Transfigurations (2019) was commissioned by the University of New Mexico Art Museum as part of the ongoing exhibition HINDSIGHT / INSIGHT: Reflecting on the collection and composed in response to works by several modernist artists with strong connections to UNM and to New Mexico. Featured artists include Rebecca Salsbury James, Raymond Jonson, Georgia O’keefe, Agnes Pelton, Florence Miller Pierce, and Horace Towner Pierce. While Transfigurations responds to some visual and aesthetic ideas that may be applied to all of these artists and to Modernism in general, the piece responds more specifically to the work of Raymond Jonson. In Transfigurations Coons pays homage to one of the great modernist artists of the twentieth century by finding unity in some of Jonson’s aesthetic and philosophical ideas that align with her own, as well as his deep connection to New Mexico and the American Southwest, and provides a contemporary response to modernism by shedding light on she and Jonson’s aesthetic “dissonances.”
Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) was an American Modernist painter who began his career in Chicago before relocating to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1924. Throughout his long career Jonson was a pioneer or nonrepresentational painting and known, amongst many other things, for his precision and experimentation with landscape, color, and light as well as his admiration of the natural landscape of the Southwest. As the leader of the Transcendental Painting Group, Jonson aligned his aesthetic ideas with his spiritual beliefs and aimed, through his painting, to “stimulate in others, through deep and spontaneous emotional experiences of form and color, a more intense participation in the life of the spirit.” Music also played a significant role in Jonson’s work throughout his career, most notably the music of modernist twentieth-century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Sergei Prokofiev. Jonson translated musical concepts such as rhythm, consonance and dissonance, and form into visual works meant to elicit kinesthetic, physical, and spiritual experiences. Jonson began teaching at the University of New Mexico in 1934 and the Jonson Gallery at UNM was opened in 1950. Although the Jonson Gallery closed in 2009, the University of New Mexico Art Museum houses the largest collection of Jonson’s works in the world, containing over 1,200 of his paintings and drawings.
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Transfigurations (signifying a change of form to a more “spiritual” state) is a response to Jonson’s ideas about the ability of art and music to elicit a spiritual experience as well as the ways in which color, form, light, and rhythm facilitate that ability. The piece is comprised of three separate, distinct sections, each of which represents one of three types of color which Jonson proposed are able to elicit different imaginative associations in the viewer. The first section, “Walking Rain” emphasizes the “tonal” types, shades of gray that form the foundation of the artwork. Bearing the expression marking Hot and rhythmic and varied (taken from a quote of Jonson’s, as are the expression markings of the other two sections), this section of the work emphasizes rhythm and the visceral, Earthly, and foundational quality of pulse. The second section, “The Golden Hour,” signifies with it’s expression marking Without any effort or strong sacrifice, a sense of lightness and effortlessness, as Jonson posits the “brilliant” color type elicits in the viewer. The final section, “A Light Never Seen,” points to formalism as it is often associated with modernist music with it’s expression marking, Entirely devoid of all ulterior items. Just as Jonson suggests that the “dissonant” color type may elicit discomfort, shock, or irritation, so the listener may experience varying types of dissonance between periods of (perhaps equally shocking) stillness or silence.
Musicians Clara Byom (clarinets and accordion), Ian Brody (cello) and Yakima Fernandez (violin) rehearse Transfigurations
The three distinct sections of Transfigurations are to be realized from the score by the composer as fixed-media electronic or “tape” pieces as well as by a trio of musicians as a live, acoustic performance. In it’s premier version, Coons uses audio samples recorded from outdoor spaces in New Mexico as the raw material for the fixed-media pieces, creating not only a place-based connection between herself and Jonson, but a comparison of the “earthly” sounds of the natural environment to the instrumental sounds associated with “high art” and the computerized sounds that may seem, at times, “otherworldly.” The installation in the gallery space consists of six separate recordings, three fixed-media realizations of the three distinct sections, and three instrumental recordings of the three distinct sections. The curator is invited by the composer to choose which of the six recordings to install in the gallery space during any given time, or as the paintings on display in the exhibition also change. In this way, a work that is “fixed” for installation still includes the collaborative principles of the “open work” which characterize Coons’ music.
 Jonson, Raymond, “Statement of Purpose, Transcendental Painting Group, 1938,” in Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution: Washington, D.C.