Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Integral: The Ambient Paintings of Bruno Kurz

Northern Light, Red by Bruno Kurz. (Acrylic & oil on metal, 2017)

“We must not stare at our mortal world’s kaleidoscope in fascination or despair; we must watch it closely for the advent of new meanings.”  – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

For reasons so mysterious that I prefer not to fully examine their origins, once again Bruno Kurz has produced elegant and restrained visual works, often in pigment or resin on metal, which seem to me to convey the immaterial aura of living music. They vibrate on some subliminal wavelength which, once found, never subsides, and instead continues to build itself into a silent roar which is not deafening at all but rather is mind expanding. Can paintings ever be like a kind of homeopathic medicine? These appear to be. They take aspects or elements of nature, such as those of the landscape, of light, of horizons, of ice, of fields, of fog, of water, but rather than representing them they use their raw materials to construct spiritual experiences of transcendence. Ambient painting is not aggressive but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. On the contrary, an ambient painting is so quietly powerful that it waits patiently for us to be strong enough to share its company.

After the loud and raucous period of the 1950’s and 60’s, when amplified music reached a sort of peak beyond which the human ear could not follow, several composers and musicians, some of them even emerging from the pantheon of rock itself, began to explore a more contemplative realm. They called it ambient music. The most gifted among them, Brian Eno, also termed what he did discreet music, or thoughtful music, sounds which weren’t meant to demand our entire attention but allowed us instead to rest calmly, even mindlessly, in their sonic spaces. Likewise in the art of painting, and parallel with the passionately emotional plunges of a Pollock or de Kooning, in the 40’s and 50’s there arose concurrently a sedate and meditative theatre of seeing inaugurated by artists such as Rothko and Stella. The deceptively simple paintings of Kelly and Reinhardt too ushered us into a domain we can accurately identify as that of ambient painting.


 Twilight 4  by Bruno Kurz. (Resin & pigment on metal, 2016)

How else to explain a set, a series, a sequence of Kurz works, which invite us to imagine a dance among the material world of nature, the ethereal realm of mathematics, and the invisible world of music such as that prescribed in his images dwelling on the subtle theme of light itself as a subject? Light Embers, Red (2017) and Light Embers, Yellow (2017), reference the remaining vestiges of a fire as it smolders into oblivion, perhaps on a small stage set of a personal fireplace. While Northern Light, Red (2017) and Northern Light, White (2017) bring us the more gigantic scale of the meteorological phenomenon occurring in the skies high above us, perhaps in a galactic fireplace where the shimmering weather is entirely metaphysical.

The push and pull of these two suggested scales is precisely where Kurz most excels, demonstrating the paradoxes at the heart of our lived perception of the phenomenal world. This, of course, makes him, in my book, an exemplary phenomenologist, the very philosophy founded by that French poet of the senses Merleau-Ponty, who wanted us all to await the arrival of new meanings for our splendid life without anxiety, by abandoning the temptation to be mesmerized as well as the appeals of sorrow, in favor of the rigor of “watching closely” instead.

Light usually, we presume, is what allows us to see, but what is it that can permit us that larger pleasure, the ability to see the light itself, literally? Twilight 4 (2017) and Light 5 (2017, which carries the ancient Latin name for light, Lux), are likewise both stellar formal portraits of an impalpable substance, illumination, the speed of which, according to Einstein, was the only constant in the universe. The only other true constant, of course, would be perpetual change and impermanent flux, some of the other key subjects and themes Kurz regularly works with as he engages in his ongoing image-documentary on the phenomenology of spirit. Thus, integral also refers to that which is necessary to make a whole complete, and what is essential or fundamental, as well as concepts that arise from combining infinitesimal data. Just as these paintings do.

Lux 5 by Bruno Kurz. (Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2017)

Most certainly, I’m using the term mindless here in the most positive way conceivable, especially since I suspect that the true purpose or function of all the arts, whether music, dance, literature, sculpture, architecture, poetry or painting, is to permit us a much needed escape from our minds. To some degree the finest works are always those that permit us a vacation from thinking, or at least from listening to the endless chatter inside our heads, so I’m proposing a style of painting here which evokes the kind of mindless states involved in meditation, which, ironically enough, is often also described as mindfulness. The reminder to be here now is implicit in the paintings that refer to northern climes.  However, these domains are not located on any conventional cartography: Northern Passage (2016) and Northern Night (2016) both speak to our eyes of a distant glacial site wrapped in enigmatic airs.

Kurz’s painting philosophy makes me as certain as I can be that from a harmonious perspective the twin polarities of mindful and mindless cease to be in contradiction, and his resulting visual artifacts also give us permission to accept and even embrace absolute uncertainty.  His works are on intimate speaking terms with the unknown, in a zone where pleasure is proportional with surrender. Far from running away from it in search of the known or definable in order to evict the unknown from our lives, they are virtual diagrams of resting in the reality of not knowing, of being completely comfortable and at ease with ambiguity. As such, Polar Wind (2017) and Polar Shining (2017) also capture further elusive essences, light reflected and wind blowing, in a manner which defies description.


Deep Waters 1 by Bruno Kurz. (Acrylic & oil on metal, 2017)

Ambient is also a notion that relates to the immediate surroundings of something, as in the nature of nature, and just as ambient music puts an emphasis on tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm, so does ambient painting emphasize atmosphere over narrative. Sensation over storytelling, I would call it, in the absence of a programmatic plot. An ambient painting is therefore somewhat unobtrusive; it lets you enter its field aimlessly without forcing a theatrical drama on your experience of it. The subtly hovering ambiance of two monuments to frozen fluid, Ice Field 1 (2017) and Ice Field 2 (2017), for instance, also introduces us to a pattern of perception that becomes recognizable once we stop searching for meaning and instead simply watch meaning stealthily arrive.

Indeed, water as a substance and the watery nature of our minds are often touched upon simultaneously, as in two of my favourite paintings in this timely series, Deep Waters (2017) and Fog 2 (2017), which are, I believe, the most commanding and demanding of his recent works. Fog 2 is an especially magical and mysterious piece, and it most accurately sums up a finely tuned abstract agenda which is nonetheless real and is still all about nature. Such fully resolved paintings need not draw reference to any other world but their own, and they do not attempt to recreate nature but rather to reincarnate it within each canvas.

Not staring at the mortal world but intensely observing its web of energies in anticipation of the advent of new meanings is only possible when we suspend judgment and allow ourselves to be transported by the iconic message hidden inside the image. This is where the spirit of the imagos is suspended, beating like a colourful heart made of paint. This is the tangible residue of waking dreams and reverie, a place where sometimes even icebergs can be on fire.

Bruno Kurz is represented by the Odon Wagner Gallery in Toronto, where he is exhibiting new paintings from June 5 – July 1.

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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