Sunday, August 6, 2023

George Tice at Joseph Bellows Gallery - The Impact of the Replaced Commonplace

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Early mills and factories were built next to rivers or falls as these supplied the source of water used to create steam pressure to make the machines run. During the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton passed by the Great Falls of the Passaic in New Jersey and he never forgot their power and grandeur. He, however, was not a lover of impressive landscapes; he envisioned the powerful falls as the source of a model industrial city. A few years later, after he helped create the Society for Manufacturing Useful Manufactures (1791), he would start Paterson, New Jersey as a prototype industrial hub. Close to 200 years afterwards, George Tice would have the first solo photography show ever at the MET Museum based on the images of dereliction and malaise in Paterson, New Jersey - the falls still grand but now heavily polluted. He felt that the falls somehow symbolized Paterson itself.

George Tice {{{George Tice -Lifework - Exhibitions - Joseph Bellows Gallery}}} is one of the most significant American photographers of the post-World War II era. One reason he is not well-known among the general public is that he did not try to hit the viewer of his photos over the head with moral judgments or admonitions, yet he revealed significant truths about American urban society in a subtle and novel way by seeing something significant in the common place which others missed. If you think of some of the most popular urban photographers before our contemporary era, you might think of Robert Frank or Lewis Hine, who had clear social agendas and who helped bring about necessary change. Tice is not this type of urban documentarian.

His photos are not about abject poverty, exploitation or conspicuous injustice. If some of his work is about suffering, it is about the suffering and neglect which has traditionally seemed bearable and acceptable to most Americans, even the ones undergoing the suffering. You might look at his photos of aspects of cities in New Jersey and say, “So what? Things look OK there. Why did he bother to take this photo?” But his photos require reflection and discernment. He sometimes photographs the stages on which people in survival mode act out their lives. A deeper, more poignant suffering is alluded to. At his best, Tice invites you to imagine the lives that pass through or used to pass through the places he captures and in this way invites a human connection that crosses social and economic boundaries and even gaps in time. He uses the viewer’s own imagination to engage the viewer in a humane process of recognition. His best photos invite narratives of compassionate awareness and do not proselytize.

Tice realized that the passage of time, starting when a photo was taken, aided in the meaning of his photos. It made the commonplace more salient, more suitable for inspection. Tice said, “It takes the passage of time before an image of a commonplace subject can be assessed. The great difficulty of what I attempt is seeing beyond the moment; the everydayness of life gets in the way of the eternal”.

Tice did not want to “do” anything with his photos. Frank and Hine and Palfi sought social justice and produced images that shocked and called for change. Tice was photographing stuff that may not be changed, or changed quickly, things we have to live with, a lifestyle and social consequences we have to live with regardless of the underlying justice or fairness to others or the environment itself. His photos show that things ostensibly change but, upon further inspection, really stay the same. Tice showed it is possible to capture both the entropy and transformation of a city using photography and that the entropy and transformation were inextricably linked.

There is a beauty of abandonment in Tice’s photos, with the realization that we may be stuck in a new commonplace which we may not even recognize or comprehend and will only be fully aware of after it is gone. As Tice said, things will disappear but the photograph will last. What is really eternal for us are our memories and photos act as surrogates for our memories. In Tice’s photos we see the impact of the abandoned commonplace and the hope for more meaningful change in the now, although we will only recognize much of the changes later.

Another reason why Tice is not as famous as he should be is that he did not produce any really iconic images which have reached a wider public. He merely produced a whole body of excellent and incisive work. His most famous photo may be Petit’s Mobil Station in Cherry Hill New Jersey (1974). One sees the massive water tower in shade, as if dormant, while the lone station is illuminated in a barren area of nature, like a beacon for late night drivers. Tice was influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper and this could be considered Tice’s Nighthawks. Tice shows his concern for the man-made structures that support our lives. They seem permanent to us, and are a contrast to our fleeting lives, but through the art of photography these structures are also shown to be, ultimately, ephemeral and makeshift.

In Car for Sale from the city of Paterson, New Jersey (1969) we see an extemporized concrete incline winding past the front of a three story house. A car is oddly parked on the incline with a hand-written “For Sale” sign in its back window.  This is a good example of how Tice invites the viewer to create his/her own narratives. How dire is the car seller’s situation? Why not just take the car in to a dealer? Why such an odd incline in front of perfectly constructed housing? In White Castle, Route #1 from Rahway, New Jersey, we see another tip of the hat to Hopper’s Nighthawks, but only the exterior of the building is illuminated against the night. One gets a sense of great effort to illuminate this mock fortress-like structure, as if there is great seriousness in the illumination, a desperate need to beckon to passing consumers.

Industrial Landscape from Kearny, New Jersey (1973) shows how industry is embedded in but divorced from nature at the same time. We see the mechanisms for the reorganization of nature to meet the needs and desires of vast populations. Wires dominate the image as both energy transmission and communication were essential elements in the construction of this facility. Yet, nature seems to be reclaiming this area as we see some type of vegetation crossing our field of vision and over-running the railroad tracks. This photo does not mean that we have suddenly attained a sustainable relationship with nature and the unsustainable has been abandoned; it means a more effective way of exploiting the natural world to meet our needs and desires has been developed.

Tenement Rooftops from Hoboken, New Jersey (1974) shows how simple people improvise and cooperate in the drying of their laundry. Jimmy’s Bar and Grill from Newark (1973) reveals a neighborhood eating place for the working class family or family man; the type of place which died out with the death of the working class in the USA. One can imagine the small families piling out of dad’s car to get a bite to eat on a weekend or the working guys dropping by for a couple drinks before going home. Hudson’s Fish Market from Atlantic City (1973) shows how the small business establishments literally seemed to grow out of every day residential structures, as they emerged from the community itself to cater to the community only to be replaced by corporate business interests.

In Philadelphia they have preserved the very first modern prison (penitentiary) which was built in the early 1800s. It is now a museum for people to wander through and feel shock and revulsion over the disgusting conditions. The shock and revulsion does not, however, lead one to begin thinking, “Thank goodness prisons are gone! Thank goodness we rose as a society and learned to replace deterrence and punishment with a type of humane engagement and economic reform that eliminated crime.” Instead we leave Eastern State Penitentiary realizing that prisons and the “needs” that cause them are fully established in our social fabric. I believe this type of social awareness is similar to what Tice was shooting for in much of his work. He dug a bit deeper than other social photographers and ultimately asked to what extent our observable circumstances were demonstrating real progress.    

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Wish You Were Here by Maurizio Cattelan in Shenzhen, China (SWCAC)

If you show up at the right time on the right day at the Maurizio Cattelan exhibit in Shenzhen, China, you will meet a person wearing a giant polyester-resin head depicting the artist. Once, Cattelan paid a performer to don a giant Picasso head to welcome visitors to MoMA, mimicking the bigger than life Disney characters that greet people who enter the Magic Kingdom. This is a big-money exhibit, widely publicized and often packed with visitors, in an art-starved city of affluence (Shenzhen, China’s Silicon Valley, now has more billionaires than New York City). Many people will be coming to see the Cattelan spectacle, the work of the famous artiste terrible. To “real” art lovers he might be signaling that he knows what’s going on and is mocking the whole process. There’s Cattelan, there’s the work that he creates, then there’s the work as presented by the folks who want to cash in on his labor, and there’s the Cattelan they create for the public, to give the products of his labor more value. 


So, he buys into all of the hoopla while simultaneously mocking it. You enter the exhibit and see a multitude of Cattelan facial sculptures staring at you from a wall with differing shades or tints of his skin color. You are encouraged to view these as types of sperm cells. You see lightbulbs in the shape of Cattelan’s head as you walk down a passageway. A “mini” Cattelan sits on a wall and watches you wander through the exhibit, like one of the many stuffed pigeons in the show. He seems to be asking, what else he is supposed to do. This is how art is promoted these days. The artist hands his/her work over to other people who need to make money from it. They own the system, they give you shows, they get your work in museums. This is the deal with the devil you make to have your work seen and preserved. He has said: “Fame is a strange beast. And as with all beasts, you are the prey, not the predator.” So Cattelan is aware of and allegedly not comfortable with the art reputation-building and promotion process, and openly mocks it, while he also tolerates (if not colludes with) it and makes a fortune from it.   


But can he clean his hands through the messages or meanings in his pieces? Does he ultimately rise above the glitz and hype with dazzling insight and a humane message? Is there an overall message being given in the show, as the curators of the show purport (Cattelan supposedly wants to explore separation and longing)? Does the whole approach of his show make art more accessible to the masses or is it just glitz and fuss to attract spectators at 128 RMB a pop (a pretty sizable chunk of money to ordinary Chinese)?


Entering the show one sees stuffed pigeons all over the place; sometimes they are a part of a piece, sometimes they are just there, perched and watching. They are so pervasive one might consider them to be the multiple eyes of a god of mercy, or angels that shit. They are like that guy from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog who just sits next to an outdoor fire and helplessly watches each drama unfold. They are, basically, us, as we are the multiple eyes of the god of mercy, we are angels that shit, often hopelessly looking on at horrible or unjust situations that we feel unable to fix. One senses that to Cattelan, however, as we will see, pigeons are not the divine messengers or witnesses of injustice we might hope them to be, but agents of impersonal entropy with wings.


Further inside there is the Disney character Pinocchio, dead, lying face down in a pool of water in a cruciform state. In the 1940 animated film the puppet sacrifices his life to save a human being and is then magically resurrected into a real boy due to his compassion and love. Yet, in the Cattelan exhibit, we just see Pinocchio lying there, no resurrection, no transformation. Cattelan’s piece is a cynical rejoinder to an optimistic film scene as Cattelan also comments on the absurdity of Disney appropriating meaningful symbols of spiritual development for cartoons meant to entertain children too young to understand theology. He wishes to give the lie to all the hope-filled, secret meanings and optimistic endings in Disney’s most iconic films. The piece is called “Daddy! Daddy!” which is spoken by Pinocchio as he is dying. Of course, Jesus calls out “Father! Father!” as he is dying. The piece is a denial of the Christian belief that after one “dies to oneself”, a new life with higher values and more humane behavior may mysteriously occur. Disney uses a cartoon to promote this belief, Cattelan rejects the ending of the cartoon and finishes the narrative before resurrection.


Actually, the show seems a hodgepodge of Cattelan’s work loosely categorized to try to give cohesion and a rationale to it. Akin to the Pinocchio piece is a mural of a gallery owner that Cattelan once duct-taped to a gallery wall. The massive amount of duct tape helps create the illusion of wings encompassing a person who is helplessly stuck somewhere between heaven and earth. Of course we also find Cattelan’s iconic Comedian, the banana he taped to a wall at Art Basel Miami a few years ago. This is a piece where something nutritious and life-sustaining is wasted in an act of hoarding and worship. It is like the gallerist suspended between the sky and earth, it is like ideals spoken of and admired but not really embraced, ideals worshipped from afar but never lived. It is like the wealthy art buyers who profit from and enjoy art work which represents a life and ideals they would never want to live. Among the dead Pinocchio and the trapped gallerist and the worshipped banana, we see the giant, elongated foosball table he built so that 11 white Italians could playfully compete against 11 African immigrants.


Nothing presents ornately designed Rococo style mirrors with pigeons perched on them. The pigeons silently pass judgment on the value of the mirrors by using the expensive objects as perches while also defacing them. We are invited to view ourselves within the mirrors. We also see pigeons perched on a realistic sculpture of a homeless man while he is sleeping or even dead under thick blankets, as if he has become nothing. In an art gallery show with objects by a cynic like Cattelan, we have to allow this. Crossing the barrier around the piece and kicking the pigeons off the man (as I wanted to do) would have landed me in jail and then on an airplane back to America (I proudly did 10 years of volunteer work for homeless folks at a Quaker shelter in Manhattan and deeply resented this piece). Only the laws protecting Cattelan’s private property kept the pigeons on that man. In real life, I am confident people would have scattered the birds and sought help and greater public dignity for that person.


Yet, perhaps Cattelan is not as much of a cynic as I am painting him to be. He does seem to think that dogs have values superior to humans. In a sculpture based on remains from the volcanic explosion in Pompeii, he shows a dog that has chosen to die next to his human friend rather than run away. We also see a skeleton of a dog with a newspaper still bravely grasped within his jaws. This dog will not abandon his duty to his friend. Even this value is portrayed as ridiculous, however.


Cattelan wishes we were there. Where? In a world where hope has been abandoned and the belief in individual and social resurrection is the meaningless stuff of children’s cartoons? Many of us already are there, where we live without thinking and give ourselves over to the worst desires and emotions, where we relish causing harm because we think we are vindicated, where we think that good is evil and evil is good. Cattelan was once asked whether he thought his work was funny. He said, “Not at all but for some reason people think it is…I find it quite tragic.” After seeing this show all I can do is pledge that I will hope and fight until my last dying breath for my change into a real boy.


Wish You Were Here is at the Sea World Culture and Arts Center in Shenzhen, China until October 16, 2022. Quotes from Cattelan are taken from a conversation between Francesco Bonami and Maurizio Cattelan in the exhibition booklet for Cattelan’s UCCA exhibit in Beijing The Last Judgment. Photos were taken by the author of this piece.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Kirk Hayes at Sean Horton Gallery, New York


Trompe-l'œil (sounds like: trump loy) is when an artist creates a super-realistic illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface, so that when you look at the painting your eyes are fooled into thinking there are literal objects there. In his current show, Droll’s Lament, Kirk Hayes’ ironic use of trompe-l'œil is a brilliant innovation that has drawn the most attention from critics to his work, even if they have failed to fully explain why Hayes might be doing this. He will first make a collage or assemblage of colored paper and other items, weather it to get a worn out or damaged look for the emotional effect he desires, and he then perfectly depicts the collage as a painting, revealing, instead of hiding, traces of the original collage.

So he perfectly represents the collage he made, showing the seams, textures and three dimensional elements as trompe-l'œil. He does not use the collage as a basic model for a painting, he creates the collage so he can literally paint the collage in minute detail. Folks are often fooled into thinking they are actually looking at a collage or assemblage of colored paper and other doodads and are stunned to find that the wood or plastic or string or any other material depicted is mere paint.

Of course, we want to say, “Wait a minute. You’re not supposed to do that! You are supposed to hide the collage elements, not make them more noticeable by painting them. Why not just display the collage?” Hayes, by the way, destroys the original collage once he paints it. Art critic Ken Johnson guessed in a New York Times review that Hayes was making a sly comment “…on modern arts love of the raw and naïve.” It may be a little more complex than this, however.

There are times when an artist wants you to keenly realize that you are looking at art, something he/she made and how it was made. Sometimes the artist wants traces of his/her work to be seen. So Hayes paradoxically uses a realistic painting technique to fully reveal something he fabricated. Trompe-l'œil is supposed to give the illusion of reality, and Hayes uses it to give the illusion of reality to a collage. In the theater Brecht, for example, created the concept of “epic” theater because he believed that traditional, realistic “bourgeois” theater lulled an audience to sleep and apathy and he wanted jarring and obviously contrived elements of his productions to wake people up to interpret and feel more deeply. He wished to reveal the ploys of theater to his audience to show both the possibilities and limits of art and to keep them mentally active through a production. 

Perhaps Hayes wants you to see how he cut, handled, weathered and positioned the paper in his assemblages because you may be able to better discern or at least be tempted to guess the inner state he was in when he did this. This is the principle of “action painting” which Pollock used so successfully. The focus shifts from the image to the psychology of the artist creating the image. Hayes is going to great pains to paint the way he created and/or presented the imagery in his work. How the artist creates his art often reveals more about what is being conveyed than looking at the figures and constructing our little narratives about the piece.

I would argue that Hayes is trying to get closer to revealing his inner state by amplifying the collage making technique through his trompe-l'œil painting. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that every material has its own language and every technique, perhaps, has its own language. To me Hayes is painting the language of collage, what collage can better reveal about the conflicts and struggles that an artist might be going through so that we viewers who are also struggling can derive some meaning and solace from this. There are reasons why an artist wants to resort to the language of collage, and Hayes is amplifying our focus on this.

Deriving meaning from Hayes work might depend heavily on examining how he created and structured his work, since many of the paintings seem very idiosyncratic and might defy any narratives we might try to create to “understand” them in a traditional manner. Some are more understandable than others. In Ephemeral we see a brief moment when a butterfly is extracting nectar from a daisy. Both have endured extremely adverse conditions as the flower is slightly burnt here and there while the butterfly is covered with band aids. A common theme in many of the paintings seems to be the capacity that exists to continue living and striving even while we are severely battered and harmed. Much of our work that has to be done in the world cannot wait for us to be fully healed; we have to go out there and engage others while suffering and even while feeling emotions due to our past suffering. Deep down inside, perhaps, we hope the healing will be quicker if we keep working instead of licking our wounds.

In some of the paintings we see an unexpected soft or gentle tenacity. In the painting Accepting Fragility we see the arms of a severely bruised person offering a butterfly tied to a folded pillow to someone. The arms recalled for me the arms of an elderly man I had once talked to at a hospital who had had so many blood tests taken on his aged, wrinkled and weakened arms that both of his arms were covered with bruises as if he had endured several beatings. The gentleness of the gesture of offering belies the pain, or perhaps derives from the pain of the person presenting the gift. The gift seems to represent the capacity to suffer without bitterness or malice, to offer joy in spite of pain.

Some paintings defy, at least for me, easy narrative explanations: the Fall of the Dildo King, for example. In this painting we see a crown with four dildos protruding from it, slender plants protruding from the dildos above a brick wall. Symbolically, the penis can represent desire, especially spiritual desire for a type of spiritual fulfilment. To me, this enigmatic painting shows a mystical process of spiritual life emerging from imitative, artificial circumstances. (Hey, give me credit for trying!)

Then there is Response to a Resharpened Fasces. The term fascist, of course, comes from the word fasces. Fasces refers to the bundle of sticks that are more difficult to break united than separated and which were traditionally placed around a pike axe in ancient Rome. A pile of feces is on the fasces. Knives have been stuck into the feces, so maybe we have a type of pun where the feces and the fasces have both been resharpened. Fascism seems alive and well in parts of the world and even, perhaps, threatens our country. But the response to fascism, represented by a pile of feces placed on the fasces, has also become more prominent and we have to wonder whether this will be enough to stop a retrograde political trend. I am guessing that the knives stuck into the feces could also just represent extra aggression against the re-emerging fasces.    

The cuts and bruises in these paintings can represent the lingering effects of guilt, shame, a sense of failure, disappointment or regret for actions which cannot be undone and for which one may always feel remorse. They could represent the continuous stabs of pain that we endure due the callousness and heartlessness of others, which might engender heartlessness in us to compound our own suffering, unless we fight against this process. Hayes paintings for me evoke the New Testament story of the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda who, for 39 years, endured intense pain persisting in his belief that healing was somehow possible, until it finally occurred.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Hansel and Gretel: Lu Pingyuan at OCAT, OCT Loft, Shenzhen China


The horrors reflected in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel derive from the horrors of European history during the Middle Ages. During times of famine children who were a burden on desperate families were abandoned in forests by parents who did not have the heart to kill them outright. Cannibalism was not unusual. In the fairy tale some historical realities would have been so horrific to relate that they are sweetened just a bit. So it is an evil step-mother (not a real mom) that goads the father to abandon the kids and the consumption of human flesh is only committed by a witch. This mollifying of the excessively distasteful winds up allowing greater symbolism and allegorical interpretations to be imputed to the story, and this seems to be the starting point for Chinese artist Lu Pingyuan in the show Trapping Cooking, Cooking Trapping. It’s a Lovely Life at OCAT in OCT Loft in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen.

The fictional story of these children has resonated through the centuries partly due to its compellingly gruesome nature but happy ending. The abundance of symbolism and the possible allegories coming from the story has also made it rich reading and teaching material. Indeed, Lu may be revisiting the story as both a spiritual and historical allegory, attempting to reveal the sweetening process involved in constructing narratives that provides all of us with hope in the face of horror. In our attempt to digest the true horrors of reality, but make them more palatable at the same time, we inadvertently create believably optimistic fiction that gives us something to live for.

By creating a flesh-devouring witch instead of raving, starving cannibalistic desperados, you get a spiritual allegory or story of a heroic journey: the classic leaving home, killing something evil and returning home richer tale. This represents the journey inside, to find the destructive within you, extirpate it and come back to being the peace you want to see in the world. The children are forced against their will to abandon their homes and families. They wander in the wilderness until meeting a do-or-die challenge involving irresistible temptation and a monster that violates all ethical norms. The monster is killed due to its own hubris and blunder and the children return home with riches and save their father. The unseen hand of providence has been working and guiding and it all happened for a reason.

China, too, went through the horrors of famine in recent memory and this makes one wonder whether the artist may also be looking at Hansel and Gretel as an allegory referring to China’s recent history and direction. Of course, we would replace God with historical materialism (history is always moving us toward a social utopia), and the unseen hand of economics takes Hansel and Gretel from abject poverty, through open-door policy (the Wicked Witch of the West invites them in), to socialism with Chinese characters. Hansel and Gretel come home to a China with the world’s second largest economy, poised to become numero uno and relatively independent.

But when we look at the objects in the show we see that Lu is not merely rearticulating a story. We see Hansel and Gretel as melting chocolate figures on a cake. The witch exists merely as a cut out with which to make giant cookies. The story book itself exists as a shelter within which children can read versions of the story. The story is now a saccharine-charged collection of images and symbols and the invitation for the mass production of even more symbols. Covering the walls, in fact, are a highly creative collection of gingerbread scenarios derived from aspects of the overarching story. It is we who have arrived through our own personal forests. The original story now becomes our destination. We have been traveling toward this story, apparently, our whole lives and we are now here.

The show is about the sweetening process we have bought into and how hope can be created to generate the spiritual. The show seemingly asks us whether we have, in fact, been looking for the fulfilment of this story as we moved through life and to now really examine it based on our experiences in the world-forest. Hansel and Gretel were never real children – the Brothers Grimm even made up their names. They have served as spiritual functions for us, the way all of our hope-filled stories have. We have now visited the sugar-filled house of temptation as well, and there might be a monster inside it which we do not notice. Or, there might not be.  

The show reminded me a bit of the novel The Life of Pi. One character tells another that he can relate a story which will make the other believe in God. At the end, you realize that the story was fiction, but it possesses undeniable truth, nonetheless. Maybe our journey to this exhibit was meant to reassure us – yes, there is such a thing as spiritual development or, yes, historical materialism is real, history is taking us to a better place. The Hansel and Gretel in the show, indeed, look a bit like confident suburban American white kids (perhaps Boy and Girl Scouts) from the 1960s and confident Red Guards of the same time frame.

A fictitious story of hope was derived from a horrific story because true horrors are hard to bear. History easily becomes allegory due to the horror it possesses. Details can be sweetened. This sweetening helps us believe in God or utopia or the inevitable progress of history. So it is the sweetening of the horrors of history that produces honeyed allegories. The children are saved. The witch is killed. Riches are the reward.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Meditations on two statues of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Avalokiteshvara, at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Art


The bodhisattva has one pair of hands at rest. One pair of hands is praying. 500 pairs of hands are acting in coordination with 500 pairs of eyes. This is a lacquered wood statue of the Thousand-armed and Thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara, from the 17th century, and it is on display at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi, Vietnam. In China she is known as Guanyin, in Japan as Kannon.

Perhaps the meaning of the hands at rest is that you cannot be of real service until you become calm, tranquil…unflusterable. You learn how not to become irritated by frustration or the pettiness of others (what I like to call “soft evil”). You recognize that the emotional responses to frustration and pettiness that were modeled for you by others, and which are accepted as appropriate behavior by a vast majority of people, are unnecessary and counter-productive to your own self-development toward a life of service.

The hands above the hands at rest are hands in prayer. The implication seems to be that after you attain to a state of tranquility, it may be easier to connect with God through prayer. It is as if trying to pray while you are agitated or perturbed or in the middle of some ridiculous conflict is like trying to send God messages through a bad wifi connection. It is as if you are sending connection requests to God and God is ghosting you. My guess, based on the limited theology I have bothered to study, coupled with my extensive experience as a drama queen, is that God does not like drama. The hands in prayer above the hands at rest would seem to mean that the fastest way to get God to “friend” you is by knocking off all drama. I believe the Bodhisattva of One-Thousand Arms implores us to knock off all drama.    

Once you have become calm and can reach and hear God more easily, the hands in action and in coordination with the eyes may mean that now one can begin more meaningful work in the world. You are now ready to become a servant of the good. The thousand eyes and the thousand arms could represent a type of raw power, but a raw power for benevolent change in others and our world: doing the right thing in the right way for the right reason and getting pro-social results. The hands working with the eyes implies maximum engagement in the world and the frenzy of meaningful, effective and positive outcomes this entails. This is real power, as the only real power is the power to change evil into good and darkness into light. The power of positive change is action, all forms of malicious decisions are just harmful forms of motion.

So we see hands at the side of the bodhisattva, perhaps representing our default state or how we have been molded by others; hands at rest, showing we have attained stillness; hands in prayer, showing we are open to greater influences than permitted by human will; and hands in action, showing the intense power that kindness and goodness can wield.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin) is also a lacquered wood sculpture at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, and she is from the 16th century. It is the same bodhisattva. She has the look of fierce earnestness and compassion on her face. One might read sorrow as well. I think I traveled to Hanoi to see one of the best images of this bodhisattva I have ever seen. One pair of her hands is clasped in prayer. She is engaged in witnessing the suffering of others in a prayerful manner, and we see that she suffers from witnessing suffering. This is, of course, what happens to all of us who are not sociopaths: when we witness someone in pain, we feel a type of pain as well, which often motivates us to take action to end the pain in the other person. This statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara seems to be about this process of engaging suffering in order to eliminate suffering.

She too has multiple arms, signifying her desire to reach as many creatures in pain as she can. Remember that a bodhisattva desires the enlightenment of all beings, and wishes for all to enter into a state of Nirvana. Dostoyevsky marveled that we could imagine or intuit a God that cared about us unconditionally and encouraged our development as humane actors. Yet, in the Christian version of salvation, we are each left to our own devices. Some Christians even believe it is decided before we are born whether we will be saved or damned. We are expected to go about our self-development as rugged individualists, and our inner growth is to be celebrated as a personal victory. As the old spiritual goes, “You gotta walk that lonesome valley, you gotta walk it by yourself.”  

The bodhisattva teaches that there is a possibility for a community of seekers who are concerned about each other, want to work for the best for everyone, and that we are all tied together through compassion and shared pain. We can be open to the pain of others to better serve the needs of others. We are responsible for each other and the only reason for self-development is to be a positive influence on others who are striving for serenity and meaningful action themselves. Dostoyevsky marveled that we could imagine a Christian God and a type of salvation from sin. The awareness of and belief in a Bodhisattva of Mercy is more marvelous yet.


Photo credits:

Photo by Daniel Gauss from the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi, The Thousand-Armed and Thousand-Eyed Avalokiteshvara, But Thap Pagoda, Bac Ninh province, 1656 


Photo taken by Daniel Gauss at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi, Bodhisattva Avalokisteshvara (Kuan Yin), Hoi Ha pagoda, Vinh Phuc province, 16th century



Eat the Sun, paintings by Kysa Johnson at Morgan Lehman Art Gallery in Manhattan


Subatomic particle decay patterns are so provocative as a symbolic language in the work of Kysa Johnson because nobody can understand or explain why this decay happens. Scientists can only say that certain particles are “likely” to change into other particles. Certain types of elements will lose protons and neutrons and become something else or some particles, like the tau particle, will just change into one of three other particles.

So “decay” is not really what is going on here. By using the term decay scientists show the limitations of language when it comes to even physical phenomena. In fact, what often happens in subatomic particle decay is that a greater level of permanence occurs. So the term decay is being used as a marker or signifier because there is no precise term for this process. If a person wanted to be a smart-aleck, he/she could say: subatomic decay is not really decay but the use of decay as a flawed metaphor for a process we really do not understand, but which we can trace.

Thus scientists use the expression “likely” in regard to particle decay. It is “likely” that some particles will change into other particles. For Johnson the patterns created through this type of decay become a symbolic language. Subatomic decay is something that happens spontaneously. We, however, like having a cause that produces an effect. We do not quite get spontaneous change. Our entire system of science is predicated on predictable relationships. This is not predictable, it is likely, for whatever reason. So the patterns we can observe become components of a type of curlicue script or diagram for Johnson. We can scrutinize the pathways of these elegant and swirling patterns, understand the script, while hoping for clues to the origin of the unpredictable change creating the elegant scrawl. Johnson uses a language that always asks questions.

But the patterns do not point back to the origin of the change just as the shape, content and movement of objects in the universe tell us nothing about its ultimate origin. So the patterns in Johnson’s work also become markers for the unknowable, while illustrating a path to permanence and stability. It is a language always pointing back to the fact that science does not explain everything we would like it to explain. At a subatomic level, science breaks down completely and resorts to probability. When the scientist Emil Dubois-Reymond was asked how something could come from nothing or how something could have always been, his answer was “Ignoramus et ignorabimus”. We do not know and we shall never know.

So Johnson begins with a symbolic language born of the inexplicable but promising permanence. A language that points at the limits of language itself and what we wish we could grasp beyond language but never will. This hearkens back to when mystics like Giordano Bruno sought to understand the inexplicable in nature but were pushed aside by folks like Galileo who realized that mathematics and description itself could yield enough to create a useable science. But there is still something we may not grasp about nature and may never grasp and these patterns point to this. Indeed, if we ever do learn what came before the Big Bang, it will come from a monk in a cave before in comes from someone with a telescope.  

Johnson’s colorful, fluent and spindly imagery derives from the patterns, like an emergent quality, and suggests the hope for nascent or burgeoning qualities within our minds due to our proclivity to creative mysticism. These patterns are highly suggestive of other things. In the past, for example, Johnson used these decay patterns to depict galaxies. Here she creates a number of floral designs. It is as if the patterns, like branches in the spring, have allowed for the emergence of this effusive flora. She uses the patterns of the incomprehensible but permanent as a base for the ephemeral. Yet, the ephemerality of flowers ultimately takes on the mantle of permanence through artistic expression.  

Johnson calls this show: Eat the Sun, referencing the process of photosynthesis. The existence of the sun allowed for a process to be developed on Earth whereby the energy of a star could be used creatively by organisms to manufacture sugars as basic nutrients for life. Decay patterns suggested, for Johnson, stems, leaves and flowers, the structures of the organisms which evolved to derive benefit from the sun.

The patterns are a language showing a permanence which becomes the basis for images of what we consider the ultimate in ephemera, but ephemera which have created a cycle of birth, growth, decay, death, rejuvenation and evolution. They represent a transitory existence of extreme brilliance and beauty due to the departure from the stable, permanent and predictable.  

Cycladic Figures from the Metropolitan Museum: Art from Magic


The Cyclades is a group of about 30 small islands in the Aegean Sea that seemed to form a circle around the island of Delos - the birthplace of Apollo. These marble figures date from a culture that existed from about 3000 to 1000 BCE on these islands.

Nobody really knows what function these figures used to serve for their Cyclades' creators. During this period of human history, in this part of the world, 'art' always seemed to serve some practical, magical or religious purpose. All archaeologists can tell us is that these figures were almost always female, they were painted and they were placed in graves. Yet, there is strong evidence that the figures were owned throughout the lifetime of the person into whose grave they were ultimately placed and not everyone was buried with such a figure.

Magic preceded art, art served magic and art was then liberated from magic. We who view these figures now can no longer share the beliefs that these figures served. But, we can see in these figures how objects created to serve some magical function also possessed the potential for what we now call artistic interpretation or meaning, beyond the intentions of their creators. Indeed, one could argue that it is impossible to recapture the ancient belief system behind the work and that all we can do is to derive a meaning which was not meant to be placed into the object originally. Modigliani, Brancusi and Henry Moore were, in fact, greatly influenced by these figures and were inspired to create their own meaningful forms of visual engagement based on them. So what makes these figures so appealing and compelling to us?

First, the posture of the figures, the way their heads tilt upward and backward - to me, I have always interpreted this as representing a type of ecstasy or joy of inner transformation: the point at which reflection and insight finally kick in to change one and help one rise to a higher and more humane level of being. When one moves from the mundane and predictable to a level of joy, liberation, tolerance, mercy, understanding and fraternity. When one overcomes all the patterns and habits that others have chosen for one, and begins to live for the eternal.

The folded arms represent repose, a posture of looking inward. I can no longer remember the poet from Chicago who wrote this, but one poet said that a corpse with folded arms makes it look like a person diving into him/herself. These figures give off the same impression with their folded arms. The head tilts upward, involuntarily, reflecting a change from inside that will reflect in the person's outward behavior from this point onward. The figures used to have eyes and mouths painted on to them, and now the lack of eyes and mouth helps to create the impression that the figures are looking inward. Indeed, one has to wonder what these figures might have looked like painted and speculate that, perhaps, the paint would have ruined for us the luster of the marble and the impact of a pure, tranquil style.

The elongated necks which contribute to the tranquil style probably represented some type of magical purpose or it might have reflected a beauty trend of that culture and time. Yet, we can also see a slight anxiety in some pieces: the anxiety involved in questioning the extent or possibility of our inner development, wondering whether meaningful change is possible or whether we are all condemned to live as we were wired and raised. Can we merely understand why we do what we do or is it possible to transcend everything…these figures can represent the type of inner change one suspects might exist.