yang bang thin yin

Pat steir

 (Pat Steir images courtesy of CHEIM & READ)


Contemplation by which we know and love the creator, apprehending it in a deep and vital experience which is beyond the reach of any natural understanding is the reason for our creation.  Thomas Merton


            New paradigm blues are what happens in between changes. Changes are what nobody  wants because while they are happening there is massive disorientation. New paradigm euphoria is what happens with the sort of hope generated election night. This sort of hope engenders possibilities for change. This writing is about my hopes for art’s possibilities in the coming times.


            Who would argue that it is  a lack of balance that is the  largest and most disruptive beast in the jungle of contemporary life? Balance is not as important as we would like it to be, we have not lost enough, we are not close enough to extinction, leave the contemplation and prayers to the monks and artists. It seems there may be those invested in keeping their numbers small so that nothing changes? The supremacy of the lockjaw logic of royal and paternalistic order continues on. Truly it is not the one with the most toys that wins, rather it is the ones that point the way to hopes far less dense than the one we now inhabit using healing as a model rather than unlimited growth and acquisition, which is tranformed into destructive maelevolence  for life by its overvaluation and lack of consideration for the spirit. This imbalance is the core issue facing the planetary community now.


            Thomas Merton, the 20th century writer and Cistercian monk quoted above was articulate in championing contemplation. Friend of Ad Rienhardt the painter, who was referred to as the black monk of abstract expressionism, they were close friends for years. Merton practiced painting and poetry at the Gethsemone abbey where he lived. His practice and knowledge of art, in addition to his in depth correspondence with other spiritual traditions, most notably Buddhists, gave depth to his numerous writings on contemplative states.


            Contrary to what current market practice dictates,  art is not a product, but a bridge from material to spirit. Some of the finest practitioners of our times have and do practice contemplation in their makings  in dialectics of the most simply complex of dances, between this and that, surface and vision, nothing and something, history and now, work and play, solitude and everybody and light and shadow; which serve as connections to unity, being as balanced as things may be before unity is experienced, which may be as good as it gets for most of us for the time being.


            Artists as well as many others in the boomer generation were attracted to the geometry and balance depicted in the ICHING as the hexagrams Creative (yang) and  Receptive (yin). One must be balanced by the other in taoist alchemy to achieve union and harmony. These ideas are also useful in explaining any number of current imbalances based on the denigration of the female or yin spirit by the giantism and predominance of the yang functions at the present time. It is the yang bang culture of speed and projection that is overgrown out of balance, while the interior contemplative aspects of yin are practiced rarely and most usually by monks and artists. It is imperative to all of our spiritual and emotional health  that these practices be not only  made available to the public at large, but that they be sanctioned. Art may indeed be a part of saving the world, just not in the way we thought.


            There are a couple reasons modern and contemporary artists have been drawn to taoist ideas and practice, among them the late Agnes Martin, who really became an art nun of sorts, practicing an extremely monastic art & life in solitude and solidarity with the simplicities of the two dimensional grid. Her works are studies in taoist number structures, repetition and contemplation. In taoism, it is the life force itself that is seen as the divine. Contact of brush to surface is experienced as contact with the divine. When Agnes Martin spoke of her self as small and humble, she also spoke of the objects she made that were fetishized, making it possible for her to live a sanctified life. Full time artists are fortunate to live a life more balanced and in tune with spirit than the rest of us. It may yet be artists that show the way to a new way of living, more as a model of living than by  the fetishsized objects they make, no matter how masterfully they are executed.


            Pat Steir and the late Bruce Conner also illustrate connections and concepts to contemplative traditions in noteworthy ways and both have also experimented with taoist practice and ideas.


(Pat Steir images courtesy of CHEIM & READ)


            Pat Steir (an admirer of Martin’s), exemplifies the practice of yin taoism and balance in her paintings. One review of her work in Art in America a few years ago was titled the Watercourse Way, after a book by the Taoist philosopher Alan Watts. Steir spends extensive periods of contemplation before approaching the painting surface, which is interacted with by  combinations of pouring and throwing, which were techniques she studied in depth from works of ancient taoist painting masters. She recently taught a class, which I hope to have another chance to attend, through the auspices of the Zen Center of New York City. The course describes elements observable in the work such as the “study of chaos and control, chance and pattern”. Her early work plays with grid structures and other art historical references before arriving at the practice structure she presently inhabits. These paintings are strong talismans of the balance between yin and yang reflecting ideals beyond duality, inspired by the mysteries of nature utilizing elemental processes, in these instances, water. Steir has described the first and most time intensive element of her process as contemplation.


(Bruce Conner images Courtesy of GALLERY PAULE ANGLIM)

            The late Bruce Conner worked with both Christian and Taoist images and processes. The tantra mandelas done in ink on paper find correlation with the illuminations of Keltic scribes as well as Buddhist sand paintings. The rorschach inks on paper (some of which have been compared to the shroud of Turin) echo the obsessions with balance by this artist, also manifest  in works of black and white such as the collages, films and photograms. Many of his etching/collages are inhabited by catholic/christian imagery and in one of several political pranks he impersonates Christ. In a press release put out when he ran for city council in San Francisco, he riffs on Jesus’s admonition to see through one eye, in another, a call to mercy and compassion are pronounced. The early “funk” works, which among other things personified artists in solidarity with garbage collectors as members of something called the “rat bastard protective society”, this was perhaps the most slapstick of his numerous exercises in persona as medium. Most of his oeuvre was occupied with concerns of  balance and the interaction of opposites,  most notably the use of black and white predominate. Less purely meditative in the eastern sense of the word than Steir, he was also among the first to use personification and identity as media in the 60’s. One of the things that make the mandela pieces noteworthy is the departure from the operatic large scale aggressive yang painting statements of the ab exers and the neo expressionists prominent at that time. In touch with taoist practice and taking those aspects to to a yin scale modest and detailed results in trance like practice and trancelike states, for viewers with the “luxury” of contemplative time. Sanctification of this kind of time is as important to the spirit as sunshine and fresh air are to the body.




(Bruce Conner images Courtesy of GALLERY PAULE ANGLIM)

            Aside from these works and some others similarly inspired,  the function of visual art  as a contemplative aid is lost to most of us, and it is lost partly because of a vision that is exclusive rather than inclusive. The reasons for art’s loss of identity as a contemplative aid in the so called west are the exclusivity of the vision as one religion, its confinement to a few monastics and most recently, its use in art as an idol and icon symbolizing power and wealth, enshrined in amber and paralyzed by its incasement in  the gold of consumer culture.


            In the last two thousand years arts functions have been monastic and educational,  serving  the spirit in monasteries and serving institutions outside of them.  The monastic and contemplative values of art are discarded and mentioned minimally, which is strange, because it is this element of contemplation that is the largest missing element  for most of us  in our day to day living. But then this is not so strange when observing the uses art is presently engaged in.


            Healing is in too much the minority of positive events happening on this planet at this time and art is hence infused with multiple meanings and references which may in a best case scenario infuse it with the life spirit; if only for the practitioner, which is one of a very few anecdotes to living in a culture that worships the material.  Partly because these practices lead to an interior freedom that is the antithesis of being a good little soldier or going “to work” everyday, “art” is not encouraged as a function of individuation or a way of infusing personal lives with spiritual meaning, but rather utilized to generate and support bureaucracy,signify obscene wealth and irresponsible power and the least wretched of this group, as decoration.. Decoration is actually a good thing. We just want more from art. We have gone more in the direction of “more” of everything except what art is a its fundamental core, which is spiritual.


            The elements of stillness, consideration and contemplation suffer a lack of value in our lives, making them illusive to connect with. This is symptomatic of how yang, or male energy supplants and over takes the values and attributes of yin in our culture, where action, power and materialism are valued as prize attributes of functionality rather than the enslaving life destroying things that they are when overgrown as they are now. The yin attributes of contemplation, receptiveness and open spirit essential to balanced life are denigrated as the antithesis of a productive “work ethic” centered way of life.


            The histories of art and theology, so intertwined, may illuminate new ways of living and being, theology by  reintegrating contemplative values into spiritual practice and the emancipation of art practice by making contemplation accessible to the layperson through the practice of art.


            The work of art as history is only done in the most recent sense of the word. The lessons are there in the works completed. All that remains to be done that has any real value is the facilitation of freedom for more of us to participate in our own growing and becoming through practices giving equal time and value to the yin and perhaps for a time not so much to the yang; at least until sanity prevails in the rhythms and movements of our awakening.

Virginia Bryant

january  2009 usa