Jazz Dreamscapes: Noted keyboardist Robert Irving picks up the paintbrush for his show at eta

As a musician-turned-painter, Robert “Baabe” Irving III is in famous, if not necessarily good, company. A foray into the visual arts seems to be the cool thing for past-their-prime rockers and strummers to do nowadays–Bob Dylan just had his first public exhibition of prints and sketches, Lou Reed’s second photography book was published not so long ago, and even Paul McCartney is contributing to the art market with a collection of lithographs. Talent among these men spans the spectrum, but Irving’s work falls nicely in the middle, as displayed by his show “Generations of Jazz Dreamscapes” at the eta Creative Arts Foundation.

Irving, who is best known for his work as a keyboardist and producer for numerous Miles Davis albums, began painting in 1996. He cites Davis as encouraging him to take up the brush, saying that Davis told him “that music is a painting you can hear and a painting is music you can see.” Looking at his work, one feels like Irving took this mantra a little too much to heart. His main series of paintings is strongly dependent on musical motifs–instruments, singing heads, floating staffs complete with scribbled notes–and it is their overly concrete representation that keeps Irving’s works from being more than pretty café art. Although the general compositions bring to mind Kandinsky, with their clouds of color juxtaposed against geometric forms, Irving rather rudely plasters recognizable images of trumpets and treble clefs over what would be very nice abstract pieces. The final result is a collection of work that would look tacky and uncouth in a museum, but hang well in a basement coffee shop or gentrified juke joint.

In addition to this main body of work, a significant number of disparate pieces are scattered throughout the exhibit. Some are notable, like the two portraits of children that are vaguely reminiscent of a ‘70s era David Hockney and an eerily beautiful work of a window overlooking a beach at night. Others beg to go unmentioned, especially those works that strangely bring in heavy ancient Egyptian symbolism–ankhs and golden pyramids and views of the Nile don’t mix well with whatever it was Irving was trying to mix them with.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibit is its last ten or so pieces, which are not by Irving, but by his son, Jeremy, who goes by Jae R. These works exude a refined, cool, art-school aura, simultaneously belying and attesting to the precocious age of the artist, who is just nineteen years old. Jae R’s palette of neutrals–achieved through working almost exclusively with earthy paper, charcoal, white chalk, and newsprint–makes for clean and chic art. His largest, most arresting works are drawings of sunglasses-sporting figures, across whom are strewn newspaper-clipped letters to form words like “love” and “jazz.” Accompanying these pieces are some interesting but not particularly distinctive abstract drawings and two really neat works that appear to be embossed images of old records. Overall, Jae R’s collection relies strongly on design and aesthetics for its appeal. No lofty ideas or radical principles here–his works are the pinnacle of trendy art.

Exhibited together, the works of the Irving men provide some interesting contrasts, but more noticeable than their differences is the way that they are exactly the same: none of the work is new or transcendent enough to make a difference to the art world or the general viewing public. That said, amateur art has its place in society, and both Baabe and Jae R contribute nicely to its ever-growing oeuvre.
eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through January 11. (773)752-3955. Free. etacreativearts.org