Although conceived independently and presented as separate solo exhibitions, when taken together two shows at Kai Lin Art through January 30 reveal much about the intellectual and emotional trajectory of global civilization—East, West, and points between. The fact that neither artist necessarily set out to accomplish this goal makes the confluence truly seredipitous.
Michael Elliston/Elliston Roshi’s ink and watercolor paintings on glass and panel in his “Alchemy” exhibition and Lela Brunet’s graphite, ink, acrylic, and coffee on canvas paintings in “WhispHer” could scarcely come from a more opposed set of dualities: different genders, different generations, different life experiences, different premises about art and life. So it’s remarkable that both are so singularly American, and that the two bodies of work blend so harmoniously. They illustrate the hypotheses that dualities do not actually exist as polar opposites, and that America is already a land of hybridity, having been such from the moment Europe first projected its fantasies upon the native population.
Elliston Roshi (“roshi” being an honorific for the position of longtime Zen Buddhist teacher that he occupies) works in a distinctly Buddhist manner but is simultaneously indebted to Japanese and American gestural abstraction. The combination of media — sumi ink and watercolor — is an apt metaphor for this unified duality, but the whole oeuvre is an expression of oppositions held in productive tension.
His new work consists of waves of color allowed to flow on acrylic sheets and on a semi-permeable panel material made of extruded PVC foam that allows both flow and absorption. The two layers of the work are necessarily independent of one another, united only by the artist’s hand and his choice of color combination, and by the fact that the results are partially independent of the artist’s intention. Elliston Roshi has no knowledge of how the two will interrelate until the acrylic sheet is placed in front of the panel, with sufficient space between the two to ensure that the visual relationship of one to the other is dependent on the viewing angle. The paintings change depending on viewer placement and distance, and if this reminds you of Buddhist ideas about impermanence and illusion, so much the better.
Elliston Roshi, however, works with a relationship of color to emotion that is alien to traditional East Asian aesthetic practice (although contemporary practice is another matter). To cite only one illustrative example, an ominously black combination of swirling abstraction is titled Omen, suggesting a customary symbolic association between darkness and disaster, courtesy of the actual appearance of light-obscuring storm clouds. For some unexplained reason, a surprising number of the works in this show allude to natural catastrophe in their titles (Storm, Eruption 2, Fire Storm 2, Conflagration), but they seem far from literal (most of their energetic color combinations, far from being foreboding, are downright cheerful). They are, if anything, more reminiscent of Buddha’s Fire Sermon, in which all things are on fire with passion, aversion and delusion, and liberation depends on achieving detachment from these burning emotional and intellectual attachments. Yet the way in which Elliston Roshi expresses this insight visually is thoroughly American in every degree, from the particular palette to the technologically developed panel on which his transient flows find archival solidity.
Lela Brunet is also concerned with impermanence, but in the deeply Romantic sense in which the self realizes the fragility of both the world and the human spirit, but becomes more rather than less attached to them. She comes by this, however, not by studying Romanticism but by reacting to experiences in the same way the Romantics did—she viewed medieval paintings of saints and events from scripture, and extracted and adapted their basic elements.
Her black-clad women against atmospheric backgrounds created with coffee stains have an atmospheric presence that is insistently material and ethereal simultaneously. The butterflies that cluster in her paintings are simultaneously romantic and symbolic, their ephemerality a reminder of the brevity of youth and of life itself, plus a touch of the insight about the elusiveness of consciousness and sensory experience that led the Greeks to use the same word—“psyche”—for “soul” and “butterfly.”
Brunet is dealing with deep symbolism that carries a visceral impact even without foreknowledge of its historical depth. Poppy flowers, circle and triangle, birds, from the nightingale to the veery thrush, all have a European literary and visual history that can’t be gleaned from the study of botany, ornithology, or elementary geometry. Suggestive though the forms are as material presences, their symbolic meaning is profound but partly arbitrary.
Whether Brunet’s oeuvre adds up to a coherent set of allegories isn’t immediately apparent, but in a sense it scarcely matters. The visual components cohere in an immediate experience that is as compelling, in its own quite different way, as the Zen-based loveliness inherent in Elliston Roshi’s explorations of intention and process.
Dr. Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.