Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Immersive: The Neo-Baroque Paintings of James Verbicky


“Sometimes, in order to accurately imitate the original, it is necessary to put something that is not really in the original into its portrait.”  – Lorenzo Bernini
Everything that is happening is happening in our mind. That just might be the skeleton key to the doors of perception. While William Blake wrote about cleansing those doors, and Aldous Huxley characterized those perceptual doors as what lies in between the known and unknown, James Verbicky paints intense and immersive images of the windows of perception. He doesn’t, of course, depict what is seen by looking through them but rather what we experience by looking at them, thus permitting us to be witnesses to the act of accumulating layers of meaning via visual information itself. By doing, so he also engages our imaginations at a visceral level, at the foundational and entrancing level of what has come to be called the optical unconscious. Verbicky’s sumptuous paintings plumb the depths of our media-saturated domain of simultaneous imagery and they are visual verbs, virtually pulsing with dynamic and dreamy data formations.

That optical unconscious, a term first coined by the German critic Walter Benjamin in the 1930's, is the dwelling place of the visual aura in artworks. It resides at the edge of what he called the expressionless: the terminal zone where nothing more can be expressed and at which the truth content of a work of art reveals itself via the aura. The visual aura is not some mystical cloud, but rather an emotional distance which continues to expand regardless of how close you are to the work. James Verbicky’s seductively layered images amount to a veritable archaeology of that visual aura and its portal to the optical unconscious, and this painter is thus an archaeologist of the spectacle of social space itself.


Once we realize that all paintings, and indeed all works of art per se, are embodied meanings which reflect like mirrors the time and culture in which they were made, we can begin to appreciate the trajectory that allows our gaze to travel from seminal proto-pop artists such as Stuart Davis, Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist all the way to the neo-pop and neo-Baroque sensibility of an apparently postmodern painter such as James Verbicky. Once we grasp the visual aura at play, we can also easily compare the strategically increasing opulence operating in artists as seemingly disparate as Caravaggio, Velazquez, Bernini and Verbicky.

Originally from Edmonton, the now California-based Verbicky has absorbed multiple West Coast surf and music cultural influences. One of the many ironies reflected and refracted in his work is his extensive experience as a DJ, something that resonates visually via the overlapping and intersecting visual “tracks” he utilizes in the construction of his profoundly complex image structures. The recursive opulent element demonstrated by these diverse artists is illuminating, in fact, reminding us of the most accurate descriptions of the Baroque sensibility: movement imported into mass; dynamic composition with exaggerated motion; clarity of abundant detail producing dramatic tension and exuberance; intense overload and a sense of overwhelmingly immersive sensual experience.

In the case of Verbicky, I sense the drama of a neo-Baroque quality which has in recent bodies of work employed both words, logos, icons and designs to convey a fast-flowing surface which embodies the frenzy of today’s digital domain, systems pattern logic and the perpetually shifting tides of our social vortex. This domain is best represented in his recent 2016 Era pieces, such as Era 4 and Era 6, the stunning and aptly named Force Bloom, and the mesmerizing Blitz, as well as his concurrent Citta Samtana works, numbers 3, 4, and the masterful Citta Samtana Diptych series, in both its light and dark versions.



Comprising assemblage, bricolage, and classical collages utilizing highly stylized layers of logos and typefaces often drawn from an immense archive of contemporary and vintage magazines, they are methodically executed in enamel or resin on panels. The diptych alone seems to paradoxically convey a kind of secular cathedral installation, a hyperactive Van Eyck altarpiece for our digital age, with corporate entities, products and commercial messages replacing the customary saints. Yet their spiritual aspect, and their affinity for a secular religion of commerce, is also part of the serious perceptual and conceptual foundation he constructs for their alluring charm as 21st-century icons. The term Citta Samtana is ancient Sanskrit and denotes what we would roughly translate as  "mindstream": in Buddhist philosophy, it refers to the continuum of consciousness, sense impressions and mental phenomena, which is also understood as an energy force that continues on from one lifetime to another, rather than being our personal possession. The words literally mean “the stream of mind” and the concept affords for the continuity of a personality in perpetual flux, in the absence of a permanently abiding “self”, or atman, the existence of which Buddhism denies.

Citta is not a surviving soul but rather simply that which is conscious, and the multiple layers of visual information accumulating in our field of vision in these opulently immersive works suggests an experience which is liminal: a threshold experience beneath which the collected images are stored subliminally and their mutable overlapping meanings are allowed to flow freely. For me, and referencing the ancient religious aesthetic practice of presenting relics and icons for prayerful purposes, this image-making format results in what I might call Citta Icons. I was startled to discover that they also felt like mandalas, a well-known traditional Buddhist motif of concentration, but rather than being circular energy vortexes they occupy a seemingly endless horizontal stratosphere.


Accumulating great force by sheer movement and resonance, they also feel like digitally sourced incarnations of ancient palimpsests: pieces of manuscript material on which the original writing of texts has been effaced to make room for later messages but of which traces remain. By recycling linguistic and logo samples and transforming them into a visual field, they have a curious combination of dynamic and almost vorticist identity shifts, optical operas which enshrine something reused or altered but still bearing traces of their earlier lifetimes as lifestyle messages. His, however, is an ironic iconic stance, imagining a realm where crystalline corporate prayers serve as excavations of the social dimension we all occupy and which appear to reference an archaeopsychic science of symbolic forms, one which celebrates the spectacle of social space at its purest and most unconscious layers. Citta Samtana Era 4, with its central horizontal foreground mandala emerging from a pale background environment, is an ideal example of this phenomenally theatrical neo-Baroque signature of his, and it almost single-handedly redefines the classical figure-ground relationship in a way that makes even the most stringent modernism seem quaint.

In his most recent works he has also inaugurated a seductive shift of media attention from the digital and a welcome haptic return to the analog realm of painting qua painting, rendering by hand the profusion of exotic conceptual and perceptual growths which had formerly been gleaned from mechanical reproduction and assembly. These are his true gems in my opinion, almost being propositions for contemporary emblemata designs, especially his current Untitled works on canvas: these paintings consist of combinations of hand-painted and stenciled imagery in super-abundance, and are deep dives into a darker, more melancholy tone which nonetheless contain a joyful noise celebrating the dynasty of postmodern dissonance at the heart of all his subtle grid visions. First developed in the 15th century, emblems consist of three parts: a symbolic picture (pictura) with a motto or title (inscriptio) and an explanatory poem or epigram (subscriptio). Here, Verbicky appears to have merged their component parts into one multi-layered and multi-faceted format, superimposing their visual vocabulary over itself in recurring bands of code.

They strike me as hip explorations of the emblem, an ancient communication device which combined words and images in order to convey usually moral lessons. Perhaps the digital internet age is an ideal time to re-examine human nature, our virtues and vices, in light of how much we have changed over time since the original emblemata books of the medieval age, and, perhaps even more importantly, how much we haven’t really changed at all. The purpose of the emblem was to indirectly convey moral, political or religious values in forms that needed to be decoded by the viewer. The pictura often juxtapose ordinary objects in an enigmatic way so as to offer a reader the intellectual challenge of attempting to divine all their allegorical meanings. In this way, emblems typified the extraordinary Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic in which objects were thought to contain hidden meanings and concealed links between apparently dissimilar juxtaposed objects were believed to exist.


So what is the truth content in the paintings of James Verbicky? He has given the general rubric “media paintings” to multiple bodies of work which employ linear grids in a Venetian blind-like manner and almost simulate lines we read in either direction like an existential ticker tape. They dramatically echo those multi-paneled billboards with rotating ads, permitting three products or services to be viewed sequentially, with the proviso that they are all being seen by us simultaneously. The artist has conveyed his intentions for deploying his subtle embodied meanings quite clearly: "The media paintings bridge the gap between sculpture and painting by binding fragments of vintage media to one another, double-exposing language and image and melting them in upon themselves. By unearthing and layering the remnants of dozens of decades of disparate generations, the media paintings transcend simple words and images and become objects containing the essence of human culture."

His works are a shared psychic location which reminds me most of the insightful 1960’s notion that information systems overload creates pattern recognition. It was a somewhat visionary and strangely exotic concept back then, but in today’s digital world it is simply the everyday place we all live in. And it is for that salient reason that he strikes me as being both a masterful neo-pop artist and a gifted interpreter of the neo-Baroque culture we currently occupy, the electronic world in which all consuming immersive spectacle has become the fabula, or story, of our daily lives. His pieces are thus futuristic relics, mosaic-like stage sets where words and images collide as tertiary mandalas, and, most revealing from my perspective, they are nearly four-dimensional emblemata for a new secular age of sensational saturation. These media paintings feel like evocations of a similar and updated spirit of merging visual and verbal domains into a distinct existential entity.

I often imagine them found in the future, unearthed 500 or 1000 years from now during an excavation either by our descendants or by visiting aliens seeking to understand what happened to us, and I marvel at the mysterious messages they might transmit to their interpreters. They also speak for us and on our behalf, in a way that comprises a bold physical poetry, in many ways actually being visual poems themselves which we read mostly with the right hemisphere. Nonetheless they are still ideal examples of embodied meanings and they incarnate a blissful kind of intimacy to which we feel personally connected as if we were gazing in a dark mirror.

They remind me of one of the best definitions for poetry by a favorite poet, Salvatore Quasimodo: “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling that the poet believes to be interior and personal but which the reader recognizes as his own.” Likewise, this artist naturally believes these intense images to be reflections of his own consciousness, and of course they are, but we viewers immediate recognize them as our own, because we already live inside them everyday.

James Verbicky is a Californian-based artist represented by the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery in Vancouver. James Verbicky: Mindstream runs there from April 1st-April 30th, 2017.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called The Devil in Miss Jones: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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