I have an ongoing fascination with the disciplined inner play of painting, the notion of beginner’s mind and the sureness of mind’s stillness that is part of my practice in the studio. This solitary activity can be direct and raw, magnetizing and wakeful — or could become an outright self-referential flop. It can result in a deeply resonant contemplative work, or a temporary object of the moment. Painting’s untapped power is beyond intellect and concept, beyond thought altogether. And I’m enticed by the idea of making a timeless art for “our grandchildren’s children”, as the poet Gary Snyder has so aptly stated.
There are some who may question the relevance of contemporary painting; as an act of faith practiced by discerning fools. No doubt it is risky terrain, and there’s no shortage of opinions on the direction of contemporary art in this age of frenzied materialism. Painting can be a point of ascension, incitement, and a widening of one’s view, as well as plumbing the interior depths. For me the vitality of the painter’s hand keeps painting treacherously alive. For that I find myself aligning with the astute inner capabilities of painting today.
Manifesting the complexity of mind in a simplified and direct manner is my view of what the best painting can be. The willingness to divest oneself of concrete ideas, to ransack one’s stubborn notions, and to embrace the paradox of painting; which holds both a sense of authority and freedom, are of prime importance to me. To be present for the intensity of the pure moment is not an abstract notion, but a critical, genuine experience. (with thanks to Phillip Guston).
“Kiss Universe” emerged in 2010, an ongoing series of paintings, monoprints, drawings, and a spirit referencing the Tantric lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and inspired by an acknowledgment of co-emergent realities. “Kiss Universe” alludes to many ideas of contact and engagement between various realms, visible or not, that make up our world. My ongoing interest is in this point of contact, this interplay, whether the various realms of experience are imagined or not.
There are a few compelling examples which illustrate these points of interplay. When the historical Buddha was asked how he knew that he was enlightened, he reached down to touch the black earth and said, “the earth is my witness,” which has become a classic ritual hand gesture in depicting the Buddha. The human realm contacts the solidity of earth.
Michelangelo’s famous portrayal of “The Creation of Adam” has a bearded divinity reaching down to touch Adam’s outstretched hand, breathing spiritual energy into mankind. Heaven meets earth through man. From the mundane example of an approaching handshake; to the kiss of lips between lovers; to the powerful prayers of monks and yogis supplicating invisible beings, hoping to connect with a merciful realm, this yearning for contact is the conceptual motif for “Kiss Universe.”
Another point of reference for “Kiss Universe” is my interest in the subtle processes of such artists as Hilma Af Klint and Emma Kunz. Both seemed to have one foot in this world and one firmly planted in another; both used a dynamic process to make their work; and their interest transcended materialism and extended beyond personal ambition.
Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) produced work at the beginning of the 20th century that relied on an other-worldly deep listening and generated historically some of the first abstract paintings. In fact, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm currently has a major retrospective of af Klint’s paintings that challenges Kandinsky as the holder of the abstract throne. Hilma produced much of her work in secret and stated in her will that her work shouldn’t be seen for a generation, in order that it be fully understood.
Swiss artist Emma Kunz (1892-1963) possessed a process akin to shamanism, an approach to painting reminiscent of a person communing with another world. Her work has an encoded wisdom to it that refers to “the transformation of figure and principle,” as she states. Her work has frequently been paired up with Joseph Bueys, another artist with a shamanistic bent.
Both af Klint and Kunz’s work, mysterious and deeply resonate, inspires me to a focused meaning of listening, of reciprocity and active reflection, and to the idea of giving up personal control. Not wishing ideas to hold me hostage, I choose instead to work with them as sources of conceptual inspiration that eventually turn into experience; dissolving points of reference and peeling away a few layers of our habitual haze.
As a contrast to the pervasiveness of materialism, “Kiss Universe” is a reminder of “other” in the process of image making, and to a direct and intimate experience, a distillation of an unending and deep yearning for unity.
All content © 2013 by Daniel Berlin