Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abstract Art and Spirituality: Pawlowska at St. Mark’s, and “Landstracts” by Murray Fredericks

I’ve often said that abstract art can express spirituality more deeply than “objective” art (the same can go for “abstract” music). But, these two collections caught me completely by surprise…

First, two days ago, I opened a copy of the latest National Geographic to what I thought (for half a second) was a Mark Rothko painting: a hazy smear/wash of delicate pink, blushing orange, and the most subtle blue, arranged across an invisible horizontal grid. The effect was both immediate and transcendent. Then that half-second of disorientation wore off (they wouldn’t be showing Rothko paintings in National Geographic…) and I recognized what I was seeing. This was a landscape. But it was not a landscape of this earth; rather, a landscape of infinity; and abstracted expanse, a minimalist art piece stripped of all its inessentials and rendered as pure color – pure beauty – with nothing between it and the viewer.

There were several of these colorscapes. Some were darker; one larger one had a tracery of grey amid darker-grey, receding jagged polygons etched across its lower edge. Were I a synaesthete, these would sound notes in my mind akin to Enstalbrecht Stiebler and Phill Niblock – vast canvasses of quiet, continuous, ever-changing sound that would appear at first to be stationary.

One of Fredericks’ photographs of Lake Eyre, from National Geographic. This one features the hazy light of early morning, and is not as flatly horizontal as some.

After a couple of minutes, of course, I got around to reading the accompanying article. These are photographs of Australia’s Lake Eyre by Murray Fredericks. The "lake" is a dry, flat basin that floods once a century. The photographer said that he wanted to take the “landscape out of landscape photography” – and this was the perfect place to do it. There are no hills, no trees, no signs of other humans or animals, for a hundred miles in any direction – nothing but the horizon. The resulting pictures bring the mind of the viewer close to the experience of nothing but the horizon, and as a result, closer to the experience of infinity.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: my spirituality does not include the zen idea of Nothing. I see “nothing” as a nonentity; even “empty” space swarms with quantum particles (according to physicists). As John Cage so eloquently expressed in his music, “nothing” is literally impossible (though he was actually trying to prove just the opposite…!). Rather, the “nothing” that inhabits these pictures (and Cage’s, and Stiebler’s music) is an attempt to express the inexpressible, the infinite; the awe of creation, leading to its Creator…

A discussion of a Creator could lead in the direction of Christianity (though not toward recent American “Christian” right-wing politics, which leads in the opposite direction). Here is where one meets the second of these two exhibits.

Again, it caught me by surprise. I had gone to a concert at Gallery 1412 in Seattle, only to discover that it was cancelled; so on the way home I happened to stop by St. Mark’s Cathedral, a couple of miles from the gallery. I don’t go the church there, though I’d seen a couple of organ recitals on their magnificent Flentrop organ and occasionally attended their famous Compline service (which almost single-handedly updated plainsong into the 20th, now 21st, century). I wanted to see if anything was going on…

I walked in on a prayer meeting that was just concluding. I glanced around (there were a couple of pamphlets that I browsed through) and then my eyes were struck by the presence of a large, gold abstract painting, sitting unobtrusively about six inches away from the back wall like a bronzed version of the 2001 (Space Odyssey) monolith. Closer inspection revealed it to be a textured flat expanse, sort of a Jackson Pollock painting in hatch marks and angles, and all in gold and golden-brown. My question (why is this here?) was answered by a glance around the sanctuary – suspended in space near the side wall were several more of them, and there were at least fifty smaller, square ones on the walls, in various colors. They were purposely displayed in dim lighting, and out of the way enough that one had to look to see them. I’m glad that I looked.

The exhibit was titled “Icons in Transformation”, by Ludmila Pawlowska. Inspiration is from Russian icons more than from modern abstract art, though these represent a fusion of the two styles. The several suspended “monoliths”, of uniform size and shape, were the most abstract: color fields interspersed with slashing lines and squiggles of abstracted “writing”. One of these, near the end, contained a crucifixion scene in red, stylized but easily recognizable.

The smaller square images, though not as immediately striking, were where the artist made more of her statement. Always there were those hatch marks, always the “writing”, always the color fields (stark reds and blues, with gold) – and some surprises. Eyes stared from many of the paintings – accusing eyes, or warm eyes beckoning the observer to heaven. These were directly from the Russian icon tradition, serving to remind of things beyond everyday experience of the world, and painted in a “classic” icon manner (though, more distantly, with hints of contemporary styles such as Japanese graphic illustration). Other “surprises” were more visceral: ragged gashes, metal wires jammed into the pictures (sometimes suggesting both medical stitches and a cage)…

Proceeding through the series of square pictures, there was a discernible progression from red to blue, and then to gold. I’ll let the reader determine the meaning of this (as the artist probably expected the observer to do, though she stated that blue was a highly spiritual color) – but the “climax” is worth further discussion. The square paintings suddenly give way to a sculpture, larger than a human – a deep blue cross wrapped with barbed wire. Near it hangs another square painting, and… it’s shot full of bullets…! The message is obvious: we did this. In our predilection for brutality and war, we have even committed violence against God.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. I didn’t see anything that specifically suggested a Resurrection scene, but there was a sudden transition to gold paintings, suggesting heaven (one of the “paranormal” occurrences sometimes seen at Pentecostal church services is the appearance of gold dust); and the wires, gashes, and other “violent” features disappeared. The path continued right up to the gold monolith that I had seen at first.

This promotional picture has a commercial function and thus a different aim than that of the series itself; I include it because of copyright issues… It does show some different techniques of the artist, though.

So what do I conclude from these collections? Are there really any connections between them? The abstracted icons force us to look beyond nature in a direction that at first is uncomfortable and later transcendent. Fredericks’ “abstract” photographs depict nature in a new and startling way, and perhaps point beyond nature. Of course I only saw the latter in a magazine article, and would like to find them in a gallery setting to find if they effect me as profoundly as the Pawlowska exhibit.

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