The church was vaulted and grand and in no way recognizable as having been abandoned except for an awareness among everyone there—for a marquee event as part of the Performa biennial in New York—that it had served for a while as Julie Mehretu’s studio. The same reverent setting in Harlem was the birthing place of two enormous paintings—each measuring 27 by 32 feet—that make up HOWL, eon (I, II), now on view in a site-specific home at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Pictures of Mehretu raised up on cherry-pickers accompanied the work’s creation in the months after last year’s presidential election, and the whole endeavor had an air of mystery about it then, especially for New Yorkers who never got to see the paintings before they shipped away so far from home.
As the story goes, Mehretu was paid visits while working there by her friend Jason Moran, a decorated jazz musician who would hang out on the balcony and play electric piano while she painted. So the premise for last night’s Performa event drew on that past habit and extrapolated on it. Two large screens stood on the floor with digital projections of the paintings, and after some unsourced solo notes blown from a cornet somewhere upstairs, Moran took his place in the center of the nave. The horn was played by Graham Haynes, and a drum kit was commanded by Jamire Williams—with Moran on a Rhodes electric piano and an upright piano as well.
The music was dynamic and expansive, opening with soft swells of Rhodes (warm and warbly in tone) that struck a melancholy register at the start. Williams laid back and worked with wire brushes subtly on the drums, and Haynes, once he descended from upstairs and assumed his place on the floor, moved into position by some electronic gear to sample and loop his cornet notes. Passages alternated between heady cosmic wandering and pent-up, mutedly aggressive meditations on blocky rhythmic themes. Moran displayed a sweeping vista of range, working through long, florid lines and bracing avant-garde free-for-alls that blended together with a kind of integral internal sense.
The projections of the paintings—which were commissioned by SFMOMA and can only be seen in the museum’s spacious atrium—did only so much to command attention, with an inertness inherent in digital images that only scales up with size. But there was enough evoked to trigger imaginings of what it might have been like in the church during the paintings’ making, with Mehretu working over textures and layers—of frenetic streaking marks, jaundiced pastel backgrounds, and digitized dots suggestive of something having been torn away—and Moran, alone in the balcony, pressing away at piano keys in response. Just the simple idea of the two of them there alone brought a certain howl to mind.