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Gerhard Richter‘s abstract paintings are a visual feast of complexity and depth. Using a massive squeegee that he carefully pulls across an enormous paint-laden surface, Richter enables the imagery to bubble up from below. The visual effect is stunning. While a whole generation of painters have emulated his oleaginously lush technique, nobody does it quite like he does.
Now Richter has found another way to explore the complexity of the abstract image, but this time creating enchantment with a more mathematical, structured approach. In a new publication, Gerhard Richter: Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated, Richter has parsed the surface of one of his paintings to create a thick book of textured explorations.
This description of his process is from the book promotional material:
Richter took an image of his work “Abstract Painting” (CR: 7244) and divided it vertically into strips: first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, up to 4,096 strips. This process, involving twelve stages of division, results in 8,190 strips, each of which is reproduced here at the height of the original image. With each stage of division, the strips become progressively thinner (a strip of the 12th division is just 0.08 millimeters; further divisions would only become visible by enlargement). Each strip is then mirrored and repeated, producing an incredibly detailed patterning. The number of repetitions increases with each stage of division in order to make patterns of consistent size. The resulting 221 patterns are reproduced here on landscape spreads, making for a truly extraordinary reading-viewing book experience.
This project is fascinating and provocative on a number of levels. The book is a visual feast just on its own terms. The parsing of a shared reality object—a painting—into its multitudinous parts is a variation on the legendary video made by Ray and Charles Eames, Powers of 10. Starting with a couple picnicking by the lake, the view of the image shifts outward until our galaxy is just one speck of light among millions of others. Then, returning to earth, we move inward, down to the proton of a carbon atom within the DNA molecule in a white blood cell. Everything is multiple, many, complex.
But Richter’s book also brings to mind Eastern meditation practices, like the descriptions of esoteric meditations techniques that train a seeker to hold the image of an elaborate structure in the mind in its fullness, down to the tiniest ornate tendril. Or the way trained eyes can look at the 2-dimensional structure depicted in a Buddhist tangka and visualize it in its 3-D fullness.
As many mystics have documented, going into a mystical state is to pass beyond the opposites of the world, to experience the union of those opposites in a “radiant burst of energy.” Milarepa‘s wisdom is that all things are present in all other things. “The state of non-duality, wherein all opposites, even good and evil, are seen as unity.”
I am left with a profound sense of how objects can become a source of power, wisdom and expansion—an idea in keeping with the spiritual intentions of many who pursue abstraction. But it is also the insistent reminder that connectedness is also fundamental, even in the face of this flourish of extravagant visual expansion.
Minnie Pwerle, Bush Melon Seed
It is in the nature of an artist to look for commonalities between contemporary concepts of form and those of ancient or indigenous cultures. Brahms and Schubert wandered the countryside listening to and absorbing native, folk and gypsy musical idioms, incorporating many of those traditions into their compositions. Travel for me is similar, inspired by visual iconography that lies outside the Western “songline” but speaks to it nonetheless.
I certainly felt that way about encountering the aboriginal women artists of Utopia, in particular Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Minnie Pwerle. Although never exposed to contemporary western art, these women produced paintings that are conversant with something I was seeing in the work of Western artists I admired like Jackson Pollock, Brice Marden and Joan Snyder. From an earlier post on Slow Muse:
I traveled to the center of Australia with the hope that I could step deeper into understanding why I have such a powerful attraction to aboriginal art. For 15 years I have been studying these works, often only in reproduction, and my attachment has only deepened with time. While in Alice Springs, I must have looked at several thousand paintings. Sitting with some of the aboriginal artists, I was convinced that they are feeling and seeing the world in a way that is completely different than me. Their boundaries are different: It feels as if they carry the land inside them. Not the image of the land, the land.
I was struggling with the language to describe this significant difference when I fell onto an extraordinary book––Metonymy in Contemporary Art, by Denise Green. Green is an artist, an Australian, and a cerebral thinker who has articulated some of my own questions about the aboriginal world view as it relates to the context of art making.
Here is how she describes her own work: “Denise Green introduces the concept of metomymic thinking, as developed by the late poet and linguist, A. K. Ramanujan, one that is often different from what is present in Western art critical writing. In Ramanujan’s formulation of metonymic thinking, the human and natural worlds are intrinsically related to one another as are the transcendent and mundane worlds. Metonymic thinking in contemporary art implies that one must take into account the inner world of the artist. When artists create metonymically there is a fusion between an inner state of mind and outer material world.”
In her book, Green takes on the likes of Clement Greenberg and Walter Benjamin. Both have argued against subjectivity in painting, and Green asserts that the hegemony of their viewpoints in western art criticism has inhibited a deeper understanding of painting. She wants to open up the possibility of viewing contemporary art from a more “global and pluralistic perspective.”
Another body of work that speaks to me multi-dimensionally: the textiles of Bhutan. The weaving tradition in Bhutan is a famous one, and that long history of textile design does create an armature of structure that informs the work. But within that form, the colors and patternings are more than what they seem on the surface. There is something else going on.
The visual experience of Bhutanese textiles is not confined to the shops or museums. Traditional dress is required of each Bhutanese when in public, so just walking the streets of Thimphu is a visual feast.
My lastest discovery: Abstract tantric images. the book, Tantra Songs, features the images collected by French poet Franck André Jamme. Using tempera, gouache and watercolor on salvaged paper, these images are based on hand written illustrated religious treatises dating back to the 17th century.
These images are just what I looked for when I was in India and only occasionally caught sight of. Their rarity is clear when you read Jamme’s account of how he found his way to these works. They cross over into that zone that Green describes as metonymic—a fusion between the inner state of mind and the outer material world.
My friend Altoon Sultan wrote a beautiful post about Tantra Song. I wasn’t surprised that we were both drawn to these images quite independently. Her post can be read in its entirety here.
Santa Fe in February: White light. Radiant. Ubiquitous. Outside. Inside. Writ large. Writ small.
Last Friday night was the opening of my solo show with Zane Bennett Gallery in Santa Fe. Thanks to so many friends and family for joining in with me. A night to remember.
William Segal was a successful businessman and magazine publisher who also emphatically embraced the inner journey. His interests were in Eastern spiritual traditions and most specifically, the work of Gurdjieff and his disciple Ouspensky. In addition to writing poetry, Segal was a painter. His primary output was self portraits. Lots of them.
A Voice at the Borders of Silence is an autobiography of sorts. Published a few years after Segal’s death in 2000, the book contains contributions by several of Segal’s famous friends including theatrical director Peter Brook and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. While the book’s appeal is uneven IMHO, Segal’s journey is an unexpected one. A man of great passion and drive, he approached life with full gusto. Even a life threatening car accident (which resulted in the need to wear an eye patch for the rest of his life) didn’t throw him off his game.
One of my favorite passages is from Thurman’s foreword:
Bill handed me…his charcoal drawings, which aptly got called “Transparencies.” Simple black and white, still lives of table objects, especially glasses, emerged in the luminosity of enlightened perception. Ultimate experience of this is called “clear light,” which is often misunderstood to refer to a bright white light. But the white light is a more superficial level of reality, the moonlit level called “luminance.” The clear light is just transparency, compared to the gray dawn twilight when you can see your hand but not the lines in it. It is a light that does not fall on objects, but comes from within them, casting no shadows. It is a self-luminous, non-dual awareness and presence. And Bill, untroubled by the sophisticated Tibetan phenomenology of such states, was bringing it into our dualistic awareness by scratching on paper with bits of charcoal. I was awestruck.
I can’t think of a finer compliment, Buddhist scholar to artist.