Saturday, May 17, 2008

An Act of Generosity

I have been reading, The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, a classic text on both the Tea Ceremony and Japanese aesthetics written in 1906. I have always been drawn to Japanese culture since I was a small child. Something about the aesthetics of that culture has always resonated as familiar and true to me. This has grown over the years, showing up as imagery in my paintings.

It has influenced my clothing line, Younger Knits, in design, motifs and use of traditional Japanese dyeing techniques like Arashi Shibori.

My understanding of the broader Asian aesthetic has grown over the years with my study of Buddhism and Kado (the Way of Flowers) in the practice of Sogetsu Ikebana. I, however, hadn't understood the depth of their influence on my art practice until now.

For ten years my creative energy was directed into my clothing designs. When in 2006 I returned to painting and photography I was struck by a major shift in my focus. Humanity had always been my subject in my early art work whether it was the outer manifestation in realist urban settings or the inner emotional and psychological workings. My choice to work in art to wear was even about clothing the human form.

But in my return to 2D media I found I had no interest in the figure as my vehicle for expression at all. Instead I found myself drawn to abstract elements, when painting, and the natural world abstracted, in my photography. Color, form, light and line in their most essential forms became my imagery. You may notice in the work I have posted on this blog and my portfolio website, the scarcity of the human form.

Only this week did I find an explanation for this shift in reading The Book of Tea. The book addresses a lot of my concerns with the power of space and aesthetics to bring mindfulness, peace and harmony to the lives of others. I found here in the art of the tea room, which centered on nature, abstracted scenery and calligraphy, the answer to my own shift in imagery. Okakura explained it this way while discussing the use of asymmetry in the search for beauty, “ True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete…. The virility of life and art lay in its possibilities for growth. In the tearoom it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself…. Uniformity of design was considered as fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became the favourite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself. We are often too much in evidence as it is, and in spite of our vanity even self-regard is apt to become monotonous." Okakura,Kakuzo 1956/s89-90
In this way the viewer is invited to become part of the work of art rather than a mere reflection or an admirer of the artist’s ego expression. It now makes sense to me why many have commented on the generosity of my newer work.

In one incident, I had documented my experience of a group retreat by photographing the spaces and details of our environment. I shared a slideshow of my images with the group. In the show there were no people included in the images. The comment I received afterward was that people appreciated the images because they felt like they were in the pictures themselves. The pictures were so evocative of the space, both mental and physical of our shared experience. If the images had been of the other participants then the experience may have focused on the memories of those relationships or reactions to the people rather than re-experiencing the more internal memories of one’s personal experience of being there in that space and time. I realize that to leave my images un-peopled has a generous feeling because it gives the viewer permission to complete the scene as they see fit.

I consider this similar to the idea of "minding the gap" in meditation. Indeed Duchamp has been known to say that it is in this gap that art happens rather than in the object or the mind of the artist. Instead it is the space between the artist, the artwork and the viewer, the place of connection both internal and external that brings a work to life. The masterpiece is alive and riveting because we each bring something more to it, invited by the artist who shows a glimpse but leaves something still unsaid.

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