The Rose by Jay DeFeo is an epic, overwhelming painting that speaks of one artist’s obsession. Its dimensions alone are staggering – over three metres high, it had its canvas extended during the process. Its depth is the most impressive. When you think of a painting, you don’t typically consider that dimension, but The Rose is nearly 30 centimetres deep due to the many, many layers of paint applied over the eight years spent on this single work. When DeFeo was evicted from her studio in San Francisco, part of an external wall had to be removed in order to get the painting out.
Completed in 1966, The Rose went on display three years later, but its size and fragile nature meant that galleries were unable (or unwillingly) to move it. So it languished, literally behind a wall, and unseen for 25 years before being removed and restored and given pride of place in the Whitney Museum Of American Art. Photographs and video clips can’t do this work justice; the power resides in its physical presence. Sadly, DeFeo died in 1989 with her magnum opus still hidden from view. But she knew that one day it would be seen again.
This is the kind of story that makes us think – why hadn’t we heard of this before? It feels like it would inspire movies, books, even a podcast series. But perhaps The Rose deserves a response that taps into the process of creating art. Dana Lyn was inspired by reading about Jay DeFeo in Women Of The Beat Generation and began writing what would eventually become A Point On A Slow Curve. The parallels are uncanny: Lyn spent eight years composing and revising the work, making two attempts to record it and discarding both. She expanded the ensemble to suit her new vision, and from her comments about the album, it seems Lyn also struggled to know when the work was finished. For both Lyn and DeFeo, knowing when to let go after eight years is a fundamental part of the process – fortunately, A Point On A Slow Curve is only a couple of clicks away rather than stuck behind a wall.
The completed work is fittingly epic in scale, partly orchestral, partly jazz, with a quartet of singers providing a narrative. Many of the movements flitter between genres seamlessly, often propelled by Gary Wang’s bass playing that acts as an anchor for the freer moments and a pulse for the vocal passages. Jazz feels like the right direction for Lyn to take; it can be both tight and loose when needed, strict and free-wheeling. There are several moments when the ensemble is allowed to extemporise, all the better to capture phases of intense creativity. But the addition of more orchestral instrumentation broadens the musical scope. It’s possibly only Kamasi Washington who is currently balancing the composed and improvised as successfully as Dana Lyn is here.
The nine movements take us through the creation of The Rose, with two of the later movements named after the earlier versions Deathrose and Whiterose. The penultimate track, “The Rose,” is tentative at first, with a choral introduction and the musicians delicately fluttering around the theme before everyone clicks into place – finally, the ‘eureka!’ moment in the process. The coda, “The Removal,” starts with the chorus repeating ‘Sanctus,’ sending the work in an unexpectedly reverential direction. The hymn-like atmosphere pervades until the band leap in, capturing the afterglow of the completed work to the busy practicalities of moving the painting from the studio. It’s an uplifting way to close, rather than dwelling on the uncertain afterlife of The Rose until it found a home.
The story and scale of The Rose require a bold response, and Dana Lyn has crafted this work out of her own doubt and struggle. A Point On A Slow Curve completes her vision by brilliantly capturing the rigours and abandon of creativity. We imagine Jay DeFeo would approve. (Jeremy Bye)