Alchemy & Inquiry
by Donna Maria deCreeft
Fred Tomaselli: Dahlia
Alchemy & Inquiry:
Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli and Terry Winters,
at The Glyndor Gallery, Wave Hill,
from April 3 to June 19, 2011.
Curated by Raymond Foye and Jennifer McGregor.
with its botanical gardens and
transcendental views of the Hudson, is the perfect
venue for this fascinating exhibition by Philip
Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli and Terry Winters. Sharing the
idea of artist as magus or shaman, Taaffe, Tomaselli
and Winters each manifest something unique about the
Anima Mundi, or soul of the world. They manage to
encompass and encode a long tradition of humanism in
their work within individual stylistic techniques,
uses of media and decorative patterning. The keys
to their code are found in the connections between
science and nature in terms of the microcosm and the
macrocosm, the archetypal symbolism of the alchemical
process, and the fractal dimension of Chaos theory.
Alchemy, as both protoscience and hermetic philosophy,
is a transformative practice based on the neo-platonic
idea of "as above, so below." Intrinsic to
the discipline is an intuitive and experiential
understanding of the way the patterns of nature are
repeated throughout the universe in large and small
scale. The actual steps in the metallurgical refining
process are reflected in the allegorical search
for the "Philosopher's Stone", a legendary
substance that once discovered transmutes the base
metal of the soul into the gold of enlightenment. This
metaphysical aspect of alchemy suggests that humans
are psychologically permeable in relation to the
natural world, continually shifting between the
microcosmic self and the macrocosmic universe.
Experiencing the shift between the two states leads
to a kind of cosmic consciousness.
Fred Tomaselli: The Dust Blows Forward, The Dust Blows Back
Fred Tomaselli's work embodies this permeability. In
"Dahlia," Tomaselli embeds collaged photographs in
the primary layer of his canvas. Using combinations
of plants and animals as metaphors for the elements,
he suggests the alchemical Prima Materia, or cosmic
soup from which all things emanate. A layer of
resin separates these images from the intricate
surface painting. His mandala-like central figure is
surrounded with fire: the transformative, purifying
element in Hindu spiritual philosophy and the crux
of the alchemical process.
In "The Dust Blows Forward, The Dust Blows Back,"
the eye of the blue jay is a peephole through the
painted illusion. With his complex layering technique
and psychedelic imagery built from elemental patterns
and vibrating colors, Tomaselli allows us to view
nature through what Aldous Huxley, the visionary
writer, called "the doors of perception." In Chaos
theory, the experiential and the intuitive, micro
and macro, are also mirrored. When William Blake saw
the universe in a grain of sand he may well have been
referring to the alchemical concept of "as above,
so below." And, it is not a stretch to think he
was anticipating the iterations that abound in Philip
Philip Taaffe: Cereus Chrysocentrus
Taaffe's motifs are anchored in nature and
cross-fertilized by a variety of traditions. He uses
ornamental patterns derived from Islamic and Celtic
art, and marbling, a decorative process that made its
way into alchemical lore from Asia through the art
of papermaking. In one of his unabashedly decorative
compositions, the vivid "Cereus Chrysocentrus,"
he embeds the chaotic concepts of iteration and flow.
Taaffe's repeating abstract patterns based on cacti
are combined with the physics of fluid mechanics as
demonstrated in marbling.
Iteration also appears in 'After Alcyonaria,'
one of a series of richly colored silk-screens that
incorporate reproductions of land and sea forms
from 19th- and 20th-century natural histories.
The similarity of the fractal growth patterns in
these forms reveals Taaffe's understanding of
the underlying modalities of the biological world.
Alchemy links up with Chaos theory through sacred
geometry and the mystical significance of the
six-pointed star. Formed by two conjoined triangles,
this ancient symbol represents the generative force,
the elements--earth, water, air and fire, and the
reconciliation of opposites that imply limitation and
limitlessness. "Koch's Snowflake" is a fractal
image inherent in the mathematics of nature. Its
infinite iterations, produced through the advanced
technology of computer processing, also begin with a
six-pointed star, which brings us in the way of free
association to Terry Winters' "Pollen" series.
Terry Winters: Pollen
The uncharacteristic decorative quality of Winters'
embossed relief prints is purposeful. Again, the
principles of idea and image reinforce each other. At
first glance the intricate spherical patterns might
be snowflakes or lace, but closer inspection of the
central images reveal floral forms. The prints have a
grainy surface, like pollen, and the function of the
pollen is generation. Once it becomes clear that the
fundamental structure of each composition is based
on the hexagram, the fractal and alchemical code for
procreation--a signifier of a universe of being and
becoming, the levels of meaning begin to multiply.
Terry Winters: Hexagram
This is a heady show conceptually. The beauty of
nature at Wave Hill, as seen through the Glyndor
Gallery windows, illuminates and reflects the
artwork. The delightful visual pleasures of the
exhibition serve the serious thought behind it
well, and the profound connection between art and
science that is the humanist through-line is firmly
established by all involved. It's worth taking
a look at the artists' websites to get a better
understanding of their ideas. Peter Lamborn Wilson and
Wave Hill curator, Jennifer McGregor, also provide a
way in to the artists' collective spirit of inquiry
through their excellent catalogue essays.