In a dim and crowded bar, the soulful strains of guitar music fill the air. On the stage, sharing the spotlight with the performers, a large screen projects images of the paintings and photographs the singer is narrating. This is no ordinary concert. This is Art Country.
Art Country is the vision of Andy Friedman, Renaissance man-artist, writer and musician, academically trained at the Pratt Institute and the Rhode Island Institute of Design, and frequent contributor to The New Yorker . Since beginning his art in two dimensions, Friedman has found his way into the music scene with his blend of country, blues and some accompanying slide-show magic.
It would be a mistake at this concert to think the paintings and photographs are simply illustrations of the poetry in the songs. The relationship is far more integral and complex.
"The poems happen when I need to make a painting but I'm not at my easel," said Friedman, on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "I just have a pen and notebook. I don't want to lose the feeling, so I write it down. The poems are paintings you can read."
Bringing art to the bar scene is nothing new for Friedman. He has, after all, been performing an evolving version of his Art Country work on the road for the past five years.
"People will come up to me after a show and tell me that they never knew they could get from a visual artist's work what they were just given. That's gratifying," he said. "But that's not what my art and show is about. This is not a show about art. My art is about the heartache, love and loneliness of life, and the show brings it to you."
Friedman has lots of opinions about contemporary art, some of which would be sure to set the culture vultures' teeth on edge. "People think I'm against galleries," he said. "I'm not. I just think they're boring."
He remembered how, in the early 20th century, futurists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti thought art should reflect the faster pace of life and only depict things like steam engines and motorcars. Then in the 1950s, art critic Clement Greenburg-who made an icon of Jackson Pollock and introduced the world to abstract expressionism-violently opposed the idea of representational painting, insisting that only abstract paintings of form and color could become natural objects themselves, not just hollow depictions of natural objects.
"[Those] two manifestos-and for the most part, all of the paintings I've seen exhibited in galleries over the past 15 years of looking-are centered on exploring the process, philosophy and technique of painting," Friedman said. "I'm pushing artists of the 21st century to get back to that "meaning over method' place. I'm urging artists... to behave less like the lab rat that teaches a lesson or two about the concept of art and more like the barebones country songwriter that will teach a lesson or two about life. Artists should be our friends and poets, not our lecturers and guest curators."
Friedman likened the contemporary art scene to a song with a nice melody but with lyrics that go something like: "Now I'm playing a C chord/now I'm playing a D chord," which, he noted, "would be ridiculous. But painters are doing that. They're painting about the way they're making a painting.
"As a painter, the bar or music club performance that I do is my contribution to the fine arts. The art-cognoscenti-at-large seems to have a difficult time understanding how it relates. I'm willing to bet that it would make more sense to them if I called it an "installation' or a "happening' and painted myself yellow while I performed. The show is simply a way for my paintings and songs to live and breathe in the same kind of real-time and space."
So what was it like to leave the relative security of The New Yorker for the life of a traveling musician?
"I wear a lot of hats," he said. "Andy Friedman in The New Yorker creates illustrations for reasons that are entirely different from Andy Friedman the painter/songwriter's reasons for playing at Joe 'N Andy's Hole in the Wall."
But the Andy Friedman who will be playing at Joe 'N Andy's in La Mesa this Friday is crystal clear about his reasons for coming back for his second concert in San Diego. "I want to travel 3,500 miles so that I can bring art into a place called "The Hole in the Wall,'" he laughed.
Andy Friedman & The Other Failures will perform at Joe 'N Andy's Hole in the Wall, 8344 La Mesa Blvd. in La Mesa, at 10 p.m. Friday, March 24. Free. 619-589-8684.