Austin Furtak-Cole on Duccio di Buoninsegna

tumblr_mpm7lgFOGp1rqcv5do1_1280 (1)Duccio di Buoninsegna, Rucellai Madonna, 1285, Tempera on panel, 177 x 114 inches

I was introduced to this painting in an undergraduate art history survey class and didn’t think much of it. My young self was unable to get excited about an awkward religious painting in a three by four inch reproduction in the fourth edition of a Stockstad art history book.

After college, I saw it in person for the first time. I traveled around Europe for three months with the soft goal to see, in the flesh, as many of the reproductions from that art history book as possible. I remember seeing this Duccio at the Uffizi then, but like a lot of the work I saw on that trip, I simply checked it off the list – I knew it was important, but I didn’t know how to spend time with it.

In summer 2013, I went back to the Uffizi. The first room I walked into had three epic mother and child paintings by Cimmabue, Giotto, and Duccio. This time the Duccio hit me. Its presence rooted me to the floor. There are times when a painting stops the world around me for a moment and all I can do is stare back in wonder at this thing that holds me. How could he make such a thing? I can’t imagine making that painting. I can’t imagine being in the mind of Duccio as he makes this immaculate thing – to have faith, to be enthralled by a religion and its icons and then to paint, immortalize them, giving the people who believe a little something to grasp onto beyond their faith.

Our time allows less of that. Or at least in my experience there is less to have faith in, to grasp, and to believe. Or maybe it’s more that there is choice, or the illusion of choice. The structures that help us feel human and make us feel like we have purpose have changed over time, perhaps giving more responsibility to the individual to decide how they find purpose.

Recently, in making my work, I’ve felt my own presence. The paintings hold me; my insides can flutter at those moments. I am present in making the painting and thus the painting gains presence. I imbue them with meaning as I give them my touch. Or at least I’d like to think so.

detailRucellai Madonna (Detail)

Her hands are my favorite part of the Rucellai Madonna. They are alien, otherworldly. I am familiar with them, I know they are hands, but they confuse me. It intensifies what they symbolize. Her head is like this too, as if a ripe, full moon were rising under the hood of her robe; her face at that strange angle, staring back at us with a gentle awareness. The roundness of her head draws attention to her halo. Every figure in this painting has a halo. The angels are kneeling. The angels are in awe! Think of the gravity of that. Their gold-feathered wings tucked.

But those hands, Mary’s hands, they are tender. Warmhearted. They hold baby Jesus with the utmost care, with a sensitive touch. Those long tendrils love.

Although the memory of that painting remained when I left the Uffizi, I wanted a token to remember it by, a post card or print. I purchased one but felt unsatisfied. Nothing came close to reproducing the incredible deep blue of her robe.

SONY DSCAustin Furtak-Cole,  Lover,  2013, Oil on Panel, 16 x 16 inches

Virginia Wagner on Wangechi Mutu

for blogWangechi Mutu, My Strength Lies, 2006, Ink, Acrylic, Photo Collage on Mylar, 90 x 54 inches (diptych).
Courtesy of the Artist.

It was a Lord of the Flies summer. I was coming from an undergraduate art program that served only to nurture the special seed inside each student and found myself immersed in Yale’s dog-eat-dog summer residency. Somewhere in the web of criticism, tangled social hierarchies, drunken critiques, and displaced aggression, I lost the thread of my work. The art I wanted to make was ridiculed so I made blind stabs at what might make the cut. I was failing based on criteria I couldn’t name or number.

June turned to July and we took a field trip to New York. The lot of us funneled through Sikkema Jenkins’ doors into Wangechi Mutu’s first solo exhibition there: An Alien Eye: And Other Killah Anthems. The work hit me like my native tongue in a sea of Jabberwocky-speak.

I walked through slowly, savoring the wonder that stirred. The two rooms were strung with giant landscapes on mylar, populated with hybrid, cyborg creatures engaged in life and death struggles. I was overwhelmed with a joyful sense of relief. Art wasn’t such a big mystery. Or, rather, the big mysteries were contained within the art. But knowing when art was powerful, when it was moving, was the most natural thing. I knew it when it struck me in the gut.

The work was easy to “get” but infinitely explorable. From across the room the pieces seemed to explode as colorful, inky blossoms. The vibrancy and roiling patterns drew me close, like a butterfly with the promise of nectar. Standing in front of a towering diptych, the terrible nature of the drama materialized from the attractive forms.

That diptych is called “My Strength Lies” and it commands the space and respect of a history painting. Its figures are epically proportioned within the frame. The in-your-face, larger-than-life protagonist looms above you; the scale shift suggests a large landscape; wild stormy skies hint at hazy, infinite depth.

The work seems to revolve around cycles of building and falling apart. The structure of the composition is circular – swinging your attention up a hill, where it scrambles onto a hairy mound, climbs a rickety tower and crosses a wooden beam to fall down a giantess and trace her leg to its stolen limb that sprays blood back up the hill.

detailWangechi Mutu, My Strength Lies (Detail)

The forms in the piece appear to be engaged in an all-consuming struggle to remain upright. But there is a sense of futility to their toil. Your strength lies where? In the ground, perhaps. The mass on the right panel is composed of the same substance as the giantess, but it is bent to the point of being broken, with its head planted in the soil. The woman constructing the tower relies on the foundation of this partially decomposed creature. The giantess draws from the downed body as well, carrying off its bloody limb.

The efforts to build stable structures involve human engineering, both in the wooden scaffolding of the ladder and the mechanical appendages of the giantess. But this technological armor is not infallible. The grounded figure also has mechanical and wooden augmentations and they didn’t stop it from toppling.

The piece is both detailed and hewn with reckless abandon. The speed and broad strokes of the process – the spray paint, ink spills, large cutout shapes – invoke the great forces of nature at work in the bodies and in the laws that govern the landscape. We see the inescapable cycles at play, but we also see that each player is infinitely, intricately unique. Mutu’s alchemical way of pouring inks, paint, and viscous liquids creates skins that are as multifaceted as our own.

Although the forms are bent, broken, and fated to fall, they are powerful. To hear Wangechi talk about her art, as we did that day, it is clear that the struggles taking place within it speak to us on many levels – about racial violence, sexual violence, human nature, the consequences of war, perseverance, rebirth. At the time, they spoke to me about creating. I saw the endless work, the infinite detail and attention that go into getting a piece of art to its feet. And yet we keep making images and objects despite creations that are, at best, incomplete hybrids of our intentions: at worst, fallen things. But the monstrous forms can still be magnificent and of real use to those that see them. So we pick up all of our odd parts and loose limbs and start again.

Fielding Terns Oil on canvas 56inx44in 2011Virginia Wagner, Fielding Terns, 2011, Oil on canvas, 56 x 44 inches

Julie Heffernan on Angela Dufresne

angela-dufresne-hot_50 by 60 inches_2012.Angela Dufresne, Some Like it Hot, 2012, Oil on canvas, 50 by 60 inches

A hot/cold interior, a crimson stage in the middle of a veiled blue vault, one lone, naked lady, tiny in scale but lit up—the lightest thing in the room– presiding over a vast and louche lounge. A large chandelier looms in front of her, but it’s clearly not the room’s light source. That part is played, rather, by her. She is the sun and it is her glowing form that sheds light, since the only lit part of the chandelier is on the side facing her; the other is in shadow, like a waxing crescent moon. Due to the canted perspective of the room the chandelier hangs off to the right in front of her, as if they are engaged in a conversation of light. The room roils as a sensuous interior space—a nightclub perhaps, with three perspectivally-receding rows of carnival lights, casting a blue glow and framing the woman inside a barrel vault of that thick cobalt luster. There’s a potted palm off to the side in the red darkness, the fingers of which are snaking into the blue curtained archway created by the first row of tiny lights. A few dark figures cluster in the immediate foreground, evidently her audience.

This is a strange room. It is a spatial outlier. Blue curtains advance in a way they shouldn’t and the red background, which should be coming forward–as the color red does–, instead anomalously recedes. Clearly different rules apply here. Everything is dark and glowing with alizarin phosphorescence.

What to make of this scene? It seems to me that a kind of birthing space is being presented here- the glowing reds behind the frosty blue curtain swag suggesting a radiating uterine warmth, full of vulval folds like rectilinear muscle walls, while the blue-lit barrel vault mimes the coldness of the birth passage, the cleaving from the mother, and the loss of that sonorous warm bloody bag of primal nurture. Numerous thin frosty glazes, like thick veils, separate the viewer from that warm beckoning far away place behind. It brings to mind Peter Sloterdijk’s description of the vulval shape of certain doorways in the East. He says, “Whoever believes in ritual acts of approach, that they are standing before this entrance of all entrances, or envisages it in symbolic imagination, is immediately affected by a suction that is meant to make the beholder’s senses reel….And in reality, as soon as the entrants pass through the grotto grate, they encounter the tropical night; and the fall of this exquisite night would mark the end of everything based on clearing, distance and concreteness. From now on, asking about the intimate has its price for the analytical intelligence too.”

We are off balance here, like swooning mendicants. Or newborns. We are transfixed by the tiny lady with her warm glow, but she seems to be making fools of us, wearing her silly duck bill of a mouth. We want to submit to her, follow her back into that memory of uterine sublimity as she and the chandelier orb, like a glowing ovum, gaze at each other in a continuous back and forth. But we know we would be foolish to do so; she would only lead us astray. Where’s the authentic mother in all of this, the one who’s supposed to notice us, tend to us? Why are we being messed with here?

We pause and recollect; maybe that’s all we get. Maybe this is about the provisional nature of the maternal, that it’s not about perfection, a return to the womb and the biunal relationship at all, but about the pleasures of the attractive promise. This is desire, desiring itself continuously, unceasingly, not mother at all. We’ve been done with mother for a while now. We’re off to our own version of Yonder. And with the experience of desire comes the pleasure of wanting and gazing and, as is the nature of painting, not having to stop. We can look and look, touch with our eyes, and imagine the mother in whatever false guise she may assume. She is still a goddess despite her mask.

SPw_Sanctuary, 2014Julie Heffernan, Self Portrait with Sanctuary, 2014, Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 inches

Carrie Moyer on Elizabeth Murray

MurrayElizabeth_SouthernCaliforniaElizabeth Murray, Southern California, 1976, Oil on canvas. 6’ 7 1/4″ x 6′ 3 1/2″
Museum of Modern Art, New York NY

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking again about Elizabeth Murray. I started following her paintings in the early 1980s, after she gave a swoon-inducing lecture at Pratt Institute where I was an undergraduate. At the time the existence of this intelligent, vivacious woman painter was as inspiring and important to me as the paintings themselves. Over the years I’ve cycled through a variety of feelings about Murray’s work — from complete adoration to indifference to a renewed appreciation for how simultaneously “simple” and smart her paintings are.

A few weeks ago I was at MoMA to see the Lygia Clark show. Afterwards I did my usual walk through the permanent collection, dropping in on old favorites, seeing what new gems had been pulled from storage and checking to see if the installation of the galleries had been reshuffled since my last visit. On the fourth floor (Painting and Sculpture II, Gallery 24 to be exact) I wandered into a room that appeared to be a capsule version of David Reed and Katy Siegel’s 2007 exhibition “Hard Times, High Times: New York Painting 1967-75.” It’s hard not to wonder whether this particular MoMA-ent in 20th century American art — the gathering of Lynda Benglis, Sam Gilliam, Ron Gorchov, Al Loving, Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, and Jack Whitten — would have existed at all had it not been named and codified by Reed and Siegel’s groundbreaking show.

What struck me most about the MoMA grouping was the inclusion of Elizabeth Murray’s Southern California, a large work from 1976. Although Murray belonged chronologically to the “High Times, Hard Times” generation of New York painters, she was not included in that exhibition — perhaps because her zany, graphic abstraction feels distinctly at odds with the cut, poured, dyed, draped and scraped work made by her cohorts in the mid 1970s. To be honest, the only “process” visible in the flat, uncomplicated surface of Southern California is an efficient determination to get the job done. Together with Comet (1974), Ron Gorchov’s playful, curved painting on the facing wall, Murray’s painting can be read as a harbinger for the bright, cartoonish American abstraction that would come to the fore in the early 1980s.

MurrayElizabeth_DoTheDanceElizabeth Murray, Do the Dance, 2005, Oil on canvas on wood, 9′ 5″ x 11′ 3″ x 1 1/2″
Museum of Modern Art, New York NY

For me, Murray’s highly inventive approach to the figure/ground relationship and composition in general form the core of her oeuvre — so much so that all other aspects of the work feel sometimes ancillary in comparison. Color, line and form seem to be chosen for their ability to amplify and/or problematize the painting’s structure. In Murray’s homemade contraptions of Cubism, Surrealism and the Hairy Who, everything — from simple shapes to tables, cups, dogs, paintbrushes, clouds, to even lightning bolts — is squashed into a pliable form that can be stretched and spliced at will. This is as true of an early abstraction like Southern California as it is of the complex, multi-paneled works that Murray later became known for.

While the 6-foot square format of Southern California is conventional, the image is anything but. At first glance the picture feels overwhelmed by a giant lopsided cherry-red blob that extends past the perimeter of the canvas on all sides but one. Along the right edge, the curve of the circle comes perilously close to being cut off and that sliver of space transforms the circle into a balloon floating over a black ground. The small white dot hovering in the lower corner pushes that edge even further back. On the left side, the corners are royal blue and orange and serve to both “catch” the red ovoid and wrestle it to the ground (literally). The three bright, primary school cut-outs (apostrophes, lips, kewpie doll eyes?) are strategically placed to further enhance the oscillation from figure to ground, from representation to abstraction. While indulging our propensity to anthropomorphize and locate everything in sight, Murray’s exuberant paintings also reward us with wondrous moments of pure optical, visceral and cerebral pleasure, far removed from the known world.

Moyer13_YesRays_smallCarrie Moyer, Yes Rays (Sisters’ Stamen), 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 66 x 54 inches

Elaine S. Wilson on Sandra Stone

StoneSandra Stone, Courtyard, 1977, Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches

A small painting: 12 inches wide by 16 inches high.   Thin, lightly touched scrapes and dabs of paint in ochres, viridian greens, and a flurry of blues. The paint has both the diffidence and the self-awareness of a Gwen John. A courtyard in Rome. Green shuttered windows partially opened with shutters at angles to the wall. Two lines of laundry draped in the well space between walls. Sheets, shirts, a dishrag, and perhaps a pair of jeans. The life of a family captured in their clothing, attended to by women and noticed and celebrated by Sandra Stone. The painting hangs in my bedroom where I can see it every day in every light.

The painting describes 4 walls: moving from right to left across the vertical format, the first wall is a strip of greenish ochre, the narrowest band of all four vertical planes. It is parallel to the picture plane and to us, looking out our window. The next wall is at a sharp angle to us, made clear by its contrasting bleached white-ochre light and some of the top and bottom angles of the indicated window wells, and by the stronger green strokes which reveal themselves as partly opened window shutters from which the laundry lines emanate. The meeting point of these two planes is an uneven vertical edge of marks brushing against each other. No straight line this: it is the meeting of crumbling old walls of Roma, shifting with the weight of a millennium of structures built one on top of the other. The third band is full of reflected light and color with the increase in warmth and intensity of ochres moving from greenish to pinky yellows. The whites of the polygonal sheet shapes bisect the greens of closed shutters, the blue cold whites making the ochre warms warmer.

On the left side of the painting, the vertical band cools again to a greener ochre and the shutter greens cool to almost bluish in the light shadow. The center of the painting is where the movement is. Here is slightly more intense color, the active shapes of cloth against wall and window. The strokes of paint make the wall push up into the edges of the cloth encouraging the slight billow and heft of the large plane of white; directional strokes within the whites increase the lift and movement. Within the wall-shape, a change of color moves diagonally out to the right becoming a line which becomes an indicator of the angle of that wall before it merges into the smear of darker green ochre in the crease between walls: a stain perhaps of mold or an algal bloom. The color of the interspaces darkens slightly against the white cloths, emphasizing both the whiteness and the shape of space. There are 4 different blues in the laundry, each one delicately chosen: cerulean, cobalt, a light ultramarine, and two dabs verging on the deeper greener blue of prussian. These blues are like a melody rising above the rhythm of the slower softer theme sung by warms and greens.

Rather than create light with changes of value, Stone uses subtle temperature shifts and the pulses created by shifting densities of paint dragged by the slow, deliberate, but sensitive movements of her coarse bristle brush. Each small change of direction creates a sense of the way, perhaps, reflections off the water in a fountain or pool in the courtyard below might send ripplets of light across the walls above.

It is a quiet painting, although we can hear the voices of women calling to each other as they work, the sound of a news announcer on the radio, or a song, perhaps a finch in its cage singing, and the background throb of a pigeon from the rooftop.

There are several ideas that come to mind every time I see this painting.

1) In 1984 I was in Rome at the end of two months in Italy, and stayed in an inexpensive pensione near the railway stazione termini. The rooms opened onto corridors with large windows that looked onto just such a courtyard. Each time I look at this painting I am back in this very simple place, eating bread and jam with my caffe latte, listening to the sounds of the women who cleaned, the clamour and noise of the train station 2 blocks away completely shut out by the high walls. After seeing all the big “important” paintings by the men of 5 centuries of Italian painting, this real morning seemed very vivid and alive.

2) After my first child was born in June 1987, I had a period of 6 months where my only painting time was the few hours during the day when he napped in the morning and afternoon. I sat in my house looking out the windows at the walls of the house across our 8-foot wide driveway, and the cast shadows of my house on its blue walls. The images I could make were of light on walls and windows, delimited by the trapezoid of my own window. The spaces were narrow and confined but the light animated all.

3) I heard a story told about the Quaker Dorothy Steere, known for her activism and spirituality. A harassed parent asked her how it was that she could come to Meeting so centered and ready for divine inspiration. Dorothy said that she practiced holding her children in the Light.  She gave the example of making a child’s bed.  As she fluffed the sheet over the bed and it settled on the bed, she imagined that it was God’s hands gently holding her child and settling her.

The daily activity of women making beds, cleaning and doing laundry is an act of peacemaking and bringing to the family the settling power of God’s love. But it has to be seen that way and not as an endless round of drudgery. The difference is in how the individual channels God’s spirit in their daily activities: either they can be that conduit or they can’t. If they don’t bring that awareness then the divine doesn’t really have much to do with it. But it is something we can all have access to.

The person who told me this story was that harassed parent at Radnor Meeting outside of Philadelphia, and she is now an esteemed teacher of Insight Meditation and a very wise thinker about how to bring the awareness of the divine spirit into one’s daily living and one’s every breath.

Lawrence Weschler writes in Vermeer in Bosnia (Pantheon, 2004) about Vermeer’s paintings being imaginings of what a peaceful world would look like: his own Netherlands of the time being ravaged by war. The women in his paintings and the light on the walls of their rooms are hope and a breath of peace.

Looking every morning at Sandra Stone’s painting brings all these thoughts to mind: the idea of focusing God’s love with our daily actions, the intense practice of choosing and moving color around on canvas, the simplicity and peace of watching the light on old walls, the sounds of domesticity and the taste of butter and jam on good bread.

421 Very Wet Snow smElaine S. Wilson, Very Wet Snow, 2013, Oil on board, 12 x 16 inches

Peter Malone on Rogier Van der Weyden

VDWRogeir Van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, 1530, Oil on panel,
71 x 73 3/8 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It was on a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1982 that I first encountered what is now my favorite riddle. Standing before Rogier Van der Weyden’s c. 1530 Crucifixion, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the two red drapes were meant to be read as the same drape. I don’t mean the artist merely painted the same drape twice. I mean the drapes seemed to mark only one place and only one moment, repeated metaphorically to indicate sympathy between the Virgin and the crucified Christ so extreme that their experience was synchronous in both time and space.

The idea came directly from my having seen Barnett Newman’s c. 1958-66 Stations of the Cross just the day before in the National Gallery of Art. The Stations are a series of fourteen abstract canvases of identical dimensions, painted in spare divisions of either black or white paint on unprimed canvas, with the placement of these divisions based on two lines repeated in each panel. In a statement written for the work’s inaugural exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1966, Newman instructed the viewer that the story of the passion was for him an expression of a single idea—the existential complaint implied by the question, “My God… why have you forsaken me?”, that Jesus quotes from Isaiah. Newman insisted the panels were not to be read in their traditionally episodic manner, but as fourteen expressions of that same human cry.

StationsBarnett Newman, Third Station, 1960, Oil on canvas, 78 1/8 x 60 inches
Barnett Newman, Eighth Station, 1964, Oil on canvas, 78 1/8 x 60 inches

What struck me about the Stations that day in Washington—and what informs my reading of the Van der Weyden piece to this day—was how Newman seemed to transform the viewer’s experience into something like Mircea Eliade’s idea of an eternal return: a circular rather than linear sense of time, created in this case by the repetitive positioning of the vertical elements in each panel. To stand, for instance, before the Eighth Station was to return to the place experienced in the Third Station, but in a slightly altered mental state. Each canvas brought you back to the same conceptual location, but with your sense of place abstractly adjusted by subtle changes. The effect is that of an inner expanding moment, an abstract narrative that returns again and again to the same event.

The focus of the Philadelphia Crucifixion is on the Virgin’s swoon, a rendering of the moment Christ’s expiration causes his mother to faint, tying both figures in a synchronistic loss of consciousness—one of actual death (though theologically temporary), the other of profound empathy. Van der Weyden had addressed this subject before in the Prado Deposition. Placing the two figures in separate panels, as the Philadelphia Crucifixion does, reiterates the synchronicity of the Prado piece, while giving greater emphasis to their physical separation, thus generating the riddle of the drapes. Why two? Why not one drape extending from the left to the right panel as the ground and the wall do? A single red drape was occasionally employed by Flemish painters as a theatrical backdrop for a passion scene. Van der Weyden himself made use of one in the Escorial Crucifixion, also featuring the Virgin and St. John.

The answer I feel lies in how the artist portrayed both Virgin and Christ as suspended in a specific moment of suffering. Each is physically hanging: the crucified Christ on the grotesque apparatus of the cross itself, the Virgin in the arms of St. John. Both imply a center of gravity delineated by the central axis of each drape. So the drapes are not just an occasion to introduce a symbolic field of color, but are hanging, suspended elements that echo the simultaneous collapse of the two principal figures. Separate yet identical drapes imply that the Virgin and Jesus are sharing a single moment in a single space, that their suffering is one and the same, even though they are physically discreet figures. It is an idea uniquely suited to the pair’s prenatal history and it seems no more illogical than other aspects of Roman Catholic mythology.

To test my theory, I began drawing lines over the image in search of a hidden structure. After several attempts, one set of lines settled neatly into the composition. Drawing two parallels from the lower corners of the drape on the right panel, across the painting to the lower corners of the left panel, and repeating the same lines in the other direction (estimating the position of the hidden lower corners based on those in the opposite panel) the intersecting lines formed—no surprise here—a cross. But not so easily dismissed is how these parallels follow many subtle elements in the picture’s spatial and figural arrangement.

VDW2Author’s analysis of interrelationship between panels, drapes and figural elements

For instance, the lines emanating from the crucifixion (right) panel emphasize the subtle turn of the figure toward the center of the painting, or perhaps toward the Virgin, while the lines emanating from the other panel appear as if they were guides used in structuring the figure of the Virgin herself. Moreover, the inner line from the right panel seems to mark the edge along which her gown breaks from its vertical fall from her knees to its horizontal spread across the ground, while the second line defines the rift mentioned earlier: the break in the ground that passes from one panel to the other and to which there may be drawn (in reference to the earth’s “rending”) a connection to the narrative itself. Other intriguing details follow: the skull and bone remaining outside the delineated cross; how the edge of the earth rising up toward the left panel’s drape outlines the earth itself as it runs along the base of the wall; how the lines from the left panel imply the grade of the earth on which St John stands, holding the Virgin in place.

Admittedly, speculation like this begs for more documentation than I’ve provided, and in that regard I hope someone of more substantial ability will someday follow through. As to the immediate matter of painters commenting on paintings, my wish was to illustrate that an artist’s intuition regarding a historical work requires neither logic nor conclusive proof to hold significance for that artist. I remain firmly invested in how these two works connect across four hundred years. I am as captivated as ever by the link between them, regardless of any historical impertinence. Frankly, I would be disappointed if I were to discover one day that a scholar proved definitively that I was wrong about the drapes. And yet I would not be discouraged. That it could have been possible would still have significance for me.

MalonePeter Malone, Lois: Portrait of Lois Dodd, 2014, Oil on linen, 35 x 35 inches

Sharon Horvath on Badal Mahal of Bundi Palace

use this onePainted ceiling of Badal Mahal, Bundi Palace, Bundi, India, circe 1605

I would rather look at the painted ceiling of Badal Mahal in Bundi Palace than just about anything else I can imagine. I immediately think: this is Rajasthan’s Sistine Chapel. Suddenly my trip to India divides itself in two–before and after Bundi.

Badal Mahal is an interior hall within Cloud Palace, itself a miniature palace within the empty, sprawling, Bundi Palace. The hall feels like a discovery, purposely hidden. The stairway leading up to it is narrow, the doorway so small; was its purpose to prevent easy access or escape? I believe this room was a Zenana, a place of women, a private harem of Rao Bhoj, and that the women didn’t have access to the outside world except for what they could see through the carved latticed windows. I wonder if they lived in a sort of captivity here, slaves to the art of beauty. I feel bitterness for them but also wonderment. I imagine them lying here on their backs, serving their rulers, gazing up at this masterpiece. I am dwarfed by the unfathomable history of India as it presents itself to me here, condensed into this glowing inner sanctum.

I enter the hall through the single door, go to the middle of the room and look up at the ceiling. In the center, a silver disk of moon holds a white, sanguine-edged lotus, surrounded by the heads of nine deities. They are all there–Shiva, Brahma and the rest–playing their polytheistic mischief. The nearness of this painted moon above pulls me like a tide. The mirror neurons inside my head are buzzing. I become strangely aware that my eyeballs are spherical and that the top of my skull is round and white like the moon. I get an itchy feeling in my painting fingers. This giant moon-blossom zings a beam straight into my forehead, lasering a third eye that I didn’t know I had before.

The origin of every image in the room seems to be that lotus moon, raining down its petal points, shape-changing into a garland of dancers, palm fronds, and peacock feathers full of eyes. The first ring out: Krishna and the gopis, crooked elbows linked together, dancing the visible world into existence. Their sky is red. I notice how delicately the interlaced fingers of Krishna and the gopis touch each other as if they are playing the strings of a veena, or lute. Six blue-faced Krishnas and six gopis, are paired off, each gopi gazing into the eyes of her own Krishna: as the story goes, each believes she is alone with him. That’s Krishna’s trick, to multiply himself, perhaps making a philosophical point about multiplicity and unity. Now I am reminded of myself as a traveler in this country of a billion people, imagining my one body among billions. I see myself tiny, among vast waves of human bodies all over the subcontinent. Is this a vision from Krishna? But here in this room I can count the sixteen dancing feet, see their clogs, bangles and fancy tights. The legs and feet look like they are propelled by some kind of sorcery, a percussion section keeping the beat. Clothing, garlands and jewels swing around in a fantastic invention of curls. It is a round, round world.

I am under an umbrella of sensual geometry, where the round moon marries the rectangle of the room: concentric energy radiates a kaleidoscope of scissoring diamonds and triangular arches. Each kite shape holds an image gem of the story-in-pieces, and they touch each other delicately at their angular tips.

Scenes of rescue and romance from the Ramayana swirl around in the sky. An army of monkeys and their king, dragons, geese, hawks, and pigeons accompany the gods and their avatars. Further down the wall at eye level is a Ragamala series, (Garland of Melodies) depicting nuanced emotional states in the love life of Shiva and Parvati. Celestial musicians are pictured, mirroring the once living musicians of the court who played here. Music seems to animate the architecture. I wonder if the singular rooster painted up there, weirdly out of place, indicates that we should imagine his earthly cock-a-doodle-do added to the music of the spheres.

Presumably these stories of the gods are stand-ins for the narrative that the ruler uses to represent himself and his court, celebrating the victories of love and conquest as his own. But how is it possible that this is what a ruler chose to do with his power? How is it that what was certainly a brutal form of power could be represented in such an intensely delightful way?   There is a childlike playfulness permeating this place that reflects something about the attitudes of the Mughal Court. Could they compartmentalize to such a degree, intensifying pleasure and beauty at the expense of lower castes living down the hill with the actual monkeys and boars and their muck? As so often happens in India, these contrasts make my heart ache.

Who painted this heaven and when? From what I can gather, they were three painters, around 1605, at play with small brushes, on the brink of an artistic breakthrough, set loose to cover an entire room with pictures despite the fact that they were probably only experienced at making lap-sized paintings. They were from Chunar, from the imperial Mughal court, a gift from Akbar to the rulers of Bundi, in return for their obedience. But this is certain: they were inventing a new form; they improvised the composition; they made manifest the exquisite joy and physical exuberance of humans and other animals together in an imagined space.

The sky of my childhood was a dome-like shell, painted light blue or black at night, like a fresco. If you could get up there somehow you could poke your finger through the sky, to the other side, to nothingness. Out there was the invisible, the un-manifest. I understand the sky of Badal Mahal is the same metaphor as my childhood sky: the skin of painting is where the invisible takes form. In that sky, I need Krishna to keep dancing the Rasa lila, celebrating the love between the human and the divine through the night of a billion years, and the three painters from Chunar to hold it up, until the heavens fall on Bundi.

20140904_173831_resized_1Sharon Horvath, Cosmicomic, 2014, Pigment, polymer, paper on canvas, 20 x 24 inches