The Shape of Sound, Michael Brewster
Claremont Graduate University
East and Peggy Phelps Galleries
Until September 28, 2018
By Jenny Begun
Michael Brewster dedicated his life to making sculpture with sound. He believed that sculpture “is an inner as well as a visceral awareness that evokes sensations in mind and body.” Indeed, as you walk inside the room, where sound travels from the speakers to the walls and back, you are encouraged to get closer to the floor, walk around slowly, change the position of your body and “listen” with every molecule as they vibrate in response to the colliding sound waves.
An exhibition currently on view at the Claremont Graduate University (CGU) until September 28, titled The Shape of Sound, is the first posthumous solo exhibition of Michael Brewster’s work. It presents the two of his signature pieces: an acoustic sculpture ‘Falls From The Sky’ and a sonic drawing ‘Whistlers 2’. Also included are well over a dozen of his working drawings – graphs, diagrams, and sketches, showing everything from the construction of the devices to the way sound waves move around a space, bouncing, absorbing, and layering. Finally, there is an entire room dedicated to the “timeline illustrating Brewster’s connections to other artists and his importance to the history of the arts.”
This exhibit was co-curated by Dixie Lyn Boswell, MFA, a multi-sensory installation artist mostly working with light and motion, and H.C. Arnold, Ph.D., art historian, art writer and critic, and an Associate Faculty of Humanities at Riverside City College and Moreno Valley College in Southern California.
I sat down with the curators to talk about the exhibition, eager to learn more and to partake in their enthusiasm about the artists and his life-long investigation into the making of art with sound.
Jenny Begun: What is Sound Art?
Dixie Lyn Boswell: Sound art is the utilization of sound as the primary medium in an experiential piece of art. Though not exclusively, sound art is frequently absent of visuals, as one experiences in the acoustic sculptures and sonic drawings of Michael Brewster.
H.C. Arnold: Although groups such as the Dadaist had explored sound as a medium, it really was not until the Fluxus turned to non-traditional mediums that Sound Art began to come into its own. In particular, Sound Art emerged in the 1970s in the post-Minimalist era. As Dixie said–the artist uses sound–sometimes its live performances, sometimes its recordings. This can range from noise bands to fractured re-structuring of recordings of music, to complex installations that require multiple speakers. It is typically a site-specific installation.
JB: What is Acoustic Sculpture? Sonic Drawing?
HCA: ”Acoustic Sculpture” is Brewster’s term. He coined it to describe his larger works that use standing waves to create sonic fields. Think about a concert and how you can feel the sound. Those are sound waves hitting you. A standing wave is when 2 waves of the same volume hit each other going in opposite directions. For Brewster’s works, this happens when the sound leaving the speaker bounces off the opposite wall and heads back toward the speaker. So, he would create sounds that did this in certain ways-creating what he called “pockets and hollows” of sound in the room. An experiencer walks through the gallery space as the sculpture plays, listening (or “looking” with their ears), noting how the sound changes according to where they are in the room.
“Sonic Drawing” is also a term coined by Brewster to describe his other major body of works. These involve sounding devices that, when activated, make singular noises such as whistles or clicks. There are always several of them installed, and they are not in sync with each other. They create a drawing. Art critic Lynn Gamwell explains, “the work is a drawing in the sense that one experiences the clicks as a pattern of points in the surrounding space, and one has the illusion of links between the points that happen at close intervals.” Or as Melinda Wortz, who was an art critic for LAICA Journal, puts it, “somehow the mind connects, in a directional manner, the spaces between the intervals of sounds.”
JB: Why is Michael Brewster’s work historically important and also significant for modern-day audiences?
DB: Brewster was decades ahead of his time. While he was coming into his own, Minimalism and Light and Space reigned supreme. Brewster made impressively large sculptures during undergrad at Pomona College and experimented with light in different capacities, most notably, the Desert Flashers in 1969 and early 1970. As artworks were scaling up, pushing boundaries and mortality (particularly Burden), Brewster sought to take art further, but in another direction – collecting and synthesizing information through sound.
In today’s world of instant gratification and information and sensory overload, his work insists on slowing down and being aware of one’s body and its surroundings – things the modern/connected culture lacks. Brewster’s art forces the audience to participate. There is nothing to see other than the devices or speakers that emit the sound; and sometimes, not even those, his Clickers were embedded into the gallery walls. The vacancy of visual subject matter naturally tunes the other senses to pick up on the incoming information. It is not music; the sound may begin as recognizable but then builds and ebbs and flows as if on a winding mountain road. When allowed to settle into an acoustic field, our brains become intrigued and more open.
HCA: Brewster is also of historical importance because he is one of, if not the first, sound artist to be working in Southern California. Also, Sound Art is making a comeback in several gallery circles now, and Brewster’s work should be part of that conversation. It helps put Southern California on the map as a cutting-edge art scene (both historically during the 1970s, but also today).
JB: Did you know Michael Brewster personally and what was your experience? How was he in person? What inspired you, moved you, to devote so much time and work to build the exhibit from Brewster’s archives?
DB: I did not know Brewster personally and never got the chance to meet him, but I was aware of his work. When the opportunity to assist with building his archive came up soon after his passing, I was immediately on board. Though much of the math and engineering aspects Brewster dove into to perfect his pieces are way over my head, the multi-sensory bodily experience and conversations with architecture truly resonate with me.
HCA: I knew Brewster. He was the chair of my M.F.A. committee at CGU. We stayed in contact after I graduated. I visited his studio in 2015. He showed me his workroom and sound room. I studied Sound Art during my Ph.D. so we had a good conversation about its history, how it was being considered today, and his process. He passed away about three weeks before I moved back to California, and I attended his memorial at CGU. After that, I had the idea to build his archive. Having been in his studio, I knew what was there. His partner, Karen Anderson, graciously agreed, and we’ve been rolling ever since. Our first team included Dixie, my niece Ashley Veselis, Karen Anderson, and myself. Ashely has since moved to Boston to start a new job there, and Caitlyn Lawler replaced her recently.
My dedication is to his work. I feel that as a historian, it’s my job to make sure he finds a place in history. I believe he was in the leading edge of a lot of things and got passed over for more marketable art. That is a mistake I want to correct. I understood his work immediately, and I want to help others understand it also.
DB: While we were going through the archive boxes, laying out their contents, we made exciting discoveries every day: physical drawings, notes, and audio-recordings that hadn’t been heard in decades and seemed to have never really received the recognition due. We wanted to show the world what we had found.
JB: Why did you choose CGU and not a mainstream gallery?
HCA: We approached CGU about the show because of his legacy there. He taught there for almost 40 years and is credited along with Roland Reiss and Connie Zehr as building the program to national recognition. We felt it was a good place to start, to sort of “bring Brewster home.”
JB: Tell us about your experience re-creating one of his acoustic sculptures and a sonic drawing.
DB: Recreating the sonic drawing was fairly simple. All we really had to do was to make sure sounding devices still worked, and decide on the height and distance between to attached them to the walls.
On the other hand, recreating the acoustic sculpture required calling further expertise. An artist/creator/engineer who had worked with Brewster previously assisted us with creating a specialized app, programming an iPad and Arduino device, and correctly calibrating a specific speaker to emit the sculpture throughout the large gallery space. A major undertaking. But once all the devices were “talking” to each other at the same time, it was a very exciting moment.
Personally, the experience gave me goosebumps. We turned it up to 11 for a moment; the sound was not so much loud as incredibly physical. I literally had to walk a little harder around the room, pushing through the air. Not threatening, not foreign, but it wasn’t familiar either. I let my eyes unfocus; there wasn’t anything to see. If this makes sense, I tried to let my skin open as much as my ears were.
East and Peggy Phelps Galleries | Claremont Graduate University
251 E. Tenth Street | Claremont, CA 90711 | 909-621-8071
Gallery Hours: Monday-Friday | 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
To learn more about the artist, check out the following links:
“Oral Histories” interview conducted by Jill Thayer, Ph.D., in the artist’s studio at Venice, California, July 20 and August 4, 2011:
Created as part of “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” in collaboration with Claremont Graduate University School of Arts & Humanities.
Webcast show of Michael Brewster in 2014, produced by laartstream, curated by Alan Nakagawa: https://vimeo.com/282784612
Sonic Drawings: http://www.michaelbrewsterart.com/sonic-drawings.html
Acoustic Sculpture: http://www.michaelbrewsterart.com/acoustic-sculpture.html