LeQuire Gallery through June 2
WORDS John Pitcher
“I’ve always felt a conflict between painting and music.”
It’s a story of would-be singers and smarmy record company executives, of lonely housewives and conniving political operatives. Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville is a sprawling masterpiece that captures the zeitgeist of its time and place through the interlocking stories of its twenty-four colorful characters. Musical docudrama. Political parable. Wicked satire. Nashville is all those things and more.
Given its complexity and sheer number of characters, Nashville does not lend itself to easy summarization. What writer has ever been able to describe, in a satisfactory sentence or two, what this remarkable film is about? Words seem to defy this movie. But paintings do not.
At least not the ones in Marti Jones Dixon’s Nashville: Paintings Inspired by the Robert Altman Film, which runs through June 2 at LeQuire Gallery. About a dozen or so paintings, all depicting scenes and characters from the movie, will be on display. The gallery will also exhibit some of the original artwork for Altman’s movie created by Nashville-based artist Bill Myers.
Dixon has considerable experience creating figurative art based on movies. Her series titled Grey Gardens, drawn from the documentary of the same name, was exhibited at LeQuire about a decade ago. She has also created art inspired by the cult movie Valley of the Dolls along with paintings that pay tribute to the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
In the case of Nashville, one could almost see Dixon as a plausible character in the film. That’s because she’s also a professional musician who toured and recorded for decades with her husband, the producer, songwriter, and bass player Don Dixon. Her smooth vocals and acoustic guitar, mixed with Dixon’s raspy voice and electric bass, result in a funky country concoction that would seem natural on the Nashville soundtrack.
Altman, for his part, would have had little trouble creating a fictional narrative for Dixon’s character. He could have cast her as the successful singer stuck on the Nashville music-machine treadmill, a performer longing for the quieter, more introspective life of a painter. In real life, Dixon has always contended with a certain inner turmoil about her dual career paths.
“I’ve always felt a conflict between painting and music,” Dixon tells Nashville Arts Magazine. “That’s partly because it takes time for me to get my painter’s eye back once I’ve been on the road performing.”
Dixon’s exquisite eye for painterly detail, for knowing the exact moment to depict the action of her figures, has been the key to her success as an artist. It is also a defining feature of her Nashville series.
In Dixon’s Choir, we see the character Linnea Reese (played in the movie by Lily Tomlin) draped in a black robe, turning her head to look back as other choristers bustle forward. A kind of helter-skelter movement and sense of confusion about which way to go are implicit in this painting.
We all experience such moments in real life, which makes Dixon’s painting universally relatable. Dixon drew that painting from a fleeting scene near the end of the movie, after the character Barbara Jean (played by
Ronee Blakley) had been shot onstage during a political rally at the Parthenon. The action unfolds so quickly it would be easy to miss. Somehow, Dixon turns it into an indelible image.
“That’s one of the things that make Marti’s paintings so special,” says Elizabeth Cave, the director at LeQuire Gallery who encouraged Dixon to create her latest series. “She’s able to express a huge amount of emotion from scenes that last a fraction of a second.”
The fraction-of-a-second technique is one element of Dixon’s style. Another is what she refers to as semi- impressionism. In her painting titled Stage 1, inspired by one of Altman’s ever-so-brief camera pans, we see instantly recognizable characters such as the bearded, womanizing folk singer Tom Frank (unforgettably played in the movie by Keith Carradine). But look close and you see there are no photo-realistic details of any figures onstage. Dixon merely gives us her impressions of these characters.
“I learned long ago that just a glob of paint could represent an arm or face,” says Dixon. “That’s a big part of my approach.”
It’s also a prime reason her paintings transcend the movie stills from which they are drawn. Dixon is conveying her emotions about the characters directly to the viewer. “My goal is to create paintings that can stand on their own as works of art,” says Dixon. “I don’t want them to be just scenes from a movie.”
Dixon describes Altman’s Nashville as “one of those movies you can watch a hundred times and always discover something new.” She has accomplished an even more remarkable feat with her art, taking a vintage subject and making it seem completely fresh and original.
Marti Jones Dixon’s Nashville: Paintings Inspired by the Robert Altman Film runs through June 2 at LeQuire Gallery. For more information, visit www.lequiregallery.com.