Ascent (aka Liberation) by Agnes Pelton

Agnes Pelton, Ascent (aka Liberation), 1946 © Agnes Pelton

Essays

Love Letter

By Charlotte Jansen

Published Thursday, Jan 12, 2023

This essay is taken from Love Letter, a dedicated booklet produced by Pace Publishing on the occasion of the group exhibition Love Letter at Pace Gallery in New York.

It is said when there was nothing
That, indeed, was everything.

Night, by Ghulam Rasool Santosh [1]

A single straight line represents the inevitable forward motion that propels us into and out of this world as we know it: that violent, linear stroke—also known as a hyphen—marks the mysterious void between the date of our birth and the time of our passing. The confines of our mortal existence have been translated into symbols, represented in color and light for centuries, all over the world—but facing the infinite inexplicable, the never-ending nothingness, the shunya that lies beyond is a particular kind of pursuit in abstraction. The desire to address that experience palpitates between the four artists presented in this intimate exploration curated by two of the artists featured, Loie Hollowell and Harminder Judge. Love Letter reveals intertwining life stories, philosophical and spiritual beliefs, shared aesthetic sensibilities, and interests in the physical body as a gateway to a higher power.

One of the first things visitors to Love Letter may notice is a shared fascination with symmetry, evoking both sublime order and the mystical, provoking as it can, hypnotic sensations. The viewer may recognize symbols of nature—elements of landscapes and human anatomies—yet each suite of six works also encourages looking “through,” as Harminder Judge puts it—to the realm of the ineffable. There is nothing passive about Agnes Pelton’s spectacular curvilinear vessels, or the breathtaking sensory force of Loie Hollowell’s pristine, splitting spheres and undulating orbs. The organic forms that mirror each other in Judge’s giant double panels, in symphony with the dusky, earthy energy of Ghulam Rasool Santosh’s fastidiously organized oil paintings, call upon symmetry as a way to tap into an innate harmony.

The story of Love Letter begins, chronologically, with Agnes Pelton, known now as a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group—founded by a group of artists in 1938 in New Mexico with a loose manifesto of carrying “painting beyond the appearance of the physical world.” [2] Pelton had painted figuratively too, but her family’s background of devout Christian practice and her own following of the teachings of Agni Yoga influenced her explorations of the spiritual in abstract works.

Pelton is also known for her hermetic lifestyle. In 1922, after some success in the American art world, she moved into an abandoned windmill in Long Island where she lived alone. It was during this period she created the earliest painting in this exhibition, Caves of the Mind (1929), in which orbs arch upwards emanating an exquisite glow—the promise of enlightenment on the horizon—contrasting with the murky, recumbent clutter of forms at the bottom of the composition. The work is an early example of Pelton’s search for a language that could merge the innate and the invisible with the visual, turning inwards by looking out; a holy trinity between eye, spirit and mind.

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Agnes Pelton, Light Center, 1960-61 © Agnes Pelton

Aged 50, Pelton moved to the Coachella Valley in Southern California, where she had a symbiotic relationship with the desert landscapes that became inscribed into the openness and expansiveness of her artistic visions: from the filmy, dusty light of Ascent (aka Liberation) (1946) to the intense throb of the levitating cosmic egg of Light Center (1961), an expression of the center of the cosmos, the point where the creation and dissolution of all the material world happens.

Light Center was the only painting Pelton returned to—she painted the first version between 1947 and 1948—and significantly, it is one of the last works she painted before her death in 1961. Her ashes were put back to the earth, scattered in the San Jacinto mountains; her legacy as a painter remained mostly buried until a 2020 exhibition at The Whitney, which opened the same day the world went into lockdown.

Like Pelton, Santosh’s path was abruptly changed early in life by the death of his father, which forced him to give up his studies and start work—he painted signboards, whitewashed walls and worked as a weaver. Although he was raised in a conservative Muslim family in Kashmir, Santosh too moved towards a less traditional spiritual practice—Kashmir Shaivism, a non-dualistic tantric tradition that situates the female Shakti, the activating power and energy, within the masculine Shiva, the symbol of consciousness.

The deep spiritual intent of Santosh’s work is meticulously organized in geometric configurations and calculated compositions. His works are also characterized by inky, obsidian borders, which the artist referred to as “surrounding dark oceans” signifying “the ever unfathomable, unreachable of the fundamental unfathomable, infinite aspects of the fundamental creative force which lies beyond the pale of wisdom, thought and imagination. The canvas itself therefore is symbolic as it portrays the omnipresence of infinite in the finite.” [3]

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Ghulam Rasool Santosh, Untitled (Early Tantric Period), 1974 © Ghulam Rasool Santosh, collection: DAG (New Delhi, Mumbai, New York)

Santosh was also like Pelton in that he was a radical free-thinker who rebuked familial and societal expectations—he married his childhood sweetheart and adopted her surname. In the 1960s, during a revival of interest in Tantric traditions in India that would spur the Modernist movement, Santosh adopted a visual style that translated the symbols of Tantra by way of the Cubists, forging a unique language that spoke simultaneously to the past and present, of artistic and metaphysical evolution. Both lucid expressions of Modernism and articulations of Kashmir Shaivism’s non-binary perspective of the world, Santosh remains among the most prominent figures of 20th century Tantric art. Yet his works are scarcely seen in the west today.

The acceptance of death is the aim of many spiritual practices and is a connecting thread between all four artists. As a teenager, Judge traveled from the UK to his parents’ village in Punjab to assist in the Sikh funeral rites of his great uncle. This involved collecting and carrying the deceased, washing, and preparing the body for cremation, and tending to the burning pyre over an entire night. Where Pelton and Santosh began to find ways to unite the corporeal and the cosmic, Judge witnessed the obliteration of a body returned to the earth firsthand; when the body was no more, he helped collect the ashes, teeth, and bone fragments. The effect of that experience, both visually and spiritually, on his young mind has been ineradicable—the titles of his paintings often reflect flashbacks of visions of it; the distinctive upward motion that surge through his monumental works in radiant bursts of amber, magenta and blue recall the rising plumes of smoke of the pyre in a dark night.

Judge, like Santosh and Pelton, has moved in and out of the art world. He worked variously as a technician, fabricator, and co-founder of Grand Union, Birmingham, UK. He also bought a derelict bungalow in the Peak District and renovated it himself. It was while plastering the walls that he acknowledged the way a daily, repetitive action can become a kind of meditative practice. When he returned to his art practice in 2017, moving back to the UK to study at the Royal Academy of Art, this action became integral—his paintings are created by an iterative process involving pouring layers of wet plaster, infusing with pigment, before the surface is sanded, polished, and oiled until it scintillates. These rhapsodic layers are subtle but their presence is sensed, like tidal movements under a flat ocean, or blood coursing through veins.

By transforming material states with ritualistic methods, Judge examines the dyadic exchanges between the visible and the invisible, the enduring and the evanescent. Working much like a mandala artist, the process itself provides solace and opportunity for contemplation. This process has evolved from Judge’s early performance works, such as Modes of the Ocean (2009–2012) in which he experimented with pouring 2,500 liters of milk (first real, then simulated) to create a glistening stage lit by lasers and dazzling LEDs, and reverberating to the sound of traditional Indian drums. In the center, Judge assumed the role of a bombastic figure—inspired by Hindu mythology as much as flamboyant Glam rock icons—who rotated slowly over an hour atop a mirror-polished aluminum sculpture resembling an abstracted turtle, like the centrifugal force of the cosmos.

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Harminder Judge, Untitled (sand and song and soil), 2022 © Harminder Judge

If Judge is concerned with the obliteration of the body back into the universe, Hollowell roots her work deep inside it, the way a wandering mind during meditation is told to return to the breath. Both search for the point the body is transformed into something else, the point of letting go—during birth, or when we die—the two absolute universal truths of our existence on earth.

At 28, Hollowell had an abortion that she describes as changing “the whole nature of my work.” [4] Readdressing what she wanted to say about female bodies, Hollowell’s vision turned inwards, to working with the surface and structure within her own body. Connecting with the essence of the eternal life force and its ambivalent nature, Hollowell’s works read like landscapes of the inner world, the place where life begins. The physicality of these landscapes is important, translated into the convex, sculpted surfaces of her works, crafted from the top down—the opposite to Judge’s process—and their smooth, saturated, sumptuous colors and throbbing light. Hollowell has created a new language for the intensity and ephemerality of transcendental, life-altering experiences, such as pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. Radiating circles and spheres recreate the rhythmic pulse of pain; rings and dancing droplets capture the unstoppable flow of a mother’s milk. Few artists have attempted to articulate these experiences, but in her symbolic forms Hollowell visualizes the unseen and undeniable processes around which the whole universe perpetuates.

Hollowell is also interested in painting light. Looking to Pelton and Santosh’s treatment of the qualities of the light in the Californian desert and the Vale of Kashmir for inspiration, contrasts of darkness and subtle gradients giving way to bursts of oscillating opaque color lend Hollowell’s brushwork its immense presence. The feeling of expansiveness that arises when meditating on Hollowell’s work might stem from the confounding sensation of light coming from within; the atmosphere of standing under a moon shining in the depths of night, a mist evaporating into a stainless sky.

Hollowell’s own upbringing in California seems to steer her subconsciously towards these dazzling optical effects, but dealing with light in a time of darkness also has a metaphorical purpose. There is a reason gurus have suggested visual aids for meditation, or midwifes encourage visualization techniques during labor. Hollowell shies away from calling her works spiritual, yet her crisp curves and sumptuous colors undeniably vibrate with an intense, illusionistic power, aligning with the Neo-Tantric artists and harnessing the Tantric Shakti through the female body, the site of sacred interior knowledge. See: Fully Dilated (2022), its concentric forms perfectly visualizing the pain and the miracle of the expanding and opening of the cervix. This is the moment the microscopic becomes macroscopic, the invisible, visible, as one body makes way for another to emerge from the dark, liquid cave of the womb—the most mystical and unutterable phenomenon on earth. Like Pelton’s Chalice (1932), a throbbing, sensual vessel threaded with veins, works like Fully Dilated and the glorious curving surface and lush luminosity of Mother’s Milk in purple, red, yellow and blue (2022) are radical imaginings of self-portraiture and depictions of the female anatomy as possessor of the world’s mystery and power.

Love Letter, as the title suggests, is also an exhibition about devotion, from two artists who are living, to two who have passed on. Like a love letter, it is an intimate opening of hearts and unfolding of inner worlds. It is an exhibition that thrums with love, through a dogged dedication to the power of paint, reverence for the divine balance of nature, whether in body or in landscape, and the quiet acquiescence and acknowledgement of something vast and beyond our perception. In her private diary entry, Pelton once recorded the words of an unnamed Theosophist: “Spiritual transactions must be translated into the language of mortal senses that they be understood, so as to be of practical benefit to mortals who desire to be redeemed from mortality.” [5]

Endnotes

[1] Nair, Uma. Ghulam Rasool Santosh: The Kashmiri Shaivite, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Government of India. Accessed January 10, 2023. https://www.iccr.gov.in/.

[2] “Another World: The Transcendental Painting Group, 1938–1945,” LACMA, accessed January 10, 2023, https://www.lacma.org/art/exhibition/another-world.

[3] Nair, Uma. Ghulam Rasool Santosh: The Kashmiri Shaivite.

[4] Phone conversation with Charlotte Jansen, December 2022.

[5] "Agnes Pelton.” Robert M. DeLapp Gallery. Accessed January 10, 2023. http://www.delappgallery.com/artists/agnes-pelton.

  • Essays — Love Letter, by Charlotte Jansen, Jan 12, 2023