Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No barriers

Dennis and I have had a debate for about 8 years (since he started his formal art education). It involves the question of whether, if anything and everything could be in the circle that defines "what is art," would the circle have any meaning. In other words, doesn't the distinction between what is and isn't art disappear if you can't say that there is something outside the circle? Thus, the conundrum: can there be art without no-art? This weekend that whole argument, that whole perspective dissolved -- just disappeared into thin air.

Two friends and I drove to Houston for Dennis' thesis show at the Blaffer on the University of Houston campus. After the show, he, BethLynn, Stephen and I had a wonderful evening talking and talking and talking about what the gist or meaning of each student's work was, how it had come out of the three years of experience in the program, the types of critique each had received from the group and the faculty, and how effectively the artist conveyed what he or she meant to convey. But all the time the conundrum lurked beneath the surface for me. I had this nagging doubt that art had any meaning anymore if there were no definition, no logically constructed circle defining what is and isn't art (what's in and what's out of the circle). When we got home that night Dennis gave me a book to read, actually, he gave me an essay to read in a book called, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. The essay, beginning on page 75 (and just amazingly coincidentally, available as a preview of the book in Google Book Search) was "No Title," by Marcia Tucker. And then I saw. And I kept reading.

Buddha Mind documents two years of meetings among a group of curators, art critics, educators, and Buddhist commentators in psychology, literature, and cognitive science, on the subject of the growing presence of Buddhist perspectives in contemporary culture. The essays simply explain that the same perspective I have begun to adopt, as best as I can, to view everyday life, each thing that happens around me, to me, within me, from a perspective of non-judgment, acceptance, no labeling, just seeing what is at this moment -- well, wouldn't you know it, that's the perspective contemporary art adopts. It embodies the artist's expression of that perspective. It takes as a premise that there are no barriers between what is life and what is art. In other words, there is no circle. There is no definition. And I stopped insisting that there had to be one.

My, BethLynn's and Stephen's consternation over Kristin's paintings illustrate the two perspectives: the logical, analytical, language-based perspective that seeks to understand art through labels, through critique, and through comparison and value judgment, and the silent, reflective, meditative perspective that seeks to understand the work through its subtle suggestion of truth, its reflection of an observation about existence, life, being, doing, even non-doing or non-being. Kristin had painted one large purplish canvas on a wall by itself and four moderately sized canvasses that hung in a straight line across another wall in the first gallery we entered at the Blaffer. They caught our attention right away. The four smaller ones were simply different shades of blue, each one. We all reacted the same way: Is this her thesis work? Three years of graduate school and this is what she feels best represents her accomplishment? Wow. Discussion of her work at dinner helped a lot, of course. Dennis explained what she had wanted to convey, how she worked, and even that one of his critiques of her work had been that perhaps she hadn't chosen the right medium to express what she wanted to express. But the bottom line was that there was no way to appreciate her work except through slow, non-judgmental contemplation and *seeing* what was there, what appeared after awhile that you hadn't noticed before, and what it "was" after all, as opposed to what you thought about it after a glance across the room crowded with people. Geez, we could not have been farther from the essence of her work if we had been viewing it from across town or from another state. We just didn't see it as the invitation to contemplation that it was, because it was "not art" to us and we had dismissed it before we even really gave it our attention at all.

Marcia Tucker's, "No Title" connected our dinner conversation to Buddhist contemplation more firmly, and other essays elaborated the connection further. Her paintings are (again) simply (it's always "simply") a reflection of the state of the sky as indication of the state of life in its totality. The work is a way to recognize the transience, the ephemera, the no boundaries, no barriers, no self, in all phenomena. How could I have missed this? It's that I dismissed it so quickly.

It's that the purpose of art has evolved from self-expression (which itself was an evolution from earlier purposes) to expression of the formless, the timeless, the selfless, the Buddha mind: not knowing. You can't really experience her work with labels though. You can talk *about* it. Just like you can read *about* swimming. But reading about it or talking about it is not experiencing it. Reading about swimming is not swimming. And talking about Kristin's art is not Kristin's art or experiencing Kristin's art.

Marcia Tucker noted that we don't spend enough time actually looking at artworks. We want them to grab us and tell us what they are about. We want the label beside the piece to explain it. We don't want to slow down enough to see "through" the lens of the work, rather than just see the work as a physical manifestation. But art is a window, a perspective, a way of seeing. Artworks are not an end in themselves. How could I have missed that?

I missed it because I was seeing from my (left-brain) analytical, logical, definitional, labelled and labeling perspective, and it just doesn't "get" contemporary art (like it didn't get compassion and oneness and peace and non-judging). Until recently I didn't even know that I had another perspective from which to view this world, and the expressive works in it. Not that another perspective exists "out there" somewhere, but that I *have* another perspective, residing in my own brain, and always have had. I just needed to access it. And I have. Actually, just having been convinced that it's there opened the door. It is very hard to see what we don't know exists. But if we know it exists, it's easier to relax enough to see it, or through it, in this case. So, I see Kristin's art now, even though I am on a plane flying at 500 miles/hour from Dallas to Tucson. I see it vividly and can't stop seeing it. But I don't think about it so much. I don't label it. I just "see" it and know what it says to me about the timeless, formless and impermanent.

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