Peter Dornauf – 25 June, 2014
The artist here loads on the symbolism as well as loading on the paint. More is more in this universe of dots, cosmic circles and half circles that vibrate with a cornucopia of hot colours. Clash of opposites is one of the recurring elements where depth and flat surface play off against each other, where chaos and control vie for position, where metaphysics and the physics rub shoulders in a world both sensuous and strictly mathematical.
Curator Steph Chalmers
3 June - I August 2014
Inside the secular city religious art is often regarded with a certain quizzical ambivalence, unless it’s indigenous and then it’s indulged. Colin McCahon in the late forties got away with it because at the time, despite Auschwitz, we were essentially, but somewhat incredulously, still believers. It wasn’t until the sixties that secularism began to bite. This saw the West turn its face away from things otherworldly and embrace a world that favoured hedonism and political activism where God was dead and rock music was alive and pumping.
Just like the British who don’t do religion in politics, similarly New Zealand seldom does religion in art. McCahon is the big exception and New Zealand born but New York based Max Gimblett, is another with his Zen inspired creations, (though some might argue that Buddhism is not a religion). Significantly Gimblett left New Zealand in the sixties and ended up in the more religiously inclined America where he established his practice, working in the abstract tradition from the early seventies, becoming an American citizen in 1979.
During this period with Christianity an exhausted cultural force, some in the West looked eastward for spiritual supplement, part of the New Age movement that saw Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca and whatnot become a source of transcendent comfort. The Beatles trip to India in the late Sixties generated some of this mystical fascination while Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach (1972) helped it on its way. In this context it is thus not too surprising that Gimblett’s practice took a similar trajectory, working in a climate where all is united to everything in one great monist embrace. The dawning of The Age of Aquarius and all that.
Historically this shift represented a great turn inwards, looking for personal contentment and a retreat from fractious political engagement, a generational move that was characterized by Tom Wolfe, in terms of the period, as the “me” decade.
Gimblett emerged out of this milieu a Buddhist monk and in his art the quatrefoil, the four loped shape of overlapping circles, (an ancient pagan symbol of good luck and magic), became his signature style in which to present his spiritual predilections. For several decades he has rung the changes on this format which for him represents among other things something he calls “the age of quaternity” or the fourth level of consciousness, of which, according to Gimblett, there are twelve. This hierarchical structure is standard stuff among all general schema related to mythical theories linked to the ages of humanity - Hesiod proposing five, the biblical book of Daniel producing four, all based on metallic symbolism. Later writers played with the numbers while Madame Blavatsky’s theosophical doctrine in the nineteenth century tacked on to Darwin’s evolutionary findings an age of spiritual regeneration which Russian artist Kandinsky and others enthusiastically took up.
Gimblett has something of the same partialities; indeed he seems to have appropriated one of Kandinsky’s ciphers from his Bauhaus days, namely the checkerboard pattern and used it as a backdrop in some of his recent pieces.
The exhibition currently showing at the Calder and Lawson Gallery at Waikato University Academy of Performing Arts is a series of Gimlett’s latest works on paper (twenty two in total, all generously donated to the university collection) and goes by the grand title, The Universe. His circles within circles do have a slight planetary look but this is obviously not the artist’s concern.
Spiritual enlightenment and the evolution of consciousness has always been Gimblett’s program and he specifically refers to this, both in a work called Pentafoil Dance and in an interview curator Steph Chalmers conducted with him prior to the show. Answering an enquiry about the introduction of the new five circle format, Gimblett replied: “It’s an attempt to move to five from four according to the Twelve Dimensions of Consciousness. It is not easy. We are living in an age of quaternity, moving towards the Transcendental Fifth”. This is typical theosophical fare which Blavatsky borrowed from various Eastern sources and reconfigured for the Western market.
Gimblett’s usual approach to his work is evidenced here where we see various explosions of paint violently thrown onto the paper that splatter like some wild Abstract Expressionist release of energy. This ground is then worked on with a layer of hard edged precise forms - circles abutted to form the ubiquitous quatrefoil which might be then overlaid in some cases with other four-way motifs like the magic knot, configured by the interlacing of vesica piscis forms, (linked to the mystical Kabbalah or yonic symbolism) or versions of the cross patee, a form of the cross in medieval heraldry, significantly shaped within a square. All this sacred geometry sometimes sees checkerboard forms and gridded dots floating sideways in and out of the mix. Dribbles of paint in good Bill Hammond style are also employed in this maelstrom of symmetrical configurations, saturated with colour, gold leaf and globules of leaking ink and acrylic washes.
The artist here loads on the symbolism as well as loading on the paint. More is more in this universe of dots, cosmic circles and half circles that vibrate with a cornucopia of hot colours. The inclusion of Lichtenstein look-alike Benday dots adds a kind of Pop art feel to the potpourri of forms, dyes and shades. Clash of opposites is one of the recurring elements where depth and flat surface play off against each other, where chaos and control vie for position, where metaphysics and the physics rub shoulders in a world both sensuous and strictly mathematical.
Whether the secularist reads the message with a willing suspension of disbelief or simply indulges in the luxurious feast of shapes and vibrant hues is a matter for individual taste. But the show is certainly a riot of colour and controlled forms except for the more minimalist black and white works, made up of roughly painted circles and smiling skulls, a reminder of human impermanence that brings with it lessons in Buddhist detachment.
Gimblett also has an exhibition of similar works on canvas concurrently showing at Aesthete Gallery, Hamilton. Both shows gorge the senses with their sensuous rush of colour and eye-popping lavish dance of shapes and notations, but it’s here that a certain puzzling element arises. All this sumptuousness, not surprisingly, incites a certain whelming desire which seems to work against the Buddhist notion of the negation of desire. A curious contradiction.