Finding the Forgotten Note


Pottery by Lucie Rie; painting by Okada Kenzo, “A Story”

A seasoned and accomplished artist friend recently shared a painful encounter with a curator. During a studio visit, the curator—much younger than my friend—declared that her work lacked irony and anxiety. In his view, her approach was not relevant to the contemporary 21st century experience.

We have all heard variations on this story. Without going after the arcane and absurdist gatekeeping that happens at every level of the contemporary art conversation, I am increasingly less invested in pronouncements like the one my friend endured.

A pluralist by nature, I have been a long time advocate of the inclusive “E) All of the Above” stance for creative efforts. There is room for it all, so nothing is won by being dogmatic and narrow minded. And how many times have we seen an overlooked body of work emerged later as visionary and brilliant? Let it all exist.

But my personal creative proclivities are moving me farther and farther from the contemporary fascinations with irony, anxiety, politics, the new. For me, making and experiencing art taps into something much more primal than these 21st century afflictions and posturings. There is something so much deeper going on.

We all have our touchstones. One of mine is friend, artist and writer Miriam Louise Simons. Her many blogs—this unlit light, the awakened eye, echos from emptiness and wonderingmind studio—are a celebration of values that I have incorporated into my art making. Louisa taps into the quiet wisdom at the core of us all: a nondualistic, holistic approach to reality.

In her recent blog post, she highlights the work of philosopher and writer Peter Kingsley. Louisa asks: “What would it be like to be fully, continually aware of all of our senses—and what’s more, to be aware of that very awareness? What might that full sensory awakening have to do with the irreversible realisation of Reality?…Peter Kingsley maintains that to approach the changeless authentically, Western civilization must rediscover its own sacred origins and purpose. He asks, how can Western culture participate in the harmony of oneness if it has forgotten its own note?”

She quotes from an interview with Kingsley:

You have to find reality, ultimate reality, here, where you are, in this apparent body, surrounded by these apparent colors and movements, and shapes and forms and sounds and noises. And they (the ancient Greek mystics) gave the techniques. They gave the methods for using our senses to find oneness all around us…
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Not by leaving the senses behind, but by consciously using all of your senses at the same time. If you do that, if you actually do that, you start to become aware…there is your sense of sight, there is your sense of hearing, there is the sense of feeling what you feel, your backside on the chair, or you feel your shoes on the floor. The hearing, the seeing, the feeling, the tasting, the touching. And it’s difficult enough even to do one of those consciously, but if you do them all consciously, you become aware of this infinite blackness between them.
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There is a void that connects the seeing to the hearing, to the tasting, to the touching.
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And that’s ETERNITY.

I carried those words with me when I visited the MFA’s new exhibit, Seeking Stillness. Yes, yes, yes. This is a show that speaks to the issues that matter to me. Three galleries are filled with carefully chosen works from the vast collections of the museum, ranging from Mayan artifacts to Korean Dansaekhwa (“monochrome painting”) to 16th century Florence. Contemporary artists are in this melange as well including works by Agnes Martin, Park Seo Bo, Martin Puryear, G. R. Santosh, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Zhan Wang, among others. Blended with the visual expanse is a soundscape of solo piano music by John Cage.

The curator’s statement:

Artists help us see and make sense of our world. Many, in this divisive moment, have engaged directly and powerfully with the social and political issues of our age. No less powerful or relevant, however, are the works that can lead us beyond the unsettled present: to places of respite, contemplation, transcendence, stillness.
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Spanning three of the Museum’s galleries for contemporary art, this installation looks across culture, geography, and time. It sets into conversation a range of artists and traditions—often in unconventional ways—to foster an experience rooted in reflection and meditation. Each gallery approaches a single concept from multiple angles and experiences: from notions of physical space and transcendence; to the artistic process as a meditative act; to the experience of nature and natural forms as pathway to contemplation, and indeed creation.
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As a museum, we strive to honor the contribution of makers throughout the centuries. Their works and their voices have inspired creativity and dialogue, hope and resistance. In these galleries and beyond, we seek to underscore the fundamental relevance, and urgent necessity, of artistic vision—today perhaps more than ever.

This exhibit is in counterposition to so much of what is offered currently in the visual space. Neither irony nor anxiety have a foothold here. And yet this body of work feels essential, timely and contemporary. This is an answer to Peter Kingsley’s question: How can Western culture participate in the harmony of oneness if it has forgotten its own note?

And thank you MFA for placing Seeking Stillness right next to Mark Rothko: Reflection. Both of these exhibits are of a kind, making the entire Linde Family wing an homage to a quieter side of art making and viewing. The “harmony of oneness” brought me closer to that essential note.


Installation view


Park Seo-bo, “Ecriture”


“Untitled,” by Gulam Rasool Santosh


A quiet space created in front of “The Dead Christ with Angels,” by Rosso Fiorentino (who happens to be my daughter Kellin’s favorite 16th century painter)


Closer view of Rosso


One wall of the Mark Rothko exhibit

8 Comment

  1. Deborah, there are countless nuances in one’s senses. There seem to be various places in the neuroscience brain that register fragments of what we think of as a whole picture. Imagine what merry mayhem an artist could make of those. (OK, I am.) I also believe that every second we take in a firehose of information and select our world from out of that. The entire wallop of wholly ‘open to the senses’ would be overloaded madness. Our filters define us. Think Mondrian, think Courbet.

  2. deborahbarlow says:

    So cool having a friend like you Sloan. Thanks for this.

  3. “Many, in this divisive moment have engaged directly and powerfully with the social and political issues of our age. No less powerful or relevant, however, are the works that can lead us beyond the unsettled present: to places of respite, contemplation, transcendence, stillness.” Leads me to wonder if in addition to engaged and non-engaged art, there can be also art encompassing both, somehow holding apart in unworldly equilibrium the entire dispute in which we are caught, the opposing rows of teeth in a bear trap about to spring but held apart as in a meditation by some higher power of mind. –Andrew

  4. deborahbarlow says:

    Ah, the power of dialectic thinking! Only you could have written this: “art encompassing both, somehow holding apart in unworldly equilibrium the entire dispute in which we are caught, the opposing rows of teeth in a bear trap about to spring but held apart as in a meditation by some higher power of mind.” Your idea provokes me even though I am not sure where I would even begin. Usually the best place to do that is from right where you are, right now… Thank you AK for this comment.

  5. 3beeches says:

    this is so much part of how i approach my own arts… thank you yet again

  6. Beautiful sharing Deborah. Thank you so much. I just wish you were able to take a photo of every exhibit so I could enjoy all these artworks. I thirst for exhibitions like this here in Australia. Mx

  7. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this post. No time left for irony, anxiety, et all. Find the joy in the stillness.

  8. A point of view: https://www.ted.com/talks/wanuri_kahiu_fun_fierce_and_fantastical_african_art. Not because i like her art but because I like her argument.

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