Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sunyata Writ Large: Time Shadow

Migrant (Pythalo Blue Green) (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches.

The Ambient Paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, July 9-August 29, 2020, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco.

 “According to Sunyata, the theory of emptiness, any belief in an objective reality grounded in the assumption of intrinsic, independent existence is simply untenable. All things and events, whether material, mental or even abstract concepts like Time, are devoid of any objective, independent existence separate from the perceiver. Things and events are 'empty' in that they can never possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality or absolute being that affords independence from all and everything.” – 14th Dalai Lama

Needless to say, the state of mind and perception referred to by Lhamo Thondup, better known globally as the Dalai Lama, is by its very nature so subtle and ineffable that words naturally fail to adequately grasp or convey it at all. Indeed, such a balanced frame of reference, one which includes everything and excludes nothing, might perhaps only be captured and communicated by utterly non-verbal means of expression, mediums as amorphous and flexible as the meditative mood itself: those emotive modes such as music or visual art. Even better to my mind are those exotic hybrid forms of visual art, such as the ethereal and hovering paintings of Bernadette Jiyong Frank, which almost perfectly approximate a unique and seductive kind of optical song or chant.

Yet one response which I’m comfortable utilizing might just be up to the task at hand, since it calls forth a rhapsodic state associated with oral narrative poetry as a means of conveying subjects and themes which are too huge, or even immaterial, to be captured by the discursive function of logical language. The word ekphrasis comes from the ancient Greek, for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic. It is a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of an art object, either real or imagined. In classical times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or even experience. The word comes from the words for out and speak respectively, and also the verb “to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.”

According to the Poetry Foundation “an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.” More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art. The ekphrastic response to images is radically diverse and sweeping, and it includes work that is not customarily considered to be poetry in the common sense of the term but is definitely and defiantly poetic in scope, scale, subject and theme. As a profound craving, it is, in fact, one of the principal features that distinguishes us from all the other life forms around us: the urge to depict images, to watch them, and yes, to try and divine and hopefully share their inner meanings.

This remarkable body of work by Jiyong Frank, in its harmonious entirety, is the opposite of the hyper-speeds of technology and celebrates a perceptual slowness at the heart of all true seeing. In almost every single painting the actual subject and theme is the transmission of light and its impact emotionally on the viewer. Actuality shines through. Aura and affect are utterly unified in this suite for illuminated inner colors, a temporal sequence which is both meditative and aggressively active simultaneously. In fact, one of the many charms of these works is how they function as floating constellations which orbit and interact with each other as structural units in a larger-scale drama. The themes unfold in almost shocking unison and are predominantly focused on time, color and light as executed in a carefully crafted minimum of means for maximum effect. Time and its seasonal disguises are explored delicately, as in the magnificently liminal diagram of duration called Refraction, but also with considerable vigor and verve, as in the more boldly declarative drama of Refraction Diptych.

Refraction (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 48 x 96 inches.

Refraction Diptych (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 48 x 72 inches.

I first encountered Bernadette’s highly contemplative works, which are time-consuming to produce and require slow observation to properly appreciate, when I was writing an article for a Buddhist magazine called Lion’s Roar on the subject of music as a tool for support during meditation. It was a propitious moment for me, since I was also speculating on the historical use of visual aids to concentration, images such as mandalas, to help focus the mind and heart on the motive of forgetting. I was subsequently exposed to another quiet body of her work which was used to illustrate a similar writer’s evocation for another Buddhist magazine called Tricycle, for which I’m also coincidentally planning an article.

In the piece by Kurt Spellmeyer, a Zen priest and director of the Cold Mountain Sangha in New Jersey, he draws our attention to the wisdom of uncertainty and the power of liminality, the kind of threshold experiences so well depicted in Jiyong Frank’s overall work. He stresses in his examination of the famous Diamond Sutra that our confusions often lead us to believe that our problems are “out there” in the world of forms, when actually the culprit is our mind’s tendency to make everything appear “permanent and independent of everything else.” But that Sutra invites us to consider that liminality, a kind of interstitial in-between-ness, is actually the way things really are, which of course entails embracing uncertainty as not just a fact but as a way of life.

Spaces in Between (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 48 x 96 inches.

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 theater of subliminal seeing inaugurated so skillfully by artists such as Rothko and Stella. The deceptively simple later paintings of Kelly and Reinhardt also ushered us into a domain we can accurately identify as that of ambient painting. So too, Jiyong Frank has chosen to explore these fragile ethereal zones in between the solid and the fluid, the seeing and the seen, the visible and the invisible.

Can paintings ever be like a kind of homeopathic medicine designed to heal our eyes and hearts? These works of Frank’s appear to be just that. 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 directly or literally they use their essential or even spiritual raw materials to construct phenomenological experiences of transcendence. Ambient painting is not aggressive but that doesn’t mean it’s passive. On the contrary, her ambient paintings are so quietly powerful that they wait patiently for us to be strong enough to share them properly while in their company. And these paintings are so patient.

Duality, for instance, strikes me as having discovered a zone of perpetual becoming, since time’s passage is also its saturation and its evaporation. Frank’s elusive works in her Time Shadow series also bring us close to the classical Japanese insight of Ma, the subtle pause between events, moments, forms and thoughts which provides our ongoing reality with its distinctive layered aspect. It is that apparent gap which permits us to witness the marvelous interconnectedness of all things, if, that is, we are ready to do so, which requires us to transcend duality.

Her translucent images consist of hundreds of separate layers of paint, applied daily in a kind of visual diary, which form a seamless whole of almost musical intervals. As the artist has noted, it is the space between the layers that gives her paintings their visceral depth, much the same way the silence between notes in combinations known as chords make music occur. 

Duality (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 60 x 72 inches.

These paintings do indeed feel like optical singing to me. The eyes listen to them like splendid durational depictions in which any traditional figure and ground relationships are merged and become virtually indistinguishable. She is thus a purveyor of thresholds at play in the field of vision where Sunyata, a Sanskrit word for emptiness, suddenly comes abruptly into focus. For Buddhists, Sunyata denotes a completely open and unbounded clarity of mind best characterized by groundlessness and freedom from all limited conceptual frameworks. Sunyata is what the sublime would look like if we weren’t around to get in the way by expressing our astonishment at its beauty. Perhaps this is beauty at the archetypal or emblematic level, as shown so ideally in a splendid group titled Migrant (one burgundy, one blue, one green, one orange, one red and one chartreuse version), which capture our attention and then release us a moment later. They do appear to migrate from meaning to knowing, and then from wondering to dreaming, right before our waking eyes. In the end, the camera has to submit and surrender before these visions, unable as a mechanical tool for reproduction to ever fully render their haunting subtlety. Only the human optic nerve, placed before them for a prolonged period of time, might do them justice, perhaps allowing time’s shadow to slowly emerge from its hiding place. 

Migrant (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 48 x 36 inches.

Migrant (2020), oil and acrylic on panel, 48 x 36 inches.

While partaking in the nourishment of her luscious paintings, I was also reminded of an insight provided by a favorite writer, Lawrence Durrell, someone who shared my interest in the spaces between both words and images: "The solace of such work as I do lies in this -- that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer, can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side."

* * *

Bernadette Jiyong Frank was born into a Korean family in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area as a young teenager and then to Los Angeles, where she later studied at the Otis Art Institute of Parson School of Design and the nearby Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Her work has been exhibited across the United States and Germany and has been acquired by the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento. Time Shadow was her second solo exhibition at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco, from July 9 to August 29, 2020.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.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 Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

Monday, November 30, 2020

A Life for a Life: Antigone

Nahéma Ricci and Rachida Oussaada in Antigone (2019).

In 1944, occupied Paris saw the premiere of Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, which in Anouilh’s hands became a Resistance play, a not-so-coded critique of Nazi authority. The broad conflicting moral worldviews of the Greek tragedy were sharpened into personal either/or dilemmas, and by ending on a purely subjective justification, the adaptation got itself inducted into the (quite extraordinary) existentialist dramatic canon. It was made into a cinematically inert TV film in 1974 directed by Stellio Lorenzi and starring Marie-Hélène Breillat as Antigone. Now, thanks to Québécois writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe (she also co-edited with Geoffrey Boulangé), we finally have the film that Anouilh deserves.

Monday, November 23, 2020

In Memoriam: Soumitra Chatterjee (1935-2020)

Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata (1964).

Soumitra Chatterjee – the name of the Bengali actor who left us on November 15, at eighty-five, of complications from COVID-19 – will be unknown to you unless you’re fortunate enough to be familiar with the films of Satyajit Ray. Chatterjee starred in fifteen of them, a little less than half of Ray’s entire output; Ray (who died in 1992) was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and Chatterjee was his muse, just as Lillian Gish was D.W. Griffith’s. The critic Pauline Kael once referred to Chatterjee as Ray’s one-man stock company, and no phrase could be more apt, since he had such an astonishing range that it hardly seems plausible that one actor could have so many profoundly different characters in his repertoire. He wasn’t a physical chameleon. Olivier prided himself on changing his look so radically from one movie to another – a new face for Richard III, a new loping gait for Othello – that he was all but unrecognizable each time he stepped into part. With Chatterjee the alterations are entirely in the character, in the psychological profile, the emotional make-up, the way he is in the world. He’s buried so deep in each of the men he plays that the spirit that looks out at the camera through his handsome, elegant, movie-star face – the intelligence, the vision, the doubts and sorrows – seems to belong entirely to the character and never to the actor who has taken it on. You never say about a moment in a Chatterjee performance that it’s reminiscent of the way he played another revelation, another romantic scene, another betrayal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Entwined: The Life and Art of Agnes Martin

Happy Holiday by Agnes Martin, 1999, oil and graphite on canvas, five feet square (Tate Gallery)

“I paint with my back to the world.” – Agnes Martin, interviewed by Mary Lance, 2003.

Agnes Martin, the hermetic artist and creator of hermetic paintings that invite us to enter their quiet domain without any preconceptions or conscious thoughts, was such an international figure in the visual cultural arena and so prominent a reclusive presence in her hermitage studio in the Southwest of America, that people are often surprised to learn that she’s in fact a Canadian, born in Saskatchewan in 1912. But once you register her point of origin, and also remember what the flat and spacious physical geography of Saskatchewan looks like, then the austere and serene paintings she sends us, which I maintain are actually pure landscapes devoid of topographical features, then her entire oeuvre, which dramatically anticipated minimalism yet continued the evolution of abstract expression at the same time, suddenly makes shocking sense. As does her somewhat outside-the-mainstream art-world status, earned by her hard-fought battles with psychological crisis, isolation and her seemingly monkish devotion to a solitary existence in New Mexico, one that makes Georgia O’Keeffe come across like a party girl by comparison.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Movie Romances

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones in On the Rocks.

This article contains reviews of On the Rocks, A Rainy Day in New York, My Octopus Teacher and Love and Monsters.

Rashida Jones is very likable as Laura, a young Manhattanite wife and mother, in the new Sofia Coppola picture, On the Rocks, and the quiet scenes that focus on her emotional responses to situations, when she’s the only person on camera, showcase not just her but also Coppola’s gift for collaborating with her actors to capture quicksilver moods. And there are some very funny bits, somewhat reminiscent of old Paul Mazursky movies, built around Jenny Slate, who plays Vanessa, a friend of Laura’s through their middle-school daughters. Vanessa, a divorcee, chatters on, entirely uncensored, about her love life while she and Laura are ushering their daughters to various activities; it’s as if she weren’t aware that she’s trumpeting her troubles (which mostly concern her recent discovery that the man she’s been sleeping with is married) to the world.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Two Literary Adaptations: Martin Eden and Rebecca

Luca Marinelli in Martin Eden (2019).

Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden is the story of a Bay Area sailor who falls in love with an aristocrat and, simultaneously, with the life of the mind that she and her family prize. Initially out of love, he sets out to educate himself and in the course of doing so he discovers a bent for political philosophy and a passion for writing – and he dedicates himself to the latter, though he nearly starves himself to keep at it. Though in the early stages Martin’s plunge into intellectual waters impresses Ruth, her family’s conservatism – both social and political – weighs on their romance. They’re appalled at his background, his lack of pragmatism (a poor wordsmith who gets published here and there isn’t their ideal of a match for Ruth) and his refusal to censor himself at social gatherings, starting arguments that brands him in their eyes as a dangerous radical. And though Ruth professes undying love for him, the same qualities that alienate her parents unsettle her. In fact, Martin doesn’t fit in anywhere. His sister’s working-class husband, a supercilious bully, thinks he’s worthless. (When he returns from sea, he boards with them and has to put up with his brother-in-law’s insults.) He forms a profound friendship with Russ Brissenden, an alcoholic, tubercular poet whose writing he reveres, but Martin is ill at ease in the world of bohemian socialists Brissenden introduces him to; his own individualistic vision rejects the contradictions and what appear to him to be the easy solutions of socialism. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Harvest of Memory: The Multi-Faceted Art of Bea Nettles

Harvest of Memory, Bea Nettles (University of Texas Press)

“I see my career as a spiral with my ideas always circling and picking up reflections of earlier thoughts.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 1990.

“There are parallels to making art and tending one’s garden . . . an image or an idea can be split up, shared, and even better yet, transplanted into someone else’s garden.”– Bea Nettles, Journal, 2011.

John Lennon once famously, and sarcastically, remarked to a journalist that his wife was the “most famous unknown artist in the world,” something that was true only in the sense that Yoko Ono’s serious art-world credentials (which pretty much disintegrated when she married him) were submerged in the notoriety that surrounded their alliance. But as an art historian I can tell you without a doubt that though I greatly admire Yoko’s prescient and poetic pre-John visual-object work (and her first three brilliant recordings), the actual title of Most Famous Unknown Artist really belongs to one Bea Nettles, whose radical work over fifty years is now being celebrated through major retrospective shows that clearly demonstrate how far ahead of her time she was. Only in the rarefied off-the-map art-world circles where true cultural revolution and evolution usually take place was she rightly famous.