Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gestures in the Dark: The Abstraction of Bianca Biji

Trying So Hard by Bianca Biji,. (2015, 31 x 44 cm.)

"The minute atom has as many degrees of latitude and longitude as the mighty Jupiter."
– James Lendall Basford
Two forms of human communication immediately come to mind when viewing the incisive and dramatic abstract paintings of the Belgian artist Bianca Biji: sign language and calligraphy. In their deft command of a strong but silent gestural language that is both classically modernist and cheekily postmodern at the same time, her paintings summon what Harold Rosenberg in the late '40s and '50s called “action painting.” But they breathe new life into the visceral theatricality of her legitimate precursors, Kline, Tobey and Miró, by injecting fresh fuel to the ongoing fire – especially the sublimely smoldering embers of Franz Kline. It is not at all a negative thing to say that her work engages in a striking visual conversation with Kline in the best possible way: as optical poems.

I am also struck by their gentle recognition of the relationship between Western form and content traditions and Eastern meditative realms where figure and ground are identical. They even suggest to me what I might call a somewhat Jungian reference in this regard: there is no East or West in dreams. Each painting is a theatre of strong but muted emotions where an engaging play is staged with a minimum of stage sets for the actors to interact with, since the actors are themselves the set and the performers. Indeed they also seem to reference both free-form Western jazz and the highly structured formats of Eastern h drama.

Keep Your Dirt / Get Out by Bianca Biji (2015,  31 x 44 cm.)

In the end, they speak for themselves in an exotic tongue belonging neither to the literal abstract tradition nor to the metaphorical mystic domain they appear to dynamically invite us to enter. Perhaps this is because they feel like dancers dancing, a visual choreography for which the restrained music of John Cage might be appropriate. The curtain goes up, the images dance before us, the curtain comes down, the images still dance behind that curtain like bold gestures in the dark. And although I’m suggesting that they feel like an intense and sensual theatrical play, I find that the best way to both encounter and explicate them is to leave them to their own devices while they dance across the canvas and merge with the invisible beyond.

In this regard I am struck by a quote from the writer C.S. Lewis that perhaps sums up some of their quirky charm, and also our own relationship to them, and them to us: “But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are 'on' concerns us much more than to guess about the scenes that follow it.” These paintings play their part truly and well. Some paintings are an immediate seduction for the eye. Like dancing in the dark, or dancing with your own shadow on the wall, they invite the mesmerized viewer into a sensual theatre at once microscopic in scale and as large as a galaxy of forms.

Still Life: The Coffee Maker by Bianca Biji (2015, acrylic, 31 x 44 cm.) 

Removing all limits to our perception as well as our conception, the boldly compelling and subtly captivating paintings of Bianca Biji expand or contract depending on the consciousness of the observer. Their paradoxical stance, somewhere in between the domains of abstraction and expressionism, offers us a glimpse of an interior realm where form and feeling are fused in an erotic embrace of practically tantric dimensions. The elusive spirit of a mid-20th century movement known as Art Brut hovers over her recent work like a misty vapor descending from history’s archive of images and ideas, as does the ghost of one of its principal progenitors, Adolf Gottlieb. That is their primary paradox, and their major appeal, making a now classical form seem fresh and new.

The second salient and seminal idea that seems inherent in her auto-abstraction is a notion which also originates with André Breton, that of “objective chance”: what originally appears to be coincidence is actually desire reaching its quarry. If there could be a law unto the rarefied environs of a fourth dimension, surely it would be such an organic idea of synchronicity as this: that chance operations in our world may in fact be the immutable rules of the fourth dimension, which we fail to notice or detect. All art, no matter how strange, exotic, or metaphysical on the surface, shares an aura. And each artwork has its own aura, which can only be experienced in the language of that specific aura. Perhaps the art object has always been a dialectical dance of sorts, between the aura and its objective expression, a tango on a four-dimensional stage set, shifting in and out of focus as quickly as artists are capable of engaging in the reverie required to make art in the first place. Works like Biji’s black and red series of optical engagements strike me as bring just such an intuitive expression of time. Time lost and time found.

Black and Red: The Meteorite Impact (2015, acrylic, 31 x 44 cm.)

Ever since the apparent reproducible triumph of “drawing with light”, as photography is originally meant, painting has been evolving towards more and more psychological, intellectual and even spiritual means to achieve its secretive aims. Just as Alfred Jarry once described The Passion itself as an uphill bicycle race, passionate painting has been locked in a tour-de-force long-distance race between technology and technique, with no end in sight. The result has been the birth of a new breed of conceptual painting, one which looks both backward and forward at the same time. There’s an element of spontaneous combustion about Biji’s aggressive and gestural works, especially in Take Off and Shooting Star. In their timely gestures it often feels as if the robust bonfire of art history is being splendidly enjoyed for the grand spectacle that it is: a theatre consumed by the incendiary play being performed.

Some things are very difficult, if not impossible, to describe in words. The smell of lilies, the taste of ginger, the bliss of brilliant jazz: one can only hope to approximate some of the more subtle experiences available to human beings. So it is with certain kinds of art, certain paintings that emerge from a fully illuminated but mostly hidden zone of our perception, a zone which can only be characterized as the ritual of looking. This ritual is the anarchic and atavistic realm where the best “pictures” unfold. No amount of mental gloss, conceptual frameworks, postmodern theory or digital clarity can ever hope to replace the basic and palpable presence of this primary experience. In the Signs series, for instance, both Black Invasion and its cousin Passion Fruit feel like a welcome return to pure painting after decades of thinking about painting about thinking. As such they resemble frozen music, a condition to which all the best painting aspires.

Signs: The Shooting Star. (2015, acrylic,15 x 20 cm.)

Shining a bright light into the dark recesses of potential seeing: such is the function of the art of 21st- century painting. Ever since Walter Benjamin explored the fate of the original aura of the art object in his seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” historians have been lamenting its disappearance or loss. However, now, in the age of digital reproduction, that aura is as secure as ever, as long as it is as authentic as it appears to be in the visual rhapsodies concocted by a painter such as Bianca Biji. Here we have virtual diagrams of the aura of images, a return to the awesome rituals of the Cave.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has expressed so well, “What is essential is invisible to the eye and can only be seen with the heart.” The palpable desire of these images, and of their maker, to transcend our everyday assumptions is connected to their purity, simplicity, and near trance-like vitality. Here is an artist who offers glimpses of a reality behind, beneath, beside, on top of, or hidden within the one we usually witness. Such an artist is also witness to a world which can neither be confirmed nor denied, and therefore her subtle works are a gentle gesture toward the inexplicable. This kind of painting, the kind that attempts to portray the ineffable or essential, like the poetry it sometimes makes manifest, is simply always a relentless search for the intangible and the inexplicable. As such, it also offers a delightful challenge to the aesthetic critic: a refreshing  encounter with the indescribable.

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 Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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