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Mitchell's twin pursuits mirrored in Green Flag Song Print-ready version

by Peter  Goddard
Toronto Star
June 10, 2008

"I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstances."—Joni Mitchell

Singing, songwriting and other musical circumstances made Joni Mitchell famous and widely influential. But art brings her back to Toronto—where she first lived 44 years ago—with "Green Flag Song," 60 large-scale triptychs filling the lobby walls at CTV (277 Queen St. W.) as part of Luminato.

Mitchell isn't alone among musicians who turn to art as another expressive outlet. Leonard Cohen has drawings currently on the walls of the Drabinsky Gallery in Yorkville. Ron Wood's work has shown locally for years. Tony Bennett's drawings pop up now and then. And a painting attributed to Miles Davis, although there's some doubt about its provenance, made its way into the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

The greatest musician-artist was most surely Arnold Schoenberg, the seminal early 20th century composer. When not creating the template for futuristic atonal music, Schoenberg painted with sufficient skill to earn him respect from Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka, among others.

Mitchell is no Schoenberg. Yet her art, like his, can't be separated from the music-making surrounding it. The one mirrors the other. Just think of all the many colour references found throughout her writing, from the early album BLUE to the song Big Yellow Taxi. For her Luminato show, some of Mitchell's anti-war lyrics are included in two wall panels, making the music-art connection all the more evident (unnecessarily so, in my opinion).

Indeed, "Green Flag Song" is another side of the cranky, worried vision that led to Mitchell's SHINE, the album released last year on the Starbucks Hear Music label, which bristles with the distemper of the times. One of its tunes, If I Had A Heart, seethes about "holy war, genocide, suicide."

"Green Flag Song," Mitchell says, is about "war, revolution and torture." It's also about the shock she felt when she returned to her Los Angeles home after a sojourn at her country place in British Columbia and found her dysfunctional TV set creating lurid, shadowy green pictures. After photographing a number of the images, Mitchell had them enlarged and printed on canvas.

Arranged vertically, not horizontally, each triptych suggests a bank of TV monitors found in a Future Shop tuned into a variety of war zones, past and present, with soldiers, bayonets and bodies strewn this way and that, barely visible through what could be a cloud of poison gas.

Others are filled with ghostly faces and gauzy bodies. But the most engrossing images are those providing the least information. A better selection resulting in a few fewer pieces in the entire show might solve the problem of image overload that now overwhelms the viewer.

"But they're stunning," said Andrew Vartabedian. To the 33-year-old teacher from Denver discovering Luminato for the first time yesterday, the cinematic quality of Mitchell's images reminded him "of certain experimental filmmakers, like Stan Brakhage."

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Added to Library on June 10, 2008. (578)

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