud if her work gets noticed because her husband is a critic.
"People circle around me because of my work," Ox said. "When (Peter) came to Germany, I introduced him to people."
And when people ask about her unusual first name, what does she tell them?
"That my parents wanted a boy."
Skip a beat. "That's not really true."
Smiling but adamant, Ox refused to explain further.
"Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 : Paintings and Drawings" remains on view at the Fine Arts Gallery, UC Irvine, through Nov. 6. The gallery, in Fine Arts Village (off Bridge Road) is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Information: (714) 856-6610.