Sunday, June 23, 2013

regressing toward enlightenment

Yesterday I went down to the Denver Art Museum to see Figure to Field: Mark Rothko in the 1940s. As the title implies, the exhibit traces Rothko's work from his figurative work of the 1940s through the non-objective color fields, the rectangles of plain color for which Rothko is famous.

Yesterday was a sneak preview day for museum members. As part of the sneak preview, the show's curator, Gwen Chiznit, was there to walk around and answer questions. She was there from 11 AM to 1 PM. But we all got timed tickets, and my ticket didn't let me in until 12:30 PM. As I walked in, Chiznit was standing in the middle of a huge crowd of people, giving a lecture about Rothko. I later heard Chiznit say that she hadn't really known what to do when she started walking around at 11 AM, so she'd decided to give a little tour and then occasionally talk to the new groups of people who would walk in.

I caught Chiznit as she spoke about the "automatist" style of painting. From what I understand of what Chiznit was saying, there were a few different styles of modern art. One style, the most famous, maybe, was Cubism, which was very measured. Another was Surrealism, which also aimed to make a very precise statement, but about the unconscious rather than the sense of vision. But automatism was based more in letting the unconscious speak for itself by letting the hand paint freely, allowing the hand to bring forth whatever forms it would from the unconscious.

However, Rothko was very much influenced by archetypal imagery, especially Judeo-Christian imagery and Greco-Roman mythology. This imagery often showed up in Rothko's figurative work. And where it didn't show up explicitly, it provided a very conscious ground for the work.

Chiznit said that Rothko's work in the 1940s was also very influenced by his work with the otber great artists around him. These artists, Chiznit, argues, all worked together toward something like the same artistic ideal during the 1940s. So, during the 1940s, the styles of some of the artists might be indistinguishable from the styles of other artists. Or the style of one artist might be completely different from the style for which that artist is now well known. For instance, a Pollock painting might be much neater and more figurative than one would imagine, while a Mark Tobey might be in a style much like that for which Pollock is now famous.

But in the 1950s, the artists all kind of went their separate ways, so to speak, and developed their own distinctive styles. Rothko's distinctive style was the color fields.

After Chiznit finished her lecture and the crowd dispersed, I read a little bit about a couple paintings that intrigued me. One of the paintings depicted two eagles and a hare, symbolic of the prophetic vision of Troy's defeat. The caption also mentioned something about Rothko's efforts to use mythology to try and get at a sense of truth in his artwork. If the ancient Greeks, for instance, used their mythology to express their understanding of the universe, could Rothko adapt the deeper meanings of those mythologies to express modern man's understanding of the universe?

The problem, however, seems to have come as a result of World War II. It seems that that war made Rothko question whether there was a real truth at all.

Suddenly, I thought of the Jungian development of personality. In the archetypal sense, the journey towards personal integration starts -- I think -- with a massa confusa, a kind of indiscriminate, jumbled mess. That separates itself into problems which are stated in kind of personal archetypes, like mythological figures. When the problems are resolved, sometimes in the mystical wedding or mysterium coniunctionis, the archetypal figures are replaced by a mandala figure, something more like a geometric diagram, which is a whole statement of the psyche.

But it seemed to me that the color fields of Rothko, rather than being mandalas, were more like the massa confusa. I wondered if Rothko had become, perhaps, too perplexed over the question of truth for modern man, in a modern world which seemed to be plunged into chaos. Did Rothko regress into the chaotic massa confusa? Or are his color fields actually a kind of mandala?

I wanted to ask Chiznit this question. But Chiznit was busy answering a question which must have been very like my own. Chiznit was talking about the difference between abstract art and Rothko's color fields. Chiznit said that abstract art is based on the external, on breaking down the components of the external world into their purest elements. But Rothko's non-objective color fields were about finding an inner world, an inner truth. Rothko distilled and distilled his style until he found, in pure color, a pure statement of his inner self.

With this in mind, I walked through the show. The show begins with a painting in something like a Gaugin style with Pisarro colors. It then moves tk a series of figurative paintings based very much on Greek mythology. These paintings all depict human figures. But the figures are all broken up, and they all have multiple heads and torsos and way more than two arms and legs. The warms are all piled up, like shelves full of spare arms in a store. And the legs seem to be stepping all over each other. If I were to guess by the heads, which are delineated in a mock-Greek style, I'd say the biggest influence on these paintings would be Picasso. But the style isn't Cubist. It isn't deconstructivist, either. It's dismembered, fragmented, and multiplied.

The pinnacle of this style is a kind of crucifixion scene. But the crucified body is dismembered, its limbs packed into compartments set into a brown block, like drawers in a chest.

After this dismemberment of the body, the paintings take on a much less human, slightly less figurative, appearance. One painting shows two (or one?) birds before a triple-layered background of grey, blue, and purple. In the top layer, which looks like a purple sky, are floating a figure like an eye and a couple of blue butterfly or hourglass shapes.

The next shape is based on the story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. Before a layered background of maroon and pink-red is a peach-orange shape like a lamp or an urn. On the left side of the lamp is a figure that kind of looks like shears or a sacrifical knife. On the right is some hanging shape that looks, to me, like a brain with a spine hanging down from it.

Near this painting is another painting that looks like a brain and spine, with a curtain of nerves, or maybe gore, hanging down from it. The figure is a cloudy, almost inky, black mass of paint. But its floatiing before a hazy background of pink and green. The pinks and greens alternate in a blur, almost like some checkerboard that has been run through a time warp.

This painting is surrounded by some interesting ink works, which also have traces of Picasso, as well as, perhaps, Kandinsky, about them. One scene, including some green paint, is like swallows floating and flitting up and down in a mystical sky. Another is a scene of boats and ship-sized angels. Another scene, with a lovely, all-pink background, seems to be of a jazz club.

But the paintings seem to take on a more and more gruesome appearance. The dismembered body parts of the human-figure paintings seem to be further fragmented, until the paintings themselves seem to be of chunks of flesh and bone, floating before color-layered backgrounds which give the vanishing perspective sense of an ocean or a Dali-desert landscape.

The figurative paintings finish with a Kandinsky-esque ink-and-paint picture of a universe full of worlds split in half and black, sputtering vortices.

In between the figurative paintings and the non-figurative paintings is a room of paintings by some of Rothko's contemporaries. If I were to guess the theme of this room, I wouldn't guess that it was that all these artists were working toward the same goal: I would say that they were working under, and working to break free of, the influence of the same person: Picasso.

The next room begins with a beautiful painting which takes the background style of the figurative paintings, but adds nothing to the foreground. It is a wonderful blending of grey, white, and purple patches, sprayed here and there with highlights of yellow-green.

Next to this painting is a pinting with a color scheme like the clouds or sky in a Velasquez or Zurburan painting of the Assumption of Mary. But there is no Mary. There really aren't any clouds or sky, either: just the color schemes of those things.

Then there is a painting of a lovely red background of orange-red with rectangles of color scattered about, almost like people -- or phantoms -- or, really, like the broad-shouldered, triangular men of the ancient petroglyphs. These characters seem to be more whole than the actual "men" of the first paintings; but they have sunk into, almost dissolved into, the background.

Another painting seems to be plainly figurative, with characters almost like limbless stick figures, with obvious black heads and black bodies, floating, it seems, in sockets of color, although a couple are also outlined with a red-orange of a brightness worthy of Crayola.

Next to this painting is a painting which seems to me very plainly to be a portrait, almost like Pollock's self-portrait during his black-and-white phase. This painting has a green background, and then a figure very much in the center and foreground, of a head and shoulders -- all together, in one piece, not fragmented, not multiplied! But the figure is all square, all black scribble, with no discernible features at all, and with a drab yellow shining through from behind the scribbles.

Across from this painting is my favorite painting of the exhibit. The center of the painting is a square of bright orange squiggles, all surrounded by a pale sky blue. All around the blue run rectangles and swatches of purples, pinks, and peaches. Some of the purples develop into blotches of a deep pink-purple the color of orchids, or of passionfruit sorbet. I just wanted to lick it!

Finally is a room of beautiful color fields. The painting that is the cover-painting for the exhibitis probably my least favorite. It is a yellow and white rectangle atop a big, red square. It like the red square: something about it seems industrial to me. But I hate the yellow and white rectangle: it reminds me of a sunnyside-up egg.

But there are some really nice ones. There is one with an orange-red rectangle and a pink rectangle surrounded by a hazy, orange field of color. There's a beautiful one of, I think, a big, orange square, a bright, pink band, and a cobalt blue rectangle. It's so vivid. I love it. And there's one of a yellow background with stacks of color built up before it: black, purple, and a green wit glimmers of orange shining up from beneath it.

Then today I went to the Sakura festival in downtown Denver. The traditional Japanese festival is held at Sakura Square, which is a Japanese shopping and community center that also includes the Denver Buddhist Temple. I had gone to the festival last year. But there weren't very many people. This year there were a lot more people. There also seemed to be a lot more booths than there were last year. And the booths seemed to be more interesting than the ones from last year. For all I know, they were actually the same exact booths. But something about this year seemed a lot livelier.

One booth I really liked was a booth called Pomegranate Designs, which showcased the washi paper art kf Michele Yamaguma. Imagine scroll-format works of art that mix together origami, collage, nature pressings, and painting, to depict fantastic landscapes or traditional Japanese figures like koi or cranes.

Another booth I liked showcased the paintings of an artist named Joe Molina. His paintings are very colorful and vivid, showing branches of cherry blossoms before almost rainbow-like skies -- blue skies, but rainbow-like, somehow. He also has sime cherry branches before deep red skies, which are very dramatic. And he has some gigantic close-up blossom paintings, which are great: a pink blossom before a white background, and a white blossom before a pink background.

I went inside for a while and listened to one of the temple priests talk for a while about the Denver Temple. The Temple is part of a sanga, or community, which has been in Denver since 1909. The Denver Temple observes a Mahayana denomination of Buddhism called Jodo-Shinshu, which means something like "The One Pure Land." This denomination was founded by a monk who believed that not all men can take the purely meditative path of the stricter forms of Buddhism.

Jodo-Shinshu Buddhism empathizes with normal human beings and posits the existence of the tear-eyed intercessors for man, which also, apparently happen to be 84,000 aspects or avatars of the Buddha himself. These spirits, or sambogha-kaya -- I think -- are also creators of the "Pure Land," which doesn't quite seem to be a heaven, but something more like a spiritual realm of forgiveness or tolerance, created to offset the waywardness or foolishness of man and his actions.

The priest gave a story of the Buddha which is a little different from the (likely distorted) one I have in my head. The priest said that Buddha had been born as Prince Siddhartha. A priest told Siddhartha's father the king that Siddhartha would grow up either to become a great king or a great spiritual leader. So the king, hoping to influence Siddhartha to become a great king, kept Siddhartha sheltered in the castle allowing him to see only good things, so he would want to stay in the castle forever and become king.

But when Siddhartha was twenty-nine years old, he got bored and had a charioteer ride him out of the castle. On his way out of the castle, Siddhartha saw a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a monk. Siddhartha had never seen any of these things. He asked the charioteer what they meant. The charioteer said that the sick, old, and dead men showed the inevitable suffering of all men. The monk, said the charioteer, was a person making an attempt to transcend that suffering.

Siddhartha decided to take the monk as a teacher. And Siddhartha went on to live a very ascetic life. But -- I'm not sure how -- Siddhartha decided that the ascetic path was wayward, just as the indulgent path of royalty was. The best path, Siddartha concluded, was the middle path.

So, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha was near enlightenment. To get closer to enlightenment, he sat down and meditated beneath the boddhi tree. After a while of meditation he attained the highest enlightenment the Buddha can attain in a human body, and he began to be called Buddha.

Buddha realized all suffering is inevitable; that all suffering is based on the fact that existence is impermanent and that there is an endless chain of causes creating the world, while men insist that there must be some permanence and ultimate being somewhere; that man can transcend suffering and attain nirvana; and that this can be done through right moral action, right livelihood, mindfulness, and meditation.

As I remember the story of Buddha, the Buddha went off to find enlightenment. But no teacher he worked with could ever give him enlightenment. So, in frustration and despair, he sat down beneath the boddhi tree and resolved to sit there and, basically, go on a hunger strike against the universe. But, right as he was about to die, he attained enlightenment.

I thought the contrast between the story from my memory and the priest's (correct) story had an interesting parallel with my conception of Rothko's artistic development and Gwen Chiznit's description of Rothko's artistic development. It's interesting how I invest both the story of the Buddha and the story of Rothko with a sense of universal frustration and nihilism. It obviously says more about me than it does about the Buddha or Rothko.

The priest herself is a very interesting person. She is a blonde, white, young woman with short hair and black-rimmed eyeglasses. She told me that she grew up coming to this temple. She said it's very strange nowadays to have the same women who shooed her out of the kitchen in the mischievous moments of her childhood now calling her sensei, or teacher. She said she just finished with seminary a year ago and was assigned to the Denver Temple. She said it was strange that she'd been assigned to her home temple. People are usually not assigned to their home temple for their first assignment. But she was happy she was assigned here, since the people here were so dear to her.

I had been really interested to hear that the community had been in Denver since 1909. I asked the priest if there were any good books about the Japanese community in Denver. The priest to, d me that the Temple bookstore was selling some books just outside, and that there should be a couple good books on the history of the Japanese people in Denver. I went outside and found and bought a good-looking book called Colorado's Japanese Americans from 1886 to the Present, by Bill Hosokawa.

I then sat down for a little while at the performance area at the far end of all the booths and listened to a band called The Arlene Hattori Project. The band consisted of Arlene and two men. Arlene sang and played guitar and keyboards on some songs. One of the guys sang backup and played guitar and keyboards. The second guy played drums. Almost all the songs were originals. The music was good, polished, relaxed, kind of soulful. Arlene's voice was kind of like Stevie Nicks. I really liked the band.

I wanted to spend some time talking about all the people I saw while I was at the festival, too. But I'm going to have to cut myself off for the night.