The blues, according to Bennett Simpson, isn’t simply a style of music. “It’s really a kind of language,” says the curator at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “The blues is something people talk about—something they agree or disagree upon.”

Right now that conversation is taking place at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in a thought-provoking new show Simpson has spent much of the last six years putting together. Called “Blues for Smoke” after the 1960 Jaki Byard album of the same name, the interdisciplinary exhibition (which opens October 21 and runs through January 7) ponders the nature of the “blues aesthetic,” as Simpson refers to it, and how that aesthetic finds expression in modern culture. It presents work over 24,000 square feet of gallery space by an impressive array of visual artists—including Jean-Michel Basquiat, William Eggleston, and Carrie Mae Weems—as well as such musicians and filmmakers as Cecil Taylor and David Simon (creator of HBO’s The Wire); an accompanying catalog features newly commissioned essays by artist Glenn Ligon and musician and historian George E. Lewis, among other writers.

“When I say ‘the blues’ people immediately think of Robert Johnson or the Mississippi Delta,” Simpson notes, smoking a cigarette outside The Geffen on a hot late-August afternoon. “Something old or archival. They don’t think about the contemporary, and I think that’s sort of a missed opportunity.” Simpson began formulating “Blues for Smoke” (with some consultation from Ligon) as “a way to organize a bunch of really disparate ideas about art history in relation to African American cultural forms.”

One of the show’s highlights is a video documenting the controversial photojournalist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s attempt to stage a juke joint (with Howlin’ Wolf and Eddie James “Son” House) at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. Another is Rodney McMillian’s re-creation of the interior of a turn-of-the-century small-town church, complete with an interior covered in red vinyl. McMillian says he was drawn to Simpson’s show for the way it “challenges the mainstream conception of the blues.” The artist’s job, he adds, is to “ask questions about what surrounds us—to question narratives and look for what’s missing from those stories.”

“Everybody wants the authentic from the blues—we sink into it immediately,” says Simpson. “This show is not about providing that. It’s premised on the notion that culture is contradictory, that the things we think are natural are always the result of discourse and debate. The show tries to put that tension forward in a way that will allow people space to go, ‘Hmm, let me think about this.’” “Blues for Smoke” runs October 21–January 7, 2013, at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., LA, 213-626-6222

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