The Evidence of History
This study presupposes to call as such the phenomenon triggering the spiritual and
physical beauty, which everyone touched by art is able to feel, from the point when
several components combine to form one whole. -Kokarova Vassilena
Several new/revisted paintings for a show, Devotions, 2014 inspire me to revise my artist statement. After an interesting dialogue with two friends yesterday, Hershel Weiss and Hector Contreras I want to express my sincere gratitude for their time and energy spent over several hours, after a delicious breakfast, talking about my new work. The Temple of Devotion; Spring, Summer, Falling Snow; The Temple of Many Sapphires and ten smaller text based images were birthed during a frenzy of activity in just a few weeks preceding the show. But each of the three large pieces has a longer history, another story or a pentimento -as the writer Lillian Hillman phrased-something under something that is concealed, a correction or adjustment to the composition. The word pentimento according to my recent google search is Italian, meaning repentance from the verb pentirsi, to repent. Usually this term is used in art to refer to a single painting that an individual artist created. It generally refers to a correction made in the process of that creation only revealed by the use of X-ray. For instance the adjustment of a limb on the image of a body that the artist revised in the process of composing the painting. In my use of the term here, the adjustment has come much later to a fully realized painting that I significantly changed after some years. In the case of one piece, The Temple of Devotion, this has been a ten year process. The truth of this painting is in all of the layers, the ones that are visible to the naked eye, as well as the ones below the surface.
Each of the three large 48 x 48 inch pieces in this series have traces, evidence from the previous work-underlayers. They are reclaimed and reincarnated into new images which carry the history and spirit of the old. In an essay on Interpictuality- the author says,
"In certain artists the quotation can have the shape of a self-interpicturality. In some the quotation can have the shape of a re-painting. Certain artists transform the repainting into a continual repainting or a variation of the same work." 1
The words, interpicturality as well as intertextuality and intermediality are new to me. Though the conceptual aspect of these words has become second nature to me; in our global existence we continually cross reference in conversation and every time we make a search on the World Wide Web. Derived from the Latin intertexto, meaning to intermingle while weaving, the term intertextuality was formulated by Julia Kristeva-who wrote in the 1960's about shaping meaning in text through the use other texts, into a unified whole. Shaping meaning or image by the layering of multiple references, parallels my process as I write this on my Mac computer in a program called TextEdit. I am engaged in the process of intertextuality while multiple windows are open on my desk top: a Wikipedia definition of the word; an essay by Koralova Vassilena on The Interartistic Phenomenon; another on Interpicturality in Braun-Vega's Paintings; all of this on top of a digital image of one of my paintings as a screen saver-another layered image. Like it or not, it is the world we live in now, mulit-layered windows open on our desktops forever shifting the way that we engage with information and images.
Were it not for the computer and the digital age we live in, I wonder if my work would develop as it has, I wonder whether other artists would have given themselves permission to work with interpicturallity. We see the birth of this in both Picasso's and Braque's earliest collages, where there is a layering of images sourced from various media. To paraphrase what my friend Hector said in our conversation, "the observer needs to connect through their intuition to the work of art. What the artist does is to provide conditions of meaning."* They do that through the media, perhaps the title, the scale, color, texture, etc. The conditions of meaning might also include other factors like location, light, sound, etc. We do live in a new age far different than artists worked in even a generation ago. We weave in and out of so much each day on our screens, a plethora of possibility with media.
I love stories and as time seems to move faster and faster into our collective future, I believe we need our stories more. I do not believe we leave behind the past but carry it forward. The heart and soul of my work as an artist is about reconsidering history, this personal quest became more apparent to me recently. My favorite aunt and uncle recently passed away, earlier this year, within two months of one another. A piece of extraordinary cloth that they had brought back from Japan after WWII impressed me as a child. It is a silver threaded masterpiece of weaving, a silk cloth for an obi-the broad sash worn around the waist over a kimono. My aunt had a long piece of it framed vertically and it always hung in their living room. It has a pattern of trees, pine type trees that appear to be flying through a silvery space. After their recent memorial service my brother sent it to me and I now have the great pleasure to live with it again.
Both my father and my uncle served in the military during WWII. My uncle, a surgeon, was stationed on a military base in Yokahama and my father was a paratrooper sent there during the U.S. occupation post-war. The work I am doing now and just previous to this (see Plum Blossoms for Adversity) is connected to their time there and acts as a sort of healing to the wounds they suffered psychologically. The obi cloth threads, the weft and warp of it still inspire me.
All these factors, afford me as a 21st century artist the ability as Vassilena says, "to be better able to express the inexpressible...."2 And that is my ultimate goal, to be better able to express that which is beyond words or images. The spirit of these paintings is meant to convey sacred stories, the text of which continues to arise out of the heart and soul of me. Often the greater meaning runs ahead of me and I catch up to it later. The pentimento of these pieces connects me to the past, a healing for my generation for what transpired in the world before I was born and to the present.
* "The Conditions of Meaning is a phrase Hector Contreras coined during our conversation June 21, 2014 in reference to my exhibition, Devotions.
1. Dr. Kubilay Aktulum, INTERPICTURALITY IN BRAUN-VEGA’S PAINTINGS
2. The Interartistic Phenomenon, Kolarova Vassilena
Artist Statement January 2013
ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (in the sense [restore to life, give life to] ; formerly also as inliven): from 16th-cent. enlive, inlive (in the same sense), from en- 1 , in- 2 (as an intensifier) + life .
A canary was sitting on my bed yesterday, right in front of a stack of pillows on a duvet -covered comforter. It is January and my bed is dressed for winter nights. The canary, (we just met last week), is a recent adoption. He came from a friend who has cancer and feels less than able to take care of him. I am pleased to know this little creature, Piccolo, I think we are going to be a good match. As he is singing his beautiful song as I type, yes, I am very pleased to make his acquaintance. He is known as a Red-factor canary, bred to produce red feathers depending on his diet. But now he is more a mixture of cadmium orange and lemon yellow. Piccolo got out of his cage yesterday, all my fault, as I was cavalier in opening the largest door wide during the action of changing the papers on the floor of the cage.
It was perhaps a subconscious move on my part, to see how he would react, never-the less, I was surprised. He saw the opportunity to spread his wings and went for it. Then spent the entire day hopping and flying around my bedroom, hiding under a mirrored nightstand or behind a chair while I vainly attempted to rescue him. Since he hasn't had much opportunity to fly during his four or five years of life, I suppose I feel kind of sorry for him. And so I let him have as much time as he wanted, took a relaxed attitude about it -what else could I do-and marveled at the wonder of him throughout the day. I came and went from the room, careful to close the door lest he get out into the rest of my house.
Seeing this tiny winged one sitting on the bed looking so absolutely charming, a brilliant yellow life on the white comforter quickened my pulse. His presence lifting the spirit of the space as he moved from an upholstered chair seat to the floor, then again, flying across the room landing on an Asian cabinet like a living figurine with feathers amongst the framed family photos. And that brings me to the subject of painting. It's all about animation right now. Light and animation. All about making something that references nature but in an ever changing way. I am working with metallic leaf, composite materials of aluminum and brass, applied in thin layers with varnish to the surface of prepared panels. I let the leafing make it's way to the tacky varnish when it is almost but not fully dry and with the lightest touch like a feather, press it down. Sometimes a whole leaf will adhere perfectly without a blemish but more often, it cracks, splits apart and reveals the under-color in the process. I have to accept the organic aspects of this medium and surrender to the nature of the delicate material. The grid structure the shiny square pieces applied in formation along side the unexpected irregular breaks give the pieces both order and chaos, something like a garden. But it is the way the overall effect of the metallic finish reflects light that I most respond to. There is no way to capture the changing luster of these paintings photographically. They never look the same way twice. They change at all hours of the day, with the seasons, at dawn and dusk, reflecting what is around them. As you move in front of them, your refection glides across the surface, evident in a subtle way, as are the other elements in the room, be that a canary or a jade plant. I have had to surrender to a semblance of the truth in documenting them because there is no one truth to them.
The Flora Series is a continuation of a body of work I started last year, early in 2012. I wasn't sure when I started this work where it would take me, I only knew that something needed to change about my process to accommodate me in the space I work in. I am fortunate to live in a semi-rural neighborhood in New Mexico. Urban enough to have community and just enough of what matters to me in terms of landscape: a white horse across the road named Sunday and six goats he lords over, an old massive cottonwood tree. Always the pace of nature around me, especially in the spring when Rose, my land-lady makes her organic garden available and a field in the back which abut's a park. But the little house/casita I live in is small and though not nearly ideal in size for a large scale oil painter, it makes up for in character and location. A friend of mine, also a painter, once told me of a scene from a film she saw about an artist. The artist only had an armoire and an area rug to call a studio. I always think back to this vision fondly, a romantic notion, yes, and as a serious consideration. That is, in some ways, all we need as artists, everything else is a luxury.
Piccolo inspired me when he left his cage for a day, the confines of which are, for the most part, all he has ever known. He animated my space with his curiosity, stretched his wings into my imagination and helped me to consider how these paintings enliven the spaces they exist in, how they receive light and reflect it back. It is a question I am still considering and no doubt will for some time. It's a dance and I am still learning the steps. And oh yeah, Piccolo is back in his cage singing his beautiful song.
For more of a dialogue on my process, here is a link to a conversation I was part of at Humboldt State University in 2010, with Kirsten Dorje, Lang Julian, Lynn Risling and Deborah Gavel -PAINTING SPIRIT: A Four Part Conversation http://humboldt-dspace.calstate.edu/handle/2148/37
Artist’s Statement 2012
First for the “artist” himself when he paints a piece, and then for the people who are later going to work on seeing this image, to meditate on it and its meaning—and what is more, through this meditation, finally to make the divinity herself appear.
-Franck Andre Jamme
In May of 2011 I was graced with the opportunity to have an artist-in-residecny at the Morris Graves Foundation in Loleta, California. My new work is in response to that time in nature, connecting with the primal Redwood forested land there, walking the wet fern-lined trails to a waterfall. And in response to the absolute wonder of seeing a bald eagle flying across my field of vision three days in a row over the lake outside the studio space.
In this moment, I feel on fire with a breath of life that I have not felt before. Sometimes there is a creative urge that wells up like a torch song, deep and sensual. Creativity can manifest itself through the body in many ways, all at the same time. Sometimes it is slow and melancholy for me, or inspiration comes in suddenly like a hiccup in unexpected jolts but does not last. There have been years where a sort of static agitates my body the way a radio station not quite on the mark does, during those times the path as an artist is a struggle to bear with; my clarity is hard to find. For now, in this moment, it is springtime and the birds are chirping and bees are active in the field behind my casita in New Mexico. Life is bursting from the earth in welcome abundance this year. The wisteria in bloom around the neighborhood has never been so fecund and the forever sweet scent of lilacs, my favorite flower, wafts through the airwaves. In the garden outside, though it is still early, much is growing. Everything is reborn and resounding gratitude drips from my brushes.
Fertility expressed everywhere, oh, the wonder of baby green leaves appearing on winter trees, bursting out clouds of tenderness onto the landscape. Now with brushes in my hands, oil paint on my fingertips, I want to match the orgy of birds and bees mating around me. My long desire is to visually express the mysterious wonder of all that is. I think I understand better what the Baroque period of the 17th century was all about: embellishing the palaces of France and Italy with the most extreme extravagance found in the gardens of nature at springtime.
Stephen H. Buhner, in his book, The Secret Teachings of the Plants explains why Science gets it wrong when thinking compartmentalizes any aspect of being. “Life will never be found in the DNA nor any part of the whole. Life is the thing that is more than the sum of the parts...” We are together in this experience, one superorganism with earth and we cannot exist without other--plants, animals and minerals. My current work is about an imaging of that idea.
A new book of Tantric tempera, gouache and watercolors on paper from Rajasthan, India, I have only seen in reproductions, has inspired my current body of work. What makes these small pieces so compelling is the character of the handmade papers, which has become stained and randomly marked over time, adding something to the overall effect akin to modern art. I bow to the anonymous artists who made these abstract Tantric meditations in an attempt “to make divinity herself appear.”*
In this moment, working with the alchemy of metallic leaf, beeswax and oil, I am enjoying a reverie with mediums - I am thinking about what a painting might look like that weaves the music of Lana Del Rey with the teachings of the Dali Lama- goddess lounge singer meets the sacred path- I mean not disrespect but full appreciation for the merging of the sensual and the spiritual.
* for more on Tantric Song
Artist Statement 2009
The Pharmacology of Nature
It is clear we are in a sea change of experience. For some the world seems to be falling apart
while others see this as a time of great potential for immense change. In the studio I meditate on the
latter; I am involved in making images that reflect a sense of a flowering of hope for humanity and the
environment around the globe. My new work is an effort to communicate an awareness about our
changing environment through painting. Nature is a theatre of textures and colors, all of it medicinal,
every flower, every substance has the potential to be healing. I am interested in the connection be-
tween creativity and our evolution.
Two new paintings, Milk and Honey, True Love and Milk and Honey, Nirvana perhaps best express
these thoughts. They are amalgams, the result of many materials and combined influences along my
journey as an artist-- Tibetan mandalas (Thanka paintings,) a love of pattern in nature, textiles from
indigenous cultures, and long walks in New Mexico. They are offerings of beauty in these troubled
Often I am influenced by what I am reading and currently rereading, James Elkins’s book: What
Painting Is has greatly affected my teaching as well my studio time. Elkins’s book attempts to unfold
the act of painting and that unlanguaged time artists spend in their studios, mixing and stirring like
alchemists working with “water and stones,” the basic ingredients common to both painting and al-
chemy. Elkins’s brilliant sentence, “painting is liquid thought,” says it best. In the studio I am chef and
sous-chef, a little mad scientist experimenting with ingredients, answerable only to my intuitive re-
sponse to the physical qualities of paint.
A recent “recipe” of wax, gold leaf, turquoise stones, glitter and broken French porcelain has turned
the tactile surface of my oil paintings into something approaching assemblage. But it is the spiritual
qualities of these substances or the potential for that which drives me in the studio, --the idea that
painting like alchemy can be about the pursuit of an ultimate aim, transformation/evolution, appeals to
my artisan nature. Working with material matter in a quest for truth and beauty, the methods, like the
mythology of alchemy, can be obscure. Yet it is just that mysterious quality, ever elusive, which com-
pels me to continue the quest.
In the broadest sense, my work is multi-cultural. It has a “heritage” that is as diverse as my own
Eastern European and Native American ancestry. My paternal Grandmother, who was a Polish immi-
grant and spoke little English, communicated with me through other means. I remember the shelves
in her dining room always had elaborately painted Easter eggs resting in little stands. The eggs were
covered with intricate floral designs, using a wax- resist method. She was also an alchemist, trans-
forming eggs, flour, water and golden raisins into the greatest bread. My childhood memories are
framed in a sort of synesthesia of sight and taste, a merging of my senses to experience visual pat-
terns as something delicious. Essentially, this work, like my Grandmother’s bread, is about an en-
gagement with the physical senses, a sensibility that reaches toward a visual seduction and a culture
of the heart.