Friday 10 April 2020

bodhi - the paintings of Joan Watts

Taking a short break from National Poetry Month, because today is the birthday of artist, Joan Watts. I wrote an essay about her work, particularly a series called bodhi which became a book published by Radius Books in 2018. I posted about the series and book back in 2018, and promised to eventually post the text of my essay - but never did. 

Since its Joan's birthday today, and since I feel like her work is a balm for times like these, I am fulfilling my promise now. And including some images to go along with.

- the paintings of Joan Watts


Michaela Kahn, PhD

This dewdrop world –
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet …
--Kobayashi Issa

            Each painting is a breath.
Have you ever really felt a breath? Inhale. Slowly. Feel the texture of the air, cool through the nose, the slow expansion of belly, chest, throat. You are a three-dimensional being. You are connected to this invisible matrix that binds the world together. The world is inside you. Exhale, slowly. Chest falling, muscles letting go, the air leaving you, warmer now having taken a bit of your heat. You are falling outside yourself, released, part of the world.
This is only the beginning of where the twenty paintings of the series, bodhi, by Joan Watts, are leading you.
Joan Watts’ light-drenched studio overlooks the canyon formed by the Santa Fe River as it flows down from the reservoir into town. In the studio’s foyer a large window looks out across the canyon at the pine-covered triangle of Picacho Peak. Beyond the peak the sky is a radiant, impossible blue. This is a view repeated throughout Joan Watts’ home – just across a little stone driveway from the studio. The living room, bedroom, kitchen, and her small low-ceilinged mediation room are all turned in a sort of vigil toward this view of Picacho – with its slow rise into sky. 
All twenty of Joan Watts’ new series of paintings, bodhi, are hung around the walls of the studio. Just over a year ago, I was invited here to see the first two of these paintings, and now I am back again, to see them completed.
At the base of each square painting a single color begins an ascendance toward white. Ranging from gray to sky blue through sunset orange and lime green, these colors are sometimes barely there, the merest ghost of sunrise on cloud which gently fades to white, carrying the color almost through the whole canvas. In other pieces the color lies in a dense accumulation at the very bottom of the piece – diffusing and disappearing swiftly into full, roiling white.
This rise of color, the diffusion into white, create a sense of depth and space in each piece. While there is a natural sweep of upward motion there is also a feeling of expansion outward. (That three-dimensional intake of breath). And with their painterly texture of interweaving and overlapping waves – these paintings seem to counterpoint that expansive movement with another rhythm, a pulse just beyond hearing – the particle/wave paradox that underlies the universe, known through its incarnations as light, water, air, sound, and color. (The world inside you).
Those familiar with the work of Joan Watts will find this gentle dissolve familiar from earlier series, but bodhitwenty paintings, half of them 12” x 12” panels, the other half 24’ x 24” canvases – takes this process beyond any of the previous versions. bodhi is a culmination and a fulfillment of a lifetime of both painting and meditative practice.
Joan Watts started painting at the age of 18. At 19, Watts spent a year in Florence, Italy with a friend, working in a small studio in the mornings and wandering through churches and museums in the afternoons. Surrounded by this wealth of Renaissance art and architecture, exposed to works by the likes of Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo – it isn’t surprising that this experience drew her more firmly toward art. When she returned to the United States, Watts rented a cottage on the Florida coast, living alone and painting for six months. It was there, in solitude, days spent studying the play of light on water, that Watts decided to enroll at the San Francisco Art Institute.  During her years there, 1960-63, the SFAI was under the influence of the likes of Richard Deibenkorn and Clyfford Still, a growing nucleus for a uniquely “West Coast” abstractionist movement. It was, as Watts says, “A wonderful place to develop.”
When she graduated from SFAI, Watts was offered a graduate assistantship at the University of Hawaii where she taught, studied, and continued to develop her work until she received her MFA in 1966. Hawaii, before the tourism and development boom, was a magical place and Watts was tempted to stay. But the continent was calling. Watts had a desire to be near the museums, galleries, and thriving art world of New York City and found a job teaching at SUNY New Paltz in the Hudson Valley, a couple of hours by train from the city. Over time, though, Watts found the distance too great, and she made a move to teach at Briarcliff College in 1968, in order to be more fully immersed in the art and life of the city.
Watts eventually moved into a loft in SoHo - back, as she says, when “SoHo was SoHo” – a mecca for artists. She began to find a foothold in the art world, earning solo and group exhibitions at a number of galleries both in New York and internationally during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Having retired from teaching at Briarcliff in 1977 in order to focus wholly on her painting, by the mid-80’s, Watts felt as if she had reached the end of what she’d imagined she needed in order to become a “serious” artist. The city no longer held the same thrill for her. It was time for a change.
Watts’ move to New Mexico in 1986 marked a significant turning point not only in her life, but in her art. Having always worked in a reductive mode, by the time Watts came to New Mexico, her work had moved through several different periods – from hard-edged geometric abstraction into a more organic expressionistic abstraction, experimenting with form, including the use of circular canvases. Watts had brought several of these circular stretchers with her to New Mexico, but the experience of such vast horizons, dawn and dusk uninterrupted across a vista, the quality of light in the desert southwest, radically changed her focus. She didn’t return to her circular paintings - instead she began to paint landscapes. Sky, subtly diffused color, the anchor of a strip of earth or stone, light – these elements broke open on Watts’ canvases and marked a distinct shift toward the work that represents the latter half of Watts’ career.
It was in 1989, when Watts was diagnosed with breast cancer, that the next important shift came. Looking for answers, for a fundamental change in her life, Watts began to investigate Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Reading books, listening to lectures on tape, Watts taught herself the basics of meditation and began a practice that would become a central part of her life.
About three years in, Watts found herself looking for more formal support and became interested in the teachings of Shinzin Young, a Vipassana Buddhist teacher. She signed up for a ten-day silent retreat he offered in the mountains above Santa Barbara. She admits she had no idea what she was getting into. Having never sat formally with a group, nor having ever spent 10 days in silence, the experience was both shocking and transformative: “I came out of that a changed person, knowing this was the path I needed to follow.”
Returning from that experience, Watts sought out and found a sangha (community) in Santa Fe – first with a small group of Vipassana practitioners, and then, as Watts’ attraction to Zen grew, at the nascent Zen group founded by Joan Halifax. This was in the years before Halifax became a Roshi and founded the Upaya Zen Center. At the time, meditation and dharma talks with small groups took place at the small Cerro Gordo Temple, (which still stands near the site of Halifax’s Upaya) often followed by impromptu dinners at Halifax’s home.
Watts continued to sit and study with Halifax for seven years, doing periodic retreats, deepening her practice. Some time following the building of the large temple that became the center of Upaya, Watts broke away and helped to form a smaller group of practitioners who continued to sit together in the Cerro Gordo Temple for over a decade.
Eventually, Watts came to a point where she could no longer physically sit for long periods and so had to quit sitting formally with the group. That isn’t to say that she stopped meditation, however.  As she says, “It’s more about … Every. Single. Moment. And, of course, my expression of it is in my painting. More and more so. The baseline is the practice now. It really is quite simple, but it takes a long time to get there.”
The nomenclature of meditation as “practice” refers to just this idea – that it is practice for everything else, for life. The attention, awareness, and mindfulness which are practiced in the controlled setting of sitting meditation, are meant to be brought forward into every moment of every day, into every action – from the mundane task of washing a sink of dirty dishes, to the profound act of creating a work of art.
            Which brings us back to Watts’ series, bodhi. Having often been more enigmatic with series titles in the past, Watts offers the name “bodhi” as a gift to us, a cairn to help point the way with these paintings. The term, Bodhi, from Sanskrit, is often translated in the West as “enlightenment,” but is perhaps more accurately defined as “awakening” – the understanding of the true nature of things.
            The physical limitations which kept Watts from being able to sit formally eventually also kept her from being able to work in her studio. For two and a half years, Watts was unable to paint, forced into a more hermetic life of quietude.
Finally, however, Watts found a way. No longer able to spend whole days in her studio, Watts required a further reduction of the elements and variables used in her process. Brushes had to go. Her use of saw-horses to mount her canvases while she bent over to work on them, had to change. She created strict parameters in order to concentrate her periods in the studio to only two or three hours a day. Drawing inspiration from the meditative practice of Japanese calligraphy – where a practitioner will create a complex character in a single elegant movement - calling on years of both artistic and meditative practice, Watts was able to adapt her method of working into a heightened state of concentrated effort.
Without sixty years of experience and mastery of artistic practice, without nearly three decades of experience meditating, and without those fallow, quiet years between, this series could not
have come to fruition.
My paintings are in the realm of the metaphysically evocative paintings of Malevich, Reinhardt, Rothko, Ryman, and Martin.  This is not to say that content or meaning can be defined. It cannot. It is more an emphasis upon the intuitive and how a painting might evoke what is unknown and what is beyond. The painting may be a medium that is a gate into direct experience that is nonverbal and non-conceptual.
 – Joan Watts

In reducing her artistic process down to the bare essentials, Watts is, in effect, re-creating the experience of meditation on her canvases and panels. What is sitting meditation itself but a trimming down to essentials? Cut out the distractions, the extraneous noise. Cut out talk and visual stimulation. Cut down movement. In the beginning, as meditation is often taught, the novice is told to merely follow her breath. In. Out. Sometimes breaths are counted: up to ten, then start over again. It is much harder than it sounds. Almost immediately there are thoughts, memories, urgent desires (I must itch my nose! I must write down that idea!). Emotions rise up – anger, fear, boredom, restlessness. In meditation you are taught to recognize these thoughts and emotions and then let them go, let them pass by. Being able to notice them, to see that train of thought and recognize it before it’s whirled you off six stations further away, is the challenge.
The paintings of bodhi strip away distractions. A single color, a square format, gentle textural waves, a subtle fade into white. All art asks something of us, requires that we engage. But perhaps none asks so much of us as reductive or minimalist art. And within reductive work, perhaps none so much as “white” paintings.
White paintings are hard. They defy our expectations about what to expect from a canvas hanging in a gallery or a museum. The expectation is to see a landscape, a nude, or perhaps an energetic display of color. Instead, with "white" paintings, we must blink back those preconceptions and take a step forward toward the painting, meet it on its own terms. More than that - we are asked to offer up something of ourselves.
There are many anecdotes about negative public responses to “white” artwork. Joan Watts herself had such an experience with a white piece from the late 90’s, which was punched while it hung in a museum exhibition in Santa Fe. She received a call from a sheepish museum administrator who wanted to know whether Watts could come and “fix” the painting. Luckily the canvas wasn’t torn but dented, and miraculously Watts was able to mitigate the damage … using sponges, water, and a hairdryer.
Often, anecdotes like these are used to shore up an elite view of art, to emphasize a divide in class and education and suggest that to understand such reductive art one must have an extensive background in art history, an understanding of critical theory.
But why? To punch a painting in a museum requires real passion. It is one end of a spectrum of the most passionate type of response a work of art could evoke. Whatever anger arose in that viewer, it was real - a truth which encompassed both the viewer’s feelings and perceptions about the world, and the perceived divide between the artist (and perhaps the other museum goers) and himself. That viewer looked into that white painting and part of what he saw there was himself.
Not all meditative experience is peaceful.
I’m not advocating the defacing of art - but the response itself, this anger, is not the bad here –rather it is that, upon experiencing that rage, the viewer allowed it to overwhelm and stop his experience, to halt any further dialogue between himself and the work of art. What might that rage have transformed into if it had been given a moment to pass through, if it had been given a breath?
What if he had been able to go beyond?
The paintings of the bodhi series enact and guide us toward that meditative possibility. With their rising and expansive movement, they have an ability (if we are willing to give ourselves over to it) to lead us back into our own body, our breath. Color on the canvas pools, rises and fades, like a thought or an emotion inside us: roiling in, shading our mind, and then with our exhalation, the thought too disappears into white.
Each piece in the series is an offering from an artist who has herself gone beyond. In her studio last year, Watts spoke to me about how, after finishing an intensive painting session, she returned to the house exhausted, needing hours to recover, with a sense that she had “gone somewhere.”  It was not an experience that Watts was capable of on a daily basis. Days and days might pass and then one morning, Watts said, she would wake up and think, “Today I could disappear.”
Like the misunderstanding that the purpose of mediation is some kind of “peacefulness,” there is another misnomer that the goal is a kind of “checking out.” On the contrary, meditation requires every bit of our attention, vigilance, and wakefulness. Meditation, like a white painting, is hard. Watts, with her years of experience to guide her, to guide us, creates in her work a trail for us to follow, a lightly sketched map into the territory of consciousness.
            In Buddhist practice there is a tradition of koan study. Koans are rhetorical devices, often in the form of questions, used as a way to help a student break through their mental constructs about the world and deepen their practice. Koans generally are, in some way, nonsensical, paradoxical. Perhaps one of the most famous examples in the West is the question: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” An answer to that question can’t be found using only logic, language, or the mind.
            Like a koan, the series bodhi engages us in a process which is often paradoxical. Here what is presented has been paired down to a bare minimum, but simultaneously creates something richer, deeper, filled with almost infinite detail and possibility. What is simple, what is quiet, is potentially the gateway to a whirlwind. Paradoxes open a space in the world. They create a little crack in what we know (or think we know) that forces us to stop completely in our tracks.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha
--Heart Sutra

This line from the Heart Sutra roughly translates as: gone, gone, gone beyond, utterly and completely gone, oh, awakening! A paradox if ever there was one – how losing one’s self can be the clearest path toward being fully present.
            If art requires something of us, asks us to fall, to let go, to feel, and then to let that feeling fly, if it demands a bit of soul in exchange for experience, then so does our world. The world asks us to stop, breathe. To see and be seen. The world asks that we be with it.  If meditation is a practice for life, then art too has that potential.
            Joan Watts has made this journey, gone beyond. Her life is evidence of this. Her paintings are evidence of it. The fullness-and-emptiness that you feel standing before the deeply-gray-opening-up-into-white of one of the bodhi pieces is evidence and offering of this. Her work is a gift of space and solitude, a small piece brought back from beyond and made tangible to lure us, to perhaps help show us how to make the journey for ourselves.
            What you find on the other side … well no one can tell you that. You will create it. You and the painting together.
            Each painting is a breath.
The first breath. The last breath. The world between them.

No comments:

Post a Comment