Dream for Light Years by Ali Smith

Art of the Week

In times of crisis, an ironic and unfortunate dynamic comes into play. The expression and consumption of art is often pushed to the side in the moments when these actions are perhaps most vital. It is with an understanding of this dynamic during the surge of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee and around the world that Nashville’s local arts institutions and galleries are doing their best to make their offerings available digitally and as soon as it’s safe for visitors to come see them in person.

At Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, that means sharing a dynamic new show that demonstrates the vitality of both visual and musical art. Though the gallery is closed until at least April 11, when it does reopen, it will exhibit “Dream for Light Years,” the results of a two-year collaboration between painter Ali Smith and music professor and composer Michael Alec Rose. The show features oil paintings by Smith and a composition made by Rose specifically to accompany them.

Such collaborations across media have a strong historical precedent to rely on. As the gallery highlighted in a press release, 19th and 20th century composer Claude Debussy’s work is often seen as a musical parallel to that of his contemporary, leading impressionist painter Claude Monet. Likewise, Russian abstract painting pioneer Wassily Kandinsky is known to have exchanged ideas with Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1900s.

“The artist Ali Smith and composer Michael Alec Rose continue this conversation into a new millennium, allowing the Vanderbilt community and wider public a window into their process,” according to the gallery. “We look forward to the opportunity to see and hear how one art form can give sustained attention to another, while attempting to translate not only the specific features, but also the essence of an artwork, from the language of one medium to another.”

Dream for Light Years, the title painting for the show, is also the name of Rose’s composition. In color palette, technique and level of abstraction, it is reminiscent of the other paintings in the exhibition. It offers a newly-formed language of shapes, heavy texturing and vibrant forms. But this piece was chosen as the eponymous representative for the exhibition because of the reaction it solicited from Rose when he first saw it.

“One of the paintings by Ali Smith I encountered early on was titled Dream for Light Years,” Rose wrote. “I loved it immediately. I knew that I had found a new home. The title was part of the charm, a fusion of fantasy and physics, true to the already-hybrid nature of light years as a unit of measure, distance expressed in terms of time… Ali suggested that my piece Dream for Light Years is a love letter to her paintings. She gets everything right.”

Smith received her MFA from California State University, Long Beach and her work has been exhibited in Los Angeles, Miami and elsewhere throughout the country. Rose is an associate professor of composition at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music whose own compositions have premiered by distinguished ensembles around the world.

Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is located at 1220 21st Avenue.

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