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The Inward Eye: Transcendence in Contemporary Art

“Transcendence” — it’s one of those slippery words concerning our spirits whose meaning has become as bastardized and lost on us as its cousins ‘sublime” (“The cheesecake at Barnaby‘s is absolutely sublime!”) and “zen” (“Dude — we’ve been staring at the blue TV screen for like 2 hours now. That is so zen.”). [See James Turrell’s Zarkov, below].

Donald Moffett, #10 (Lot 081200)

We use these words to signify that which affects us too vaguely to elicit specific adjectives, perhaps just to mean "something too moving for words." Dare we say spiritual? Nay — that reeks of anti-intellectualism, organized religion, and even the failure of the most spiritually based artwork to move us profoundly (Rothko Chapel, anyone?).

The description of art as ‘spiritual” doesn’t sit well with contemporary audiences right now, so instead we cough out vague & dreary words to describe that which moves us beyond our intellectual capacity. Generally we mean work devoid of irony, political gesture, art world in-jokes, and nihilism, and high on quietness, understatement, simplicity and beauty. Usually work that we are able to project ourselves onto without getting overly absorbed in the artist’s references and commentaries. In short, it is work that does not dictate how to think or feel, but stays open for us, that we might have a new sensation, a moment of peace or clarity, and even a sense that things are well in the world(!). As Ann Hamilton put it, “what I hope is that a project starts at your feet and works up your body, and the last place it arrives is your head.”

It should come as no surprise that concepts so vague and open-ended manifest themselves in works of art equally ambiguous. Much of the artwork in The Inward Eye at the CAM are blank, expansive pieces — minimal, yet lacking the clinical rigor associated with Judd, Andre, et.al. Many of the pieces here use their vacuous space as ground for emotional and spiritual frolic. This is touchy-feely minimalism, perhaps best exemplified by Donald Moffett‘s #10 (Lot 081200). What appears from a distance to be a flat black canvas reveals upon closer inspection thousands of pointed hangnail slivers of extruded black oil paint. In #10 it’s as if the “void” (another vague metaphysical term) has become tangible and even seductive.

Roni Horn, Gold Field

Charles Ray and James Turrell both present simple but deceptive pieces that play on and subvert the viewer’s initial perception of the work. Ray’s 1989 Rotating Circle looks like a very boring minimalist piece — a thin circle drawn directly on the museum wall. But this is no static piece: it’s a spinning disc inlayed in the wall, rotating at an imperceptible speed. If not transcendent, definitely intoxicating.

From across the room, James Turrells‘ wall piece Zarkov is the size and shape of a household TV screen, flickering cold cathode shades of blue. I thought Turrell had taken the easy route and given us a masked-off tube to stare at, but I should not have underestimated his knack for magic. Although the colors are all emitted from a television set, we are, as we always are with Turrell’s work, staring simply at light, at blankness, at a TV’s reflections captured on a white wall.

Several artists relied heavily on the emotional gravity of materials to provide some transcendent oomph. Most successful in this vein was Roni Horn‘s shimmering Gold Field, a 4 x 5″ sheet of crinkled gold leaf lying on the floor. In pre-Renaissance paintings, gold leaf was used to represent the kingdom of heaven, of transcendent beauty unimaginable to any common viewer, and it was often wrapped round the Madonna. Here, it’s as if a slice of that heaven has slid off the canvas and is lying at our feet for us to dip our toes into, an entrance into a beauty we’ve never experienced. Not a bad offer if you ask me. Walter de Maria’s High Energy Bar looked like a straight-forward stainless steel rod, until I held perfectly still and tried to perceive any energy waves or special aura being emitted. Wait, I did hear something like a hum or vibration? Can this really be a “high-energy” bar, or have I just been bowled over by the title? After a moment I realized I was hearing the motor spinning Charles Ray’s disc around. I moved on.

Felix Gonzales Torres

As a review in the Houston Press sarcastically (how else?) noted, there are a lot of pieces here that refer to the clouds and stars, but this is just the show for these works. If I could have back all hours I have spent in contemplation of the skies, I would not trade one second of it. What better chance to realize our place in the universe, and the wonders of the heavens? As Robert Storr recently wrote in Artforum, it takes “a special turn kind of mind to look at the sky and see goats, celestial twins, and bearskin-clad hunters.” Better men and women than ourselves have found mountains of inspiration in the stars. I take great comfort in the knowledge that artists still find inspiration up above, and share part of that with us.

Bill Viola, The Locked Garden

In Robert Gober‘s Prison Window, we look into the clouds and see a vison of release and freedom unattainable. In a dimmed room, like those used for video projections, Gober has inserted a barred window that looks out on brilliant clouds. Clouds have rarely looked so healing or refreshing as they do in Gober’s piece, but here they are like Tantalus‘ pool of water: to be longed for and admired, but never truly experienced.

Also in the exhibition is one of Felix Gonzales Torres‘ most famous works — a short stack of oversized photocopies of clouds, in endless supply, free for the taking by any viewer. At one time I was suspicious of this gesture, but now I feel that anyone who wishes to share anything with me, especially a slice of heaven, must be among the angels.

Houston artist Rachel Ranta‘s 7-panel painting Cloud shows a series of scenes of a wispy cloud passing by a window, dissipating and reforming while thoughts such as “fade to black,” “hard to hide,” and “time to go” scroll across the bottom of each panel.

I initially questioned the inclusion of an enormous photographic star-scape by Thomas Ruff, as people usually failed to mention that the image was derived from a photographic slide that he bought in the gift shop of an observatory in Switzerland. Hardly a transcendent beginning. Yet Ruff crouchily says that most people don’t care about the image’s origin, and usually get lost in the photograph. His statement says that people often confuse his intellectual exercise with an experience with nature. Perhaps what Ruff doesn’t realize is that maybe even the most academically rigorous artwork yields a refreshing honesty now and then.

There, too, are pieces in the show whose inclusion baffle me somewhat. Bill Viola, for instance, seems like a shoo-in for any exhibit of this nature. But The Locked Garden was the least moving (!) piece of his that I’ve ever seen, even though it was probably the most stunning technically. Two flat video monitors sat on a pedestal, with a headshot in each — an adult man in one and a woman in the other. The picture quality was unlike any video, television, or computer screen image I’ve ever witnessed. Every pore, every facial hair was visible, like Thomas Ruff’s early photo portraits. But as people so often do in Viola’s pieces, these two moved verrrrrry slowwwwly. Many people claim not to have realized they were moving at all upon first glance, but passed back by to see the woman’s face in an entirely different expression. All said, not a bad piece, but the piece by Viola across the street at MFAH was much more appropriate for this theme.

I’ll admit it — I’m lost on Robert Wilson’s Blue Geese. This was one of the tackiest, most comical pieces I’ve seen recently, located in an otherwise austere and understated exhibit. 3 stuffed birds, dyed blue like so many pink Easter chickadees, hanging from the ceiling by monofilament, with the knots sticking out and everything. This is transcendent? This is meaningful? This is the corniest stuff I’ve seen all day.

Gerhard Richter‘s Forest at Königstein appeared anomalous to the exhibition when I saw it used as the central image, until I began to view it as a metaphor for the transcendent art experience. Richter blurrily gives us a sweeping landscape with a building at left, and on top, two small figures, dwarfed by the vista in true German Romantic tradition. The scene these figures overlook is very hazy and unclear to us — Richter provides us with only vague information — rolling hills, trees, mist, stretching as far as we can see. The artist hints at a transcendent moment (for the roof dwellers), but keeps us from it. He admits in the brief wall text that his landscapes ‘show (his) yearning…(and are) motivated by the dream of classical order and a pristine world — by nostalgia in other words.” Sounds largely like what I had been trying to break through to with many of the pieces in this show — a slice of inner harmony. By admitting his own inadequacy at fully providing this transcendent experience with paint, he softly alludes to it through his characters and their distanced yet infinite relationship to Nature. I thought of my experience with the Gober piece, and gazing down at Roni Horn’s gold sheet and realized I was just like Richter’s figures — beholding perfection, in awe of the majestic. Distanced from it, but better for having communed with it. It’s all so zen. So sublime.

Images courtesy the artists and the Contemporary Art Museum.

Chas Bowie is an artist and writer in Houston.

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