A Call To Wake Up
Viewing a painting by Kongtrül Rinpoche is like stepping into a rich universe of light and color. Almost instantly, one is drawn in by a warm sparkle of orange or a glimpse of luminous ground to begin the journey through the layers and textures of this new world. The paintings are at once timeless and ancient, newborn and endlessly old, familiar and exotic - an extraordinary passage for the eye and mind, the heart and gut. Dramatic planes of opaque darkness contrasting against the transparency of color and luminous glow suggest the limitless freedom of mind, honoring its potential while, with great sincerity, recognizing its obscurations. Rinpoche's works are alive with honesty and depth, which is both encouraging and demanding. There is fearlessness in these paintings. The determination of stroke, the movement and fluidity of composition, the evocative layers of color all point to the freedom of expression, unencumbered by expectation or concern for the outcome. This is "letting go" embodied. The strength of non-attachment pervades all of the works, and with it as a firm ground, the paintings stand as explorations, detailed research into the depth of mind. Often finding their mark in the soft spot of the viewer, the works disable conceptual thinking and gain immediate access to one's heart.
Expansive surfaces push outward in all directions while simultaneously contracting inward. In this tension of inwardness and outwardness, in the space between the two extremes, one finds a wealth of information communicated by the artist. The unity of the energetic dispersion of strokes and forms draws the viewer into the artist's expression. Without encumbrance of allusion we share the experience of the painter in an intimate and human way. This immediacy of experience has an unavoidable truthful quality. Whether playful serenity or profound tumult, the sensation is delivered directly to one's heart in a unique and powerful way. The impact is deep and lasting, so much so that you often want to return for another look, developing over time a longing to see more, as if through seeing the paintings you could uncover the secrets of your soul.
Upon closer observation one discovers a stunning familiarity in the works. It might be a reflection of the winter sky in the use of particular color or it might be an emotion evoked by the contrast of shapes and surfaces. This familiarity adds to the depth. What is familiar is the fundamental mystery and magic the human experience that unfolds before our eyes. The recognition of It draws one in with the warmth of a well-known room or a beloved landscape, inspiring one to rest in a moment of observation, while unexplored emotions are provoked to surface and be examined.
The charge and energy of the darker pieces and the effortless light and calm of the lighter ones take us on a panoramic journey of our own heart and mind. The consonance of soft colored shapes set against alight background minimizes contrast, providing a resting place. In the darker pieces the turbulence of the painterly process and the uncompromising passion for truthful expression is discernible in sharp edged forms set against the luminous background. Brilliant jewel-tones free up the dominant dark forms, allowing them to almost float off the canvas. The paint is often carried to the very edge of the paper or canvas making it seem that the images continue beyond the edges. This bespeaks the artist's complete engagement with the surface. There are several pieces that show a more structured composition, deconstructed nevertheless by the bursts of energetic strokes. They seem a metaphor for a container within which the entirety of human emotional experience can play itself out with the force and strength necessary for a complete experience.
While it is difficult to verbalize visual practices, in viewing this body of work one can intuit that the information contained in the paintings is comprehensive. Each piece is uniquely its own, different from its predecessor or its follower, and there is a clear understanding of statements being made and themes explored which will create a basis for future work.
The distinguishing mark of the entire body of work is Rinpoche's strong sense of non-attachment. Often he will create a traditionally beautiful image only to dissolve it with the next layer of paint and turpentine. In the course of one painting he will move through five or six images, covering each layer with more and more subtle color. Often the final layer will be created out of the dregs of used turpentine and leftover paint, making it appear as something one doesn't conventionally consider beautiful. Then, magic occurs, as paintings remain to dry over a period of weeks. In the process they gain in luminosity and vibrancy. Entirely new layers of color and light are revealed and one realizes the mastery behind such work. The foresight and ability to let things be are essential to this technique and most importantly, the absence of attachment to the result.
In some sense Rinpoche lets the paintings "develop" as they will, merely providing the ground and elements of the final product. At the same time, the ability to step out of the way in this manner results from the discipline and experience cultivated by years of mind training as a meditator. Genuine non-attachment and an uncritical view of one's own work elude most artists, or are nurtured deliberately over a lifetime. Here is where Rinpoche's history and depth as a practitioner allow him to enter easily into a working mode free of concepts, one particularly suited for the type of painting he undertakes.
As a viewer, I often found myself attached to the beauty of the images floating by on canvas; but for the artist one gets the sense that there are no such discriminations. What results are works which provoke the mind to examine the habit of making choices based on preference. We feel encouraged to see all as beautiful and even the ugly as a form of support to see beauty. I once asked him: "How do you know when to stop?" And the answer was that "as long there is even a speck of attachment to the image in front of him," he will continue to paint, covering the image over and over. Once he has gone beyond attachment in his inner experience, he will stop the outer work as well.
There was always a very definite point at which Rinpoche stopped painting - and for a moment there would be a sense of sudden liberation in the air. Sometimes this moment came quickly, at other times slowly, but never deliberately. Clearly, Rinpoche is not guided so much by what is on the canvas in front of him as by his inner experience. Never judging his paintings as good or bad he simply lets them be. This allows them to evoke powerful feelings and reflect their particular sense of spaciousness and non-attachment, which gets transformed to the experience of the viewer as well.
Rinpoche is able to utilize the practical benefits of the materials with depth and accuracy. He customarily brushes an aqueous solution of warm rabbit-skin glue on paper or canvas, allowing it to penetrate the fibers and dry. Thus he creates an even ground which supports the oil medium and forces it to remain fluidly on the surface rather sinking into the canvas or paper. Naturally, when covered with paint the ground affects the perception of the layers above. In this case there is a luminous effect of the white ground, which heightens the translucency of the oil medium. With this as the basis, Rinpoche explores the multiplicity of variations possible within one color. Utilizing the dense opacity of the darker hues juxtaposed against the ethereal quality of the lighter ones, Rinpoche achieves a chromatic balance in which the pigment, an inert matter, is made to elicit a variety of sensations flowing freely in one's heart. The momentous and instantaneous stroke reveals a joyful fascination which allows the expression of the moment to take place with accuracy and passion.
To observe Rinpoche at work is mesmerizing. The thoughtful sensitivity and curiosity with which he approaches the canvas or paper are but a precursor of the light that bursts through in the final works. The movement of hands, slow and deliberate, the dance of fingers, forceful, steady, pausing at times to take in the newly painted landscape, are all clearly present in the finished works. This history of movement is how a viewer is able to take journey after journey through the canvases. One can perceive the echoes of the surrounding landscape or the mood of the day's weather in Rinpoche's paintings but mostly it is the reflection of the artist's inner inventory - the emotions and thoughts, flowing, ever changing and apparently accessible in their naked form - that compose the works. These are mindscapes. In them, Rinpoche combines luminosity of brilliant color hues with the abysmal quality of the opaque fields, creating a signature style where wisdom and clear seeing are essential qualities, a guiding force and ultimately the absolute truth of the territory they traverse.
In each painting there is more than one set of binary contrasts - glazes versus opaque color, absorbent versus non absorbent surfaces, painting wet in wet versus around a contour, lushness versus acidity, austerity versus decorativeness, softness versus sharp edges, defined outlines versus indefinite merging, and always, invariably present, light illuminating the surfaces. This inner light is recognized by the viewer as something of one's own mind as well - the potential for luminosity to break through what we may feel is only darkness and obscuration. The emotion that the realization of this possibility evokes is very much a part of experiencing these works. They are a teaching as well as a discovery, and a joyful gift.
The honesty of the artist’s self reflection is a powerful guide for the viewer, both to the paintings and to finding one's way through the deeper landscapes of one's own mind. Actions and emotions, the world chat we create, constantly changing, are presented here with a keen eye and appreciation for the truth, regardless of how good or bad, pretty or ugly, revolting or attractive it may be. The paintings are a mirror, not only of their creator's mind, but also of the human mind in general. On the whole, they are an invitation for us to explore our minds, very straightforwardly, courageously and honestly. The emotions it evokes and the contemplations it inspires clearly identify this body of work as a basic wake up call. A call to develop strength through fearless self-reflection; to extract ourselves from our usual stupor, our jaded state of mind and look squarely at what can be found deeply in human experience; to be inquisitive and brave in walking through the various "neighborhoods" of our mind. And to wake up to the glory that lies in its potential.