I want to look at a relationship between painting and music, between the paintings of Mixi, singer for heavy metal band Stitched Up Heart, and her recordings and live performances. Painting is a medium that is in many respects purely visual, yet it can have a very interesting dialogue with sound, especially music. This is because painting is really not about things but about experience. Abstract painting abandons representation or the depicting of things completely. It shows us colors, shapes, movements, experiences that present themselves as slices of the world and mirrors of ourselves rather than things within it. Sound also immerses itself around us, and music penetrates into us not as objects but as feelings and sensations. It is enjoyable to look at paintings, to paint, or to draw while listening to music, because a common way to experience musical works is to visualize to them.
I want to examine Mixi’s paintings alongside another artist who is a major figure. While Mixi is a musician, the other painter is a major abstract expressionist. Clyfford Still is a founder of abstract expressionism and a painter on the level of Jackson Pollock. I want to examine both Mixi and Still with the question of sound and vision. Still abandons objects with his canvases completely. He gives us a collision of color and the barest of forms. True shapes don’t exist in the best canvases. We see rather an effort to capture primordial senses of color and creation, or paintings that show how a color can exist at all. Mixi paints with color at the center of her work. Her objects are the barest of forms, as though they could be images from Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. They are fleeting shapes surrounded by beautiful bursts of color. The colors possess a nice degree of movement, as happens in a song.
The selection of paintings by Still and Mixi examines an interesting twofold problem. In the case of Still, we get a major example of abstract expressionism. Still was emerging as a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement as it became famous but chose to eschew wealth and celebrity in order to work in private. He created paintings in solitude and rarely sold them for the rest of his life. This places Still in the context of being both a genius and a countermovement against the art world. Given that some have tried to claim that art effectively is the art world, Still poses a serious problem for the definition of art as the art world. Indeed, his complete rejection of the art world suggests a problem with superficiality and circus like trickery being a part of its operations rather than deep contemplation or expertise on the nature of art, something resembling a money machine more than a gallery and something he made his rejection of very clear throughout his life.
Paintings by Mixi also stand in an interesting place. She exhibits a fascinating use of color in her canvases but has an odd relation to the art world. She is a contemporary musician in a notable hard rock band and is thus taken seriously as an artist within the world of music. Rock has changed over the last two decades into a genre that is less large scale in the mainstream but that has become increasingly intelligent in a sub-genre aspect. Thus as hiphop has grown and digital technology has adjusted monetary paradigms, there are more creative and risk taking rock bands working in smaller environments, but there is less potential to be a massive and wealthy rock star like Paul McCartney. Mixi has used this well to produce music about overcoming tragedy, about finding light in the dark, and has managed to mix extremely modern heavy metal sounds with classic rock, blues, and jazz with a clarity of emotion that comes from a punk background in her earlier music. Her painting is a hobby but is of a high quality, and her very good album Never Alone made with her band Stitched Up Heart had studio assistance alongside her. It is enough the work of Mixi and the studio to be a Mixi album in some sense.
Both artists then resist the art world as it is constructed to be an elite circle involved in the appreciation of painting and expertise in other uniquely physical art objects designed to be displayed in gallery settings. They are both sensitive and intelligent, but they create canvases outside the borders of what usually merits the distinction of being part of the art scene. In the case of Still, he is internationally revered but tried to exit the art world for seclusion. In the case of Mixi, she is famous as a musician but paints in a relatively private context for enjoyment, contemplation, connection with friends and music fans who like it, and monetary benefits which are incidental to supporting music as her main focus.
Both artists have a fascinating use of color and favor abstraction to some degree. In the case of Still, he worked away from representation in early paintings which showed some elements of cubist influence and into total abstraction and presentation of color and shapes, though I am inclined to call his canvases a minimal of form more so than any actual shapes. Still has a general sense of not favoring geometry in any sense in his later works, and he speaks more through color and its relation between itself and other colors. The hint of shapes is used to augment and accent this, but the later canvases try very hard to not even depict anything like an obvious shape within the confines of the canvas. Still then seeks something primordial in painting such as the emergence of sense and color. Indeed, the canvases of Still often show a strong sense of rupture, of light breaking through in the form of the more specific instantiation of a color which is always nonetheless trapped within a context of other colors and some form of a line.
Meaning in Painting
Mixi’s canvases pose the interesting question of how her visual art relates to her music as is the case with other musicians who develop an interest in painting. Her canvases are not abstract but both use and reject form in that the ones I’m examining use silhouettes against very nice movements of color. The first one was painted when I suggested she paint the dove from her album, Never Alone. The album has a cover with a dove flying up to a window as in overcoming something very dark and troubling. Her background indeed includes some troubling experiences, and she has made music in the vein of turning tragedy into art as a universal message. While the studio helped with it, her story is very much in the background of the album as she worked closely with the songwriter.
She painted the dove as a silhouette over a sunset. The dove is oversized and carries a branch, as though referencing an olive branch as a symbol of peace and an end to bad things. The dove flies underneath a crescent moon, which places the canvas in a lunar context rather than a more typical solar connotation. The sky is a dark blue of twilight with a large star above the dove. She is then painting an ascent into the night sky and an overcoming of negativity through mystery. There are clearly themes and figures and thus representation, but there is also a clear preference of mystery and the hidden and thus the leaving of the bird as a silhouette. The background serves to fill in the dove, as vibrant colors emerge from behind its lack of color. This is also interesting in a musical context as most people wear black in music clubs, which is a large part of Mixi’s life. This is partly simply a phenomenon of urban culture, but it does have more being represented as well. Black is a color of outsiders, and it looks good to see people moving in black beneath club lights, and it also is traditionally associated with mystical experience due to the inability to place a defined meaning on blackness. It also has obvious nocturnal associations which is generally when it is best to be out somewhere for music.
The influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein poses questions about the nature of meaning in his philosophy, and this carries into the meaning found in works of art. This is an issue throughout his thinking that takes on different guises in different manuscripts, but the Remarks on Color pose interesting questions about the nature of seeing and the construction of images. As he probes the nature of language and meaning, he asks how it is that meaning emerges from the image when no particular isolated part seems to capture what we experience. It is not clear where we see color or what it emerges from. Is color a sensation or a mental phenomenon? Does an individual color have a meaning in its own right? Does the meaning or sense one has of a color emerge as a relational phenomenon in the context of other colors? Wittgenstein examines these questions in the Remarks on Color, and this is an important book to use in the study of painting. It can help us with an examination of canvases by Still and Mixi. A plausible path to take from the problem of any given color not being a “thing” in the sense of “green” not having a stable appearance in its own right is to suggest that meaning in visual art is dependent on the relation between elements just like a language or a song. Perhaps painting is a field of relationships and not a thing just like a song is a collection of notes that only have meaning as they come together in time. It’s a movement of different sensual components within the painting that creates a sense of color within us. Without us seeing, color doesn’t exist. This is a relationship of observer to artwork that is actually easier to see with music than painting, because a composition can be played many ways, sounds different under changing acoustic environments, and means different things to different people in a way that can have powerful inner aspects.
There are similar problems with what one may say about the uses of color and the emergence of meaning within painting. Abstract expressionism clearly raises the question of how meaning is constructed in painting and when its traditional contours start to break down and may even be challenged by a work. This is very much at the heart of Wittgenstein’s treatment of art and of color. There is not an inherently fixed meaning to a color, and Remarks on Color shows this convincingly. To examine a shade of blue on a canvas, one can only interpret the color based on the the actual texture of the paint and the surface and the other colors both surrounding and composing it. In Mixi’s dove painting, the blue at the top of the canvas hovers above an orange sunset hue of the sky through an uneven line. It’s far bluer and darker against the orange, and the colors bleed together very nicely. She seems to be suggesting a vertical transcendence, like the dove flying above the trees below, suspended in the air almost magically, with a horizon defined mainly by a color and the feeling it produces next to the other background colors. Emotion is produced through the play of the colors, and they have a warm and fluid sense of not being easily pinned down to any one color.
If I ask what shade of blue the sky in her dove painting is composed of there really is in no sense one shade. The blue is darker by the crescent moon, and it is lighter at the point of the thinner horizon to the left of the canvas, but it particularly looks beautiful alongside the orange-red-yellow shades beneath it, and this in turn becomes more fluid against the starkness of the silhouetted dove. Thus, the painting really is not any one color or even set of colors, and the colors can’t exist outside the context of the canvas. So color manages to emerge as a phenomenon of a very dense set of contextual ties. This certainly raises the power of art, as the artist has the ability to very strongly reorient perceptions and appearances, as much of what may seem fixed about the senses, such as the color of an object, is really very malleable. The fluid colors are highly interesting in the context of this being a painting by a musician as is the partial absence of the bird in being presented through a silhouette. Musical notes gain meaning in the context in which they are played, and the silhouette of the bird is entirely defined by the very fluid colors around it. It’s an enjoyable work to look at, because the colors play with perception from any point on the canvas, like swimming in a sea of moving colors with the dove.
Wittgenstein raises the issue of how meaning emerges at all on the canvas. Where is the color to be found given what we have examined? A single sloth of paint is really not a color. It carries color properties, but what sense of color it will convey will be determined by much of the work that is to be constructed. It doesn’t occur only in the mind of the spectator either, because the canvas does certainly have its own existence as a separable object out in the world rather than only one’s mind, and the artist is able to control the properties of the colors in her own mind to put them onto a physical canvas as an expression of her vision. The way we think about and perceive the canvas is similar enough between one another to make the story of what colors are and what they mean partly a common experience inside of us, but respect must also be given to the fact that we interact with the individual parts of things in the world to create this larger internal sense of the painting and its colors that emerges when viewing the work.
So at the least, to have a “color” requires an interaction between a person and some objects which all together form a larger whole of what may be a color. The inability to reduce this to any one thing is a fascinating problem for the nature of what seeing means and how it composes us, because the shapes and relations between colors on the canvas all serve to add to this phenomenon. So art in essence makes us due to the lack of definition within much of what we take for granted, such as how we perceive colors. An impressive canvas effectively changes how we see them and adjusts who we are. A person is a malleable construct based on how we put together our world and relate ourselves back to it. So we effectively are what we create or what we choose to encounter from the creations of other people whom we value.
Meaning in Sound
This holds true for music as well, and the more internalized sense of sound being a deeply felt personal experience happening within can be much more profound, but it can also be shared with other people in a club so that everyone follows the same melody, song, or rhythm as a larger wave of emotion and meaning. On her Stitched Up Heart album Never Alone, Mixi explores overcoming burdens and harmful events with songs like Finally Free. With an epic, airy, and beautiful scream, she sings, “I’ve broken through the chains,” much like the dove on her album cover and canvas is clearly released from gravity. As a singer, the fascinating thing about her is that she performs with so much emotion and so directly from the heart, touching so much of an internal place of her own. Fronting a band is very much a performance art, and most people who do this get into character and create drama to entertain their audience, though often in a legitimate way that reflects their songs and ideas.
There really are no trappings of acting with Mixi though. Her songs are about real things in the world and how to relate to them and be a better person. So she is entirely for real and connects with those ideas and her experiences of things that are like that. The beauty of this is that the songs reflect something real about human nature, about struggle, and about being forged by fire into a better person. I recall seeing Mixi taking the stage years ago with a worn out t-shirt and completely ripping apart the venue with a beautiful voice and emotion in her delivery that wasn’t like a polished and produced band. She looked like she was following a dream and struggling but had something to say and cared about her message, and the sincerity and having something real to say is worth much more than packaged art. It’s as though something unique from inside another person can find a way to make a similar meaning for someone else through sound and emotion that can’t be reduced to anything outside that work of art.
It makes Stitched Up Heart one of the best bands working in hard rock. Mixi fronts her band with intense emotion and profound blues sensibilities that relate to that. With subtle and ethereal riffing from Merrit Goodwin and driving drumming from James Decker, the band has a powerful message and constructs songs with deep substance and diverse sounds on Never Alone. Lots of songs are about rising above darkness, and the band displays a wonderful balance of dark against light that has strong visual ideas that fit nicely against Mixi’s paintings. Earlier incarnations had clear goth-punk and post-hardcore sensibilities, and the ethereal sounds of light elements soaring over darker and heavier sounds that is common to goth and industrial styles of music is present but in a more traditional rock package that is really a heavy metal band. There are also strong blues elements to their sounds, and Mixi’s vocals are some of the best blues sounds I have heard.
Much of the album is devoted to themes of overcoming struggle and tragedy, but the excellence of Never Alone is that these elements take on a very unique and common structure which seems to be part of the world and not just a person’s experiences. On the title track, the lyrics focus on having been through tragedy and build this into a common shared world that the songwriting has something to say about. “I’ve been here before, fought through the storm,” conveys a wisdom about not giving up and overcoming negativity by finding something better with guitar riffs that sound like a mixture of fighting and release. Event Horizon is a stunning display of guitar riffs and crashing cymbals that compares trauma to falling into a black hole. I Can’t Breathe is one of the most beautiful and overlooked songs on the album, and it conveys a stifling sense of drowning in everyday surroundings which become too oppressive to cope. Much of this is a frustration with commercialism and the superficial side of Los Angeles. On City of Angels, we see a different side to Los Angeles, a portrait painted of the city as a dilapidated place shaped by hopes and dreams that rise above its streets. In many respects, the album reminds me of Damien Chazelle’s excellent film La La Land. If I had my way, Never Alone might even be the soundtrack to that film, and it’s one of my favorite albums.
Like La La Land, it is partly a story about desperation and hard work for art in Los Angeles. It is really much more than that though. Mixi’s album is about overcoming a variety of difficulties and obstacles and not giving up. It is really many years in the making if one considers the background of her band. Stitched Up Heart started several years ago and released two EPs over a lot of line up changes. Mixi is the only original member, and she reached a point of struggling over her music when she met her current drummer, Decker, who was starting a band and suggested she work with the musicians he was putting together. It was a kind gesture and something that resulted in wonderful talent and music for them both.
The two early EPs she made are well worth listening to and have interesting ideas, but they don’t have the fully formed sound of Never Alone, which also got strong help from her record label at Another Century. The album that resulted from all of this is far more coherent and realized than the previous releases. It has a clear message, and the band has come to cohere around this vision. The songs all point towards overcoming obstacles as a somewhat existential quest, and all elements of playing on the album fit this vision well. Since the album was recorded there has been only one lineup change, with the rhythm guitarist being replaced. All live performances I have seen are with the newer guitarist, Nick, and he fits perfectly well playing against Randy’s bass and Merritt’s lead guitar. I am a bit taken by how well the band coheres after these changes though. Mixi has a clear enough vision of her music that everyone in the band has come together around this, and they play like a polished lineup that is naturally cohesive. Mixi struggled hard to develop her music, and it shows, but this also shows in her paintings. They capture the sense of light and transcendence that her music is about.
It’s also interesting to look back at the Mixi album, her solo effort. She wrote that all herself, and it does fit her personality and interests powerfully. She likes simple punk song structures for her own compositions but with jazz arrangements where she can heavily emote and add layers to simple sections of her songs. On most of the songs she picks a fun to sing idea and builds it into something that connects with her experience, like the song Vampire, and all of the songs show a strongly personal perspective from her. Vampire is about a person who treated her like the title of the song metaphorically suggests amidst her dreams in Los Angeles glitz. We Are the Entertainment is about working in the music industry, and it shows the disappointment, excitement, and contact with people that goes along with that well. The album shows her dreams, big ideas, and kind nature with trappings that show she has been disappointed but also has the best intentions. It’s pure, beautiful, and underrated, and is a very nice album to listen to alongside her paintings.