Art Review Archives:
THE BUDDHA SHOW:
Oskar Friedl Gallery
They're not quite "millions of Buddhas." In fact, there are less than twenty-five in all. Twenty-five artists, each offering an individual insight into the Buddha, are now gathered in "The Buddha Show" at Oskar Friedl Gallery, Chicago. It is a display to witness. And there are lotus flowers; and much more.
The Buddha or 'Awakened One' is said to have lived about 563-483 BC (or perhaps a century later), but images began shortly after his death. In a sense, there is a gentle irony about Buddha images, and an appropriateness to twenty-five different interpretations in "The Buddha Show." Indologist Georg Feuerstein noted the Indian belief that beyond 'individual self,' there is a true identity, the transcendental Self (atman):
Some of the artists in "The Buddha Show" have chosen to interpret a long-established image of the Buddha, but in new, contemporary ways. Christine Ackermann's Open your mind is an exposition of the image alluded to in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra of the 3rd century AD:
Ackermann's Open your mind layers transparencies: text on a first clear plate; the Buddha image suspended midway on a second overlay; the background opaque and solid, all surrounded by the "countless streams of light" -- "A buddha named King of Light." (And a guide for the Bodhisattva, a 'seeker of enlightenment.') Ackermann's piece is one of several which indicate that the content of the art is not in the material object displayed, but in its viewer's own perception of it. A visitor is invited to find pleasure, even delight, in the illusion, all the while being aware of illusion, and enjoying that awareness as well. It is very Buddhist.
In a similar spirit, Ich sehe Buddha und erblicke mich selbst [I see the Buddha, and catch sight of my very self] (Mixed media:7"x2 3/4") by Mathias Wolf presents the viewer with a silvered, reflective magnifying glass, in the center of which is a minuscule Buddha rendered in ball point pen on paper. Rose petals, as an honoring, are strewn about the base of the upright magnifier. A viewer expecting to see the Buddha up close and magnified, instead meets with the tiny Buddha image as the pupil of his own mirrored eye. Wolf's Ich sehe Buddha... is an intelligent conceptual piece. It reminds that in Buddhist perspective, apart from all guides and teachers, each finds his own path to Buddhahood or Awakening: each is potentially Buddha. Further, it echoes a common theme in many Buddhist songs of ecstasy -- transcending self-ego; finding the greater Self in all things:
Not all the art in "The Buddha Show" is explicitly Buddha image. Barbara Rogers's Dreampond #10 (Oil on toned photolinen:26"x40") presents the visitor with a single, opened pink lotus blossom, amid several closed buds, spent flowerheads and tiered leaves. The lotus is an emblem frequently associated with the Buddha in early sutras -- arising everywhere out of mud and unfolding into exquisite beauty. The single awakened bloom among those yet to open strongly suggests the nature of the original Buddha's Awakening, for Buddhism is neither strictly a religion, nor a philosophy, although it readily accommodates those human phenomena: It is a practice toward attaining an awareness, a transcendence within a reality it perceives as illusory. The original Buddha claimed no divinity, only insight. Dreampond #10 was executed in a Zen Buddhist garden, and here, gallery owner, Oskar Friedl, pointed out an interesting irony. That quiet center of meditation requires a small army of caretakers to maintain. Surely, there is a Buddhist bit of humor in that.
Humor is certainly not absent in this showing. At first sight, Smoking Buddha (Latex, lava rock, rubber tube: 34"x14"x12") by Robert Billings puzzled me. A deflated latex Buddha, with clear hookah piece attached, rests on a lava rock. To its side, stands a beaker of small vials, with more scattered about. Smoking Buddha? Indeed. A colloquial expression for a pot high is here fashioned into art object. The figure inflates... and deflates again. Like many blisses, this too shall pass....
Linda Voychehowski's The New Order (Handcolored silver gelatin print: 15"x15") seems a wry jab at our marketable society's penchant for holding nothing sacred. In Voychehowski's image, a Buddhist monk regards, perhaps with incomprehension, an extremely large Ronald McDonald, legs crossed, hands on knees, in a Sukhasana posture. But, then again, The New Order may well attest either to a need within that popular, personified ad promotion, or else to the potential attraction inherent in Buddhism. Voychehowski may well be warning of an impending triumph of meat over mystic. In which case, Steven Campbell's Buddhapest (Mixed media:9"h) might save us all. In China, the 'laughing Buddha' is popular; it represents the ancient seeker of enlightenment, Pu-Tai, who was thought to be the incarnation of the Buddha Maitreya. Buddhapest is a small, ceramic 'Jolly Buddha,' with fan and scroll in hand. If one taps the box upon which he stands, he laughs. And he may well prove more a pest to Ronald, than to the equanimity of a Buddhist monk.
Some aspects of "The Buddha Show" seem timely, contemporary, although they are in fact timeless. The cibachrome photograph, Impersonations: Hum (29"x23"), by Susan Senseman, at first glance seems transsexual or androgynous: a contemporary reflex. The hair above the visage displays the traditional hair knots. ('Stupa,' now the term for votive or reliquary building, originally meant 'hair-knot,' and the structure resembles that helix curl.) Jnana-Yoga in particular emphasizes that the Buddhist transcendent Self is gender-transcending; and indeed, transcends self-ego. That latter view is the focus for Andre Ferrella's SJM-Everyone is a Buddha 1/10 (C-print:35 3/4"x23 3/4"). Although a central visage gives the piece unity, it is a complex, dream-like vision built up by numerous faces and spider-web patterns, merged and interlinked. While overt and literal in its interpretation, it is engaging and visually effective. The question of personal identity and a Buddhist awareness of greater Self is also treated by Paul Elledge in his toned silver gelatin print, The original face. The young girl in lotus position at center image holds a flowering stalk, and is flanked by an older woman at image right, and an older man at left. The framing of the faces by a lighter, rectangular format creates a visual equation, a unity, rather than an identity. The significance of relatedness and identity is presented for the viewer's resolution.
If Buddhist belief approaches what we term reality as illusory, and seeks awareness of the ground underlying it, it recognizes nonetheless durance in our worldly perceptions. Scholar Donald Lopez, Jr. noted that Buddhism became essentially the one belief system that could be termed Pan-Asian, and its practice came to Japan during the Sixth century AD. Heart Mountain Wyoming, a color woodcut by John Buck, incorporates numerous motifs which are particularly widespread in Japanese culture: dragons, lanterns, demons; the Koi, popular in much of East Asia; and in this print, they fill the interstices as a pervasive visual background and conceptual counterpoint to the main visual elements: ground, pine, mountain, and red-gold sky. Heart Mountain Wyoming was the site of an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. They had been uprooted and rounded up for being Asian; and thus 'suspect.' The twisted tree sports two stubs of broken limbs, and emerges from out of a circular wall of confinement to display fresh, new growth at its upper branches. Demurely, serenely, at lower right, a small image of the Buddha sits in meditation. The tree endures, living, in a matrix of timeless legacy.
Ed Paschke's Buddha Head is a particular surprise, and yet it does retain the hand of that artist in a subtle manner. This work of ink on paper is delicately rendered by fine point and short penstroke, to be blended by the eye into a soft, scintillating image. The adaptation of an Eastern stylization, and the traditional serene composure of the face, harmonize well with the artist's own developments of personal style, and yet the subject is a distinct departure from the work for which Paschke is most noted. Paschke's decision to render his subject in fine inkwork is felicitous in light of Buddhist teaching: on close examination, a viewer meets with patterned marks and points; the image resolves into the illusion of countenance by distancing from the paper. The poet, e.e. cummings, once wrote: "who pays any attention/ to the syntax of things/ will never wholly kiss you." Paschke's Buddha Head captures the Buddhist seeking to shed attention to the immediate marking, empirical illusion or maya, and attend beyond to a unitary essence.
In a similar mode of vision, Siddhartha, Hesse and Me (Mixed media: 7 1/4"x5"x3") by Barbara Fiedl constructs a seated Buddha from original textsheets of Herman's Hesse's classic book. Siddhartha is Sanskrit for "He Who Achieves His Goal," and Friedl's work dismisses the commentaries -- the syntax and words -- using them as medium to present the object of their inspiration. The intent arises as Buddhist; the sculpture pleases, as artistic expression and as concept.
Mudra is Sanskrit for seal or lock, used for yoga positions "which close the body apertures, and where fingers are held, together with special hand gestures." (Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing, (Crossroad: 1995)). Vitarka is a spontaneous mentation or 'cogitation' which accompanies identification with a coarse object: the lowest level of ecstatic identification in the Yoga-Sutra. (The Shambhala Guide to Yoga, (Shambhala: 1996). Paul Sierra's oil painting, Vitarka Mudra, focuses on the single gesture -- a complex wisdom in the most terse of image, much like the practice to which it alludes. It is another work which obliquely addresses this exhibition's theme. It is well conceived: subtle and graceful in formal visual execution.
Golden Buddha (23 1/2"x35 1/2"), a mixed media work on wood panel by Morris Baer Squire, also works to great effect. Its close framing of Buddha face conveys the formal grace which one does find in the most imposing of actual Buddhist stylization. Enlightenment (Pigments on canvas: 63"x48") by Michael Reid Rubenstein utilizes a minimalist aesthetic: a golden circle is painted in the dead center of natural hemp canvas. In "The Buddha Show," two additional rolls of hemp canvas, strung by a tag -- "Hemp or Death," rest below the painting. This seems more an aid to contemplation, than an explicit expression, but it does hover closer to the Zen Buddhist approach toward enlightenment. Ingrid Hartlieb's Meditationsschemel (Wood, Pigments, wax:27"x13"x12") is a carved and worked meditation bench; the viewer's own experience fills in the human use and significance.
Art in "The Buddha Show" does make reference to more familiar typologies. Song From the Heaven (Oil on paper:31"x21 1/2) by the Zhou Brothers recalls the traditions of temple and cave paintings, but also reminds how much the explorations of Post-Impressionism found in non-European art. And Glenn Wexler's Direction (triptych) (silkscreen on digital b/w print) overprints the Buddha with a Compass Rose, while the side panels present Stupas (reliquary buildings) in overprint line. Later in East Asia, the stupa was elaborated into the pagoda, and the outlines of Wexler's side panels favor that interpretation. But even in tradition, there are novel expressions. Tim Anderson's Buddha (Oil on lead: 10"x8") adds metal plate with copper nails to extend a substantial frame about an otherwise light, quiescent image. It creates an effective contrast between the image and spirit of Buddha, and the massive materiality of the lead which bears that image.
Michael Newhall's six Monk Head renderings in ink on rice paper form a consecutive series: two each for the years 1996, 1997, and 1998. These drawings, all 15" x 10 1/4", present a single full frontal face in varying executions; the last two exhibiting a grid pattern which breaks the image into smaller rectangles. In a sense, Newhall's work seems akin to the themes of Susan Senseman and Andre Ferrella in this showing: specific appearances vary, what persists is a unity and a form.
Several artists in "The Buddha Show" bring the Buddha very much into everyday life. Thomas Billings's good things come in small packages (Gouache on canvas, paper: 4 1/4"x3 1/4") fits neatly into a pocket-sized gouache box -- bound with the artist's personal effects, and portable. Diane Levesque's A Thought Enchanted Silence (Watercolor and Gouache on paper:30"x22") sets the Buddha presence among favorite books: James Joyce's Ulysses, Ovid, the Webster Collegiate Dictionary. And Max Grey's Caged Buddha (Mixed media:8"x11"x7 1/2") exhibits a wry wit in confining a Buddha figurine to a bird cage, among marbles of varying size.
Birth/Death of a Buddha (Straw, monitors, VCRs:84"x40") by Fred Hickler adds a somewhat perplexing touch of material objects and audio. From within a construction of straw, the visitor is confronted with tapes the artist had made of Oskar Friedl's 15-month old child. The tapes were made for an earlier installation elsewhere, but here Hickler employs them in what suggests an old Chinese note: 'Respect the abilities laid to the newborn, but an old man who has learned nothing is unworthy of respect.' (Ezra Pound paraphrased it in his Confucian Cantos.) Hickler has noted that the straw is formable and congenial, even in its earthy scent. Above the installation comes the sound of helicopters -- an ominous sound, threatening and mechanical; and those qualities determined its use in Hickler's work. Hickler contrasts innocence and potential with the ever-present threatening nature of the world about. The intent of the artist here eluded me at first, and stands as less than self-evident even now. It is a curious piece and a viewer is free to speculate on his own. Although Birth/Death of a Buddha certainly began with a concept, it does not function integrally or out of a necessity born of expression; nor does even an experienced gallery visitor readily find common ground for participation in it, even upon careful reflection.
One demurral can be made about "The Buddha Show." This is an exhibition where some occasional gallery notes would help in its enjoyment. Knowing that John Buck's Heart Mountain Wyoming was prompted by the U.S. government's WWII internment of its own citizens of Japanese descent, or that Robert Billings's Smoking Buddha alludes to recreational pharmaceuticals, would aid the uninitiated.
The artists of "The Buddha Show" are: Christine Ackermann, Tim Anderson, John Buck, Thomas Billings, Robert Billings, Steven Campbell, Paul Elledge, Andre Ferella, Barbara Friedl, Max Grey, Ingrid Hartlieb, Fred Hickler, Diane Levesque, Michael Newhall, Ed Paschke, Barbara Rogers, Michael Reid Rubenstein, Susan Sensemann, Paul Sierra, Morris Baer Squire, Linda Voychehowski, Glenn Wexler, Mathias Wolf, Zhou Brothers.
The artwork in "The Buddha Show" ranges from wit and humor, through contemplation and compassion, to serious examination. A visitor encounters art with variety in its visual expression as well as content, and at times even conceptualism in the service of serious revelation. "The Buddha Show" will be on display at Oskar Friedl Gallery, 300 West Superior, Suite 202, Chicago, until November 11, 2000. This exhibition grows more engaging each time one visits it. The Oskar Friedl website is: http://www.friedlgallery.com.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Many of the books noted in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and may be ordered through this site's Barnes & Noble link. "The Tathagatagarbha Sutra" is quoted from Buddhism in Practice, Ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Princeton University Press:1995). Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing by B.K.S. Iyengar (Crossroad: 1995) is in print, as is Georg Feuerstein's The Shambhala Guide to Yoga (Shambhala Publications: 1996).