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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

Mind-landscape and Asian influences

Hakone; Kosui. Utagawa Hiroshige 1833–34 (source)

Art attuned to the unknowable

There's a wonderful collection of essays in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia,1860-1989 that investigates how Asian culture presented new conceptions of nature to American landscape artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Kathleen Pyne and D. Scott Atkinson, in their essay Landscapes of the Mind, describe a fundamental shift in landscape artists prior to WWI; a shift from western experiences of subject-object to one of a unified 'mind-landscape'.

[Despite the binary notion embedded in mind-landscape (binary notions being askewed by New Materialism) this essay offers valuable insights into why and how these Asian influences persist in my own art practice today.]

Pyne and Atkinson begin with modernist artists ...

'In their search to picture the veiling of revelation of spiritual reality in the material realm, these artists appropriated from Japanese ukiyo-e prints or Chinese literati ink painting an aesthetics of transparency, weightlessness, dematerialization, silence, and rhythmic movement and harmony; in the Chinese painting, they would isolate the concepts of flow and merging' (Pyne and Atkinson p89).

[This gets a big 'YES' from me; it is what I'm trying to do in my installations - revel the essential underlying quality of here and now through transparency, weightlessness, dematerialisation, silence and rhythmic movement and harmony.]

The authors describe how this appropriated aesthetic is rendered in James Whistler's dreamlike nocturne paintings from the 1870's which Pyne describes as holding 'a sense of the unseen in his disembodiment of nature':

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, 1871. J. Whistler. Tate.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75. J Whistler. Tate.

Nocturne: Black and Gold - the Falling Rocket, 1875. J Whistler. SmartHistory.

Whistler's artworks illustrate the depth of Asian influence on American artists prior to the first and second world war but it was Arthur Wesley Dow, when teaching at the Pratt Institute (1895-1903) and other art colleges up till 1922, that 'disseminated his "universal" principles of art' - 'rendering the weightlessness of the world as dream' to a new generation of artists (Pyne and Atkinson p89).

Eastern and Western art combine

In Dow's book Composition: A Series of Exercises Selected from a New System of Art Education (1899), Pyne and Atkinson explain his attempts to synthesis the principles of design in Eastern and Western art to achieve a reposeful, floating image -

' comparing compositions by Utagawa Hiroshige, Piero della Francesca, Whistler, and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Dow's line drawings clarify how each work's horizontal and vertical elements balance and fill the frame in an interesting and harmonious manner. He emphasized the rhythmic spacing of motifs as a method of enlivening the surface and respecting its flattness [...] He also insisted artists study the Japanese concept of nōtan, the relation of light and dark masses, and color had to be employed carefully, as it could disrupt the harmony and balance achieved by nōtan [...] His chapter 'Line Drawing' taught Japanese brushwork, giving painters another tool in making their touches to the surface into gestures as rhythmic and expressive as possible' (Pyne and Atkinson p89).

The following illustrations show how Dow's teachings permeated through his students:

Regent's Canal, London. Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1904 Photogravure print (source)

The Red Man, Gertrude Kasebier. Photograph, 1903 (source)

These two photographic artworks were part of the avant-garde Photo-Secession movement, synthesising new photographic techniques with Asian aesthetics to create art 'attuned to the unknowable in nature' (p91). Langdon Coburn's work brings a dreamlike quality to London's unsanitary canals, while Kasebier's work reveals a shy and gentle inner landscape of indigenous American Indians at odds with popular American culture of the time.

Alfred Stieglitz was a significant influencer in the New York art scene with his amorphous cloud images, but it is his partner Georgia O'Keeffe, artist and student of Dow, whose art really speaks to my heart of inner landscapes attuned to the unknowable.

Sky Above Clouds, IV. Georgia O'Keffe 1965 (source)

Rust Red Hills, Georgia O'Keffe, 1932 (source)

O'Keffe's lyrical works evoke an essential quality of space and place filled with 'sound and silence rendered as colour and form' (p91). The far is near and the near is far and we, the audience, can find space to exist within this artwork O'Keffe has created. We are here and now, we can feel her embodiment in this moment of being, and like the Japanese ukiyo-e artists before her, we can be present together in this mind-landscape.

Art of Perceptual Experience

This perceptual experience of time and space merging, so evident in O'Keffe's works, would continue to inspire a new generation of American abstract artists from the1960s onwards. Artists like Robert Irwin, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra and James Turrell would investigate the essence of consciousness centered on an intentionality that is explicitly in the first person; a phenomenological theory proposed by German philosopher Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth century.

Alexandra Munroe describes in her essay Art of Perceptual Experience, how these artists blended Asian timelessness and humanist universalism with a western Minimalist aesthetic influenced by Husserl's ideas of phenomenology, to create a space where 'consciousness is purified through the act of concentrated contemplation' (Munroe p287).

Reinhardt's black square paintings of 1961-1967 illustrate how this conflation of 'pure abstraction and ecstatic minimalism' shifts an audiences' seeing, 'from an optical event to a phenomenological process, and made durational time (of looking at the painting) a medium of ontological awareness' (Munroe p287). In Reinhardt's own words, 'In this suspended state of mind, the boundaries of self are dissolved in a timeless sense of unity with the object of contemplation' (Munroe p288).

This contemplative place is what I was exploring last year as I embarked on a process of reduction which aimed to withdraw from the concrete world of mountain, forest and sea and move towards the concept of phenomenology and a state of 'immanence' i.e. when a state of spirit finds its presence in the ephemeral, repeated 'epiphanies of daily life' rather than transcendental experiences of 'feeling beyond or outside the world' (Munroe p289).

James Turrell's Meeting (Day) from 1986, is an artwork that exquisitely evokes feelings of immanence by enlivening our spirit through the everyday experience of gazing up at the sky.

Turrell smashed through a 42-inch-thick ceiling of concrete slab to realise this artwork! Like O'Keffe and Stieglitz 50 years earlier, Turrell frames the sky to reveal what is already revealed to us. Only in this work, the sky is the material reduced to its simplest and purest form.

It is this materiality, encapsulated in the contemporary ethos of New Materialism, that I will explore more fully next.


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