by Karl F. Volkmar, N.O.A.R.
THERE COULD HAVE been no more beautiful sign of the ending of the solar cycle than the snow that fell in southern Louisiana that mid-December morning a few weeks ago. The length of the day became shorter before beginning to increase as the winter solstice passed and festivities celebrated the passing of what was and the beginning of what will be. Now we are in the month of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, a month of reflection, a time for looking backwards and peering forwards towards what lies ahead.
What an exciting time for witnessing the spectacle of Prospect.1 and the accompanying gallery exhibitions, and for musing on what may lie ahead on the cusp of time that is the beginning of the new year. As we stand on the sidewalk in front of the great glass planes separating inside from outside, faint images dimly reflect what lies behind us, outside. On the thither side of the limnal plane lies the world of imagination and art, the social performance space of the gallery, and the space of projection of artists’ thoughts. Each of the artists viewed in the following essay – Nicole Charbonnet and Jacqueline Bishop at Arthur Roger and Jose-Maria Cundin at Gallery Bienvenu – in her or his own unique way presents an art in relation to the plane as threshold of consciousness, as window, or as surface.
The supernal yet real cloud of Giorgione’s Jupiter in Jupiter and Io and the wraith-like convection angels of Tintoretto’s Last Supper, the hatsuboku landscapes of Sesshu and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sfumato, the stained color fields of Mark Rothko paintings and dry ice fog stage sets, crumbling palimpsests and faded Dun Huang frescos are a few of many antecedents in which amorphous, poetic vagueness enhances the aesthetic effect.
In the large six feet by five feet Batman, the caped crusader with cape aflying and arms aswinging rushes to greet us as we pass through the plate glass door. We humans have been imagining heroes delivering justice and order in an amoral world for millennia and tales personifying this moral force abound. The mottled surface induces a sense of a faded glory as the figure propelled by the dynamic asymmetry of oppositional movement of limbs and cloak comes to our rescue. In our modern world where true heroes seem to have disappeared, the image of Hercules cum Batman seems old and out of place, an aging fresco dissolving in an imagined history.
In a series of ghost-like profiles of wild animals, images appear as rubbings made from ancient bas-reliefs, figures disappearing in the figurative mists of time. Scarcely discernable figures of Zebras, Wolves, a Tiger, and an eerie bovine-bird beast, kin to the magical, totemic forms of prehistoric cave paintings at Eascaux and Altamira, fade into the ground. Heads of birds arranged like pages from a naturalist’s sketchbook represent variations of species over time, as genetic memory adapts to a living present.
To remember what was is to also allow what was to be. In the dialogue between illusive memory and physical present, things become ideas of things, cultural memes informing newly created art in response to new cultural environments, like the artist’s Erased Riley works. “Who is ‘Riley’?” we might ask. “Bridget Riley, the English Pop Art painter?” “What do you mean by ‘Erased’?” Robert Rauschenberg once erased a Willem De Kooning drawing to make a point in re art as object and the act of art making. The effect is ambiguous, as ambiguous as memory, and in this ambiguity lies the mystery, the sense of magic, even wonder, of irresolution, forms appearing as if in a mist, that metaphor of time, lifting teasingly to reveal what was hidden, forms ideas memories appearing, dissolving, both, either, neither. This is the remembrance of things past, of les temps perdus, of things present, les temps present.
The poetic emerges from allusion, illusion, and association, visual metaphors, but these are the operations of mind, and not the nature of materials. Marks acquire meaning as signs through cultural memory. Black Dots in 9 Squares might be read as playful allusion to Ad Reinhardt. Gestures (Black Loops, Red Loops), drips and stains (Untitled), erasures (Erased Rileys), and accidents suggest content evolved from memories of mid-twentieth century abstract expressionism.
Beneath and beyond the poetic, the allusion, the illusion, the expression, is the material reality of the means of art vis-à-vis artifice that also informed the discourse of post-1945 critical theory. More than any themes or references, it is the unifying effects of materials and technique, the media and means of art itself, which hold the work together qua art. The critical and visual interplay between techne and texture, image and allusion, surface as surface, and surface as opaque and translucent plane transcends representation as the thing in itself. And when we look more closely, from the vantage point of the artist’s, what appears to be from a distance is replaced by what is true. Values become stains and physical textures, images become pure pattern, and what had seemed black dots reveal themselves as substrata visible through holes gouged out of the thick ground.
Jacqueline Bishop’s paintings gleam preciously like illuminations in a medieval manuscript. Where Charbonnet’s work involves a conceptual interplay between consciousness, memory, and history mediated by the physical presence of materials and technique, and suggested references to the prehistoric and mid-twentieth expressionisms. Bishop’s paintings present a realism expressing joyous immersion in a physical world infused with spiritual presence Fusing an academic realist style, the observations of a naturalist, and a healthy dose of fantasy. Bishop offers a vision of a pristine world embodying qualities associated the mystical materialism of fifteenth century northern European painting and the panentheistic nature of Giovanni Bellini’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis.
In an ironic contrast between freshly seen and something old. Bishop’s paintings are presented in worn frames discovered during walks through the streets and rummaging through old stuff stores. In addition to inducing an aura of authenticity in their symbiotic interaction with the realistic style, these frames imbue the paintings with a quality that reminds me of the framed watercolors of birds over the hallway mirror that my mother, born 1908, had received from her mother, born mid-nineteenth century, acquired from I know not where, birds which still twitter vibrantly in my memory after the many years that have passed since I set out on my own. It is thus not surprising to imagine a spiritual communion among the likes of Sir Edwin Henry Eandseer, John James Audubon, Martin Johnson Heade, and Jacqueline Bishop.
King of the World expresses the joyously trilling bird-song that lifts our human
hearts and imagination. Here is a world unspecified, a small kingdom of beetles backs and moths floating in space without explanation, no sign of human or other earthly presence other than the thing in itself celebrating being alive in this best of all possible worlds, a singular world suspended amidst we know not where. In the lack of specific habitat context, Bishop’s birds become more real than Audubon’s famous birds, symbols of living life naturally, free from restraints, rather than specimens immobilized by the scientific gaze.
With an avian ethologist’s eye, Bishop describes the eerily human behavior other chosen subjects in the telling of the now not so secret life of birds. Protecting the Tribe is delightfully ambiguous for it suggests that the ‘tribe’ of birds that would seem to be protecting the huge speckled egg is itself grammatically being protected by the great egg. (Unless the egg itself is symbol for the species aka tribe.) As the center of the composition and the idea of the tribe, the pictorial and biological role of the ovoid form embodies the notion of centeredness, as symbol, source, and center of life around which individuals revolve, emanate from, and protect against harm, and, in a Victorian conceit, affirms the significance of family as history and identity, and the egg as central metaphor for origin as in the Vedic anda and the conceptually similar Greek omphalos.
Bishop’s paintings are surreal and fantastic in the manner of magical realism. Some story is being told whose narrative we can only imagine. In Okaloosa (Black Water, Choctaw Tribe), a plethora of moths and butterflies flutter around a woman with long flowing black hair like a rare specimen of epiphyte emerging from a deep nest made of vines and orchids. As six large brightly colored Boschian-scaled birds perch guard around a large nest overflowing with water suspended amidst a network of twining vines, the Earth is birthing in Breach. In Lost Worlds, dozens of earths are being spawned and spun off like satellites around a chaotic mass of an elk and epiphytes, monarch butterflies and gingko leaf fans, orchids and eggs and a bird’s beak trilling florettes.
All the more fascinating because so different from the paintings, Bishop’s mixed media Dark Organism series with its birds’ busts, beaks, silhouettes, and an occasional three-quarters view intermingled with leaves and leaved vines, collaged texts and images from non-western news provide a different order of experience from the literal academic realism style of the paintings. A sense of the magical and simply interesting replaces the narrative nature of magical realism. The difference lies in part in the tension between appreciating the purely formal and the question of meaning that animates our relationship with the Dark Organism works, the effort to imagine the story underlying the painted scenes, the former a satisfaction in the ambiguity and abstract and the latter a wanting to know the narrative context. In the shift away from the implied narrative and symbolic possibilities of magical realism’s prose, Bishop has achieved a subtle poetic expression that may signal development of new directions in the artist’s work.