After reading my previous blog on Ox Herding, my insightful friend Charles said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about your series and wondering how they will be seen…. Are they painting? or illustration?” I replied, “Yes.” …a smart ass reply to a serious, double-edged question.
The first edgy question is, “can they be seen?” By that I mean since they are premised on both an awareness of the Kakuan pictures and at least a rudimentary acquaintance with Zen…will the viewer have any idea what it is they’re looking at? The Zen Ox Herding pictures are the inspiration for the riff on them that I am doing. But need the viewer know any of that to appreciate or find interest in them as visual objects to be enjoyed or pondered for their own sake? Can they stand up, alone, without a context other than the one any viewer might bring? Are they accessible only by knowing what they represent? This, then, turns the question to its other edge.
If they are seen with roots in Zen, are they then viewed as “paintings” or “illustrations?” The assumption is that if they are viewed as illustrations they depend upon the Ox Herding narrative for their meaning. Accordingly, apart from their place in Zen, or Buddhism in general, they are a visual enigma. Without the story they are not accessible. Does that mean that whatever artful or aesthetic value they may have by virtue of the maker’s craft, they are none the less disqualified as “paintings” because they cannot properly be viewed independent of their context? Using this logic, paintings are free of context and that is what makes them “art,” illustration not.
I have a problem imagining “art without context.” The most abstract of paintings or decorative of landscapes has a context even if it’s only in the painter’s mind. Art has history and art has culture. The difference in “context” between painting and illustration is a matter of degree rather than kind. For illustration context is more of a limiting degree perhaps than for painting. The more we know its ‘story’ the richer its meaning becomes. Just the same, painting has a place in the history of art & culture that can enlarge or diminish its appreciation, maybe even its accessibility. I think that goes without question.
But about the Ox Herder series…. Look! Even in the Paleolithic, over 20,000 years ago, the bull is there!
I like to imagine “the first artists” — the cave painters. Today researchers, anthropologists, art historians & critics can’t leave let them alone. We seem to need to create a context to understand what those images mean or how they might have functioned. We tie that understanding to revealing something intrinsic to our humanity, our true nature. Yet, at the same time, we embrace those paintings immediately for an unadulterated beauty and simplicity that seems timeless. Is it the latter that makes them paintings and the former illustration? They’re both at once … and what we know or fail to know is academic. It’s the image that matters precisely because it is deep and shows us more than we know.
So…whatever I’ve done in this series — whether it’s painting or illustration — I hope my images have depth sufficient to tie them to the disciplines of spiritual development and that they are crafted sufficiently to be appreciated for their beauty, simplicity, and visual intelligence regardless of their context. Being transcends meaning.