“Throwing Sound at Canvas”: Synesthesia in the Art of James Dupree

In the late 1970s, James Dupree found himself “throwing sound at canvas” while thinking about the early jazz impresarios who were masters of improvisation. This launched his career as a visual artist whose work more often than not renders visible what is heard and felt in music. More than fifty pieces are included in the exhibit “Fusion: The Connection Between Music and Art,” at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, which ran from April 25 to August 31, 2011. The Diptych (reproduced below) represents one of Dupree’s earliest works. Caked thick with acrylic paint, the surface textures combine with light and sweeping shapes to help evoke a kind of movement of acoustics and color. In the genre of lyrical abstraction, Dupree remembers these pieces also symbolizing “borders, bans, and restrictions” faced by jazz musicians in America around the time of the Second World War. With synthesthesia referring to “the simultaneous body-mind interplay of multiple senses” (Drewal 2005:4), I begin the review by drawing attention to the musical undercurrents we can feel in The Diptych.

Billie Holiday inspired painting of a voluptuous, burnt orange colored pear. Sexual in tone, some see a male organ and others perceive a female, invoking a sense of double entendre. The painting includes a wire etched into the surface (to reflect the light), and while suspended by this string, the pear appears to be sitting on glass, or water. But the mirrored image is actually made from gold-leaf paper, colored red – hence the intense shimmer in the pool of blood. You can hear Billie’s eerie voice slowly lamenting, “The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh, here is a fruit for the crows to pluck.” Dupree told me that when he first finished the piece someone purchased it, but the resonance of lynching was so powerful that the man couldn’t stand it in his house and asked Dupree to take the painting back.

Strange Fruit and Red Reflection (2006). 40×15, mixed media. Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of Mike Zaikowski, Profiles Studios, Philadelphia.

Miles Davis once said, “I prefer a round sound with no attitude in it, like a round voice with not too much tremolo and not too much bass. Just right in the middle” (Kahn 2000:25). Dupree began his own rendering of Kind of Blue by placing Miles’ eyes in the center of the piece; he then surrounded him with what feels like round sound. Having white orbs suspended in the midst of blue spheres conjures up that cool mood which defined Miles. Another iconic jazzman is immortalized in Dupree’s Bird Clock. The approximately forty-eight inch piece includes portraits of Charlie Parker with his saxophone both above and beneath the face of the clock. It also has a twelve inch metal pendulum that clicks back and forth, tapping the wooden sides of the enclosure in which it hangs, producing a subtle echo inside the chamber.

Bird Clock: Charlie Parker (1998). 48×10; mixed media. Collection of Wayne and Amanda Hancock.
Photo courtesy of Mike Zaikowski, Profiles Studios, Philadelphia.

While numerous musical influences are represented in the exhibit, Dupree recollected that in his generation of African American males, everyone idolized James Brown: Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud! The piece It’s Too Funky In Here centers on a music box, with a door that can be operated by handling the star. (It is closed in this image, so I’m sure you can hear James Brown wailing “Gimme some air!”) Dupree (2011) explained that, “When we were young, when you played James Brown, you always played it LOUD!” So you can see that his ears are blown out by the decibels blasting from the box. He used to sing, “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing, Open the door, I’ll get it myself, Do you hear me?” Inside the box you’ll find the keys to life’s opportunities (e.g. books, education) that James Brown refers to in that second song.

LeRoi Moore Ascending (2008). 48×48, acrylic paint and oil stains on canvas. Collection of the artist. Photo courtesy of Mike Zaikowski, Profiles Studios, Philadelphia.

LeRoi Moore Ascending was produced in honor of Dupree’s friend – saxophonist for the Dave Mathews Band – after his death in 2008. There is a spherical and spiralling pull to this piece which synesthetically evokes “those baritone bass sounds – barrmp, bmp, bmp, baaarrrrmp – that LeRoi made” (Dupree 2011). These bubbles and orbs, circles and globes give it an elliptical and “affecting presence” (Armstrong 1981). Ambiguous as to whether the movement is ascending or descending, Dupree reminisced about planting that paradox in the piece to capture an oscillating feeling he found in his friend’s deep involvement with music and art.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Robert Plant. 1981. The Powers of Presence: Consciousness, Myth, and Affecting Presence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Drewal, Henry John. 2005. Senses in Understandings of Art. African Arts (Summer):1-6.
Dupree, James. 2011. Interview with author. 6 August. Philadelphia, PA.
Kahn, Ashley. 2000. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.
New York: Da Capo Press.
Russell, Ross. 1972. Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker. London: Quartet Books.


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