Painter Phil Blank and songwriter Ben Hartlage collaborate in Frozen Songs | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Painter Phil Blank and songwriter Ben Hartlage collaborate in Frozen Songs

Take a gander past the hog and chicken heads, through the halved peaches and empty ladders, and around the fire-breathing dolls and scattered skulls. Let your gaze wander through the borders and into the bright, baroque world, a world in which people cart their metaphorical burdens quite literally on their backs, physically caught in their emotional tangles: loss and sorrow, beauty and wonder, alcohol and wanderlust.

This is Frozen Songs, a show of collaborative artworks by Phil Blank and Pittsburgh songwriter Ben Hartlage, who use sight and song to conjure the terrain and characters of an alternate America. Blank, now in North Carolina, is an ex-Pittsburgher. Three years back, he called his old friend Hartlage -- known to local audiences from his days with Coal Train and the Allegheny Rhythm Kings -- and started painting his impressions of Hartlage's songs.

Blank's work had always revolved around his obsession with old American music: paintings of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and music-hall dancers; visionary-art inspired invocations of Big Bill Broonzy and Studs Terkel. But these Hartlage-inspired pieces were different -- it wasn't reverence, but participation.

"The music was already there," says Blank. "I've done too many paintings of old musicians already, and with this, I felt free to go a little further afield, to investigate other images. There's a certain aesthetic to it, which even I don't really have that great a handle on -- it's just got the wheels going and going."

That aesthetic, according to Blank, is inspired by forms of illustration that act less as slaves to their subjects and more as equal partners: the marginalia of medieval books, and, in particular, Maurice Sendak's dream-like illustrations. The idea, the two artists feel, is to create independent pieces that join to create a third work between them.

"There's an emotional resonance between the painting and the song," says Hartlage. "One's not describing the other -- they exist independently. To me, one of the most interesting ones to piece together is 'Ohio Blues.' Phil created a whole scenario that's sort of a subtext to the song -- an empty house, [the song as] a letter on the table -- it's like an empty painting until you think of the dialogue between what's said [in the lyrics] and what's seen."

Adding a further dimension to the painting-songs is a live performance of the oeuvre, which will take place on Fri., April 27, at 5151 Penn Gallery. Joining Hartlage are guests such as Pittsburgh-to-Nashville transplanted mandolin player David Long (just back from touring Japan), and local harmonica man Stu Braun.

One of Blank's interests in Frozen Songs is in evoking another universe for Hartlage's characters to populate. For "Alcohol Blues," for example, a song of burden and despair, Blank's central character, a gray-bearded old man carrying a havoc-wreaking child, stands on an endless road twisting amidst too-green grass and below too-blue skies. It's a world we can peer into, but one far too metaphorical to access directly. That otherworldliness is a function, according to Blank, of the painting's intricate borders -- inspired equally by rural Appalachian folk art and elaborate Flemish painting -- which often go unnoticed, but not unfelt.

The marginalia in medieval books and paintings, says Blank, "is where they could get away with the weird stuff. People don't really ask that many questions about the borders. I think of it as the second verse in the song -- if the first makes sense, people stop asking questions.

"I wanted to heighten the dream-like element of it. It's a way of demarcating that space -- making a break from the normal 'painting' view, which is as if you're looking through a window."

Perhaps the perfect way to view Frozen Songs, then, is in its book form, where each painting appears opposite its primordial lyric. Set apart are orphaned paintings such as "Cold Lake," whose stark, lyric-less and figureless landscape comes loaded with unanswered questions -- in the Hartlage/Blank universe, you can be sure that something's happened on that lakeshore.

"Phil's paintings are so specific," says Hartlage. "With such strong images to draw from, with these metonymic [borders] -- I look and think, 'That means something. I don't know what, but it does. And I gotta figure it out.'"

Frozen Songs performance by Ben Hartlage and Friends. 7-8 p.m. Fri., April 27 (closing reception 8-11 p.m.). 5151 Penn Gallery, 5151 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5. 412-661-9296 or

Painter Phil Blank and songwriter Ben Hartlage collaborate in Frozen Songs
A song of burden and despair, now visible: "Alcohol Blues"

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