director of the Singer Gallery, Mizel Arts and Culture Center at the Denver Art Museum
From Light Coming Through
It is a pleasure. and an honor to contribute a brief introductionto this catalogue of paintings by Venrerable Dzigar Kongtrül, Rinpoche. AlthoughI have not had the opportunity to meet Rinpoche personally, I have had the goodfortune to come into contact with the lineage of teachings that he upholds andpropagates. The Nyingma, or "ancient ones" are particularly known forthe freshness and relevance with which they present the Buddhist teachings andespecially for the uncompromising simplicity and profundity of their teachingmethods. In his willingness to embrace Western artistic disciplines andcontexts, fearlessly entering the complex condition known as"modernity," Rinpoche demonstrates both the timelessness andtimeliness of the tradition he represents - at once ancient and completelyup-to-date. This will delight many and quite possibly alienate a few who willbe made uncomfortable by Rinpoche's ability to engage in creative idioms thatthey associate with the psychological and cultural distortions of the West.That possibility doesn't appear to daunt Rinpoche. He's not keeping hispaintings hidden as though they were some private hobby. Because he's notinvested in the notion - which lingers in the romantic mythos of Western art -of the artist as a solitary and alienated "genius," and neither is heobsessed with the latest stylistic mutations in contemporary art, Rinpoche isfree to paint freely.
The influence and resonance of Buddhism has been an ongoing presencein the modern and contemporary art of the West - not as a doctrinal formula,but as a perspective and discipline which can both nourish the artist'scapacity to produce works of liberating immediacy as well as encourage an open,dynamic receptivity to the work on the part of the viewer. Historically, thissituation came about because certain artists recognized in Buddhist teachingand in the meditative disciplines through which those teachings are actualized,rich sources of inspiration for art- making - for aesthetic experience of thehighest order that was grounded in non -conceptual appreciative awareness. Speakingof his own creative process Rinpoche has said "To create genuinely is whathelps you to move through and rise above your fixations ... and to be able totranscend fixation is to combine art with practice ... when you enter into that,whatever you have created, just leave it at that and be content - however uncomfortableit is.” As gateways to authentic responsiveness, paintings can maximize thepleasure and pain of experience - they can provide a container for the deepestsignificance of the present moment: That is why we are so "taken" bya good painting, why painting elicits such passionate feeling.
Although the innovative visual art of the twentieth centuryis not usually thought of as particularly influenced by spiritual impulses orcommitments, a surprising number of early avant-garde artists took spiritualityseriously, read and thought deeply about the spiritual dimension of their work,and regarded it as a form of meditation, sufficient for attaining the kinds ofbreakthroughs of insight whose descriptions they encountered in the Eastern,Buddhist and "metaphysical" literature available to them at the time.An astonishing number of artists including such seminal figures as Kandinsky, Mondrian,Klee, Duchamp, Matisse, Brancusi, Malevich and many others were involved in adesire to create art that expressed spiritual impulses and intuitions.Frustrated by the limitations of traditional pictorial styles, many of themturned to abstraction or formulated their own pictorial vocabulary - strategiesmore easily allied with possibilities of direct perception and directexpression. However, in spite of the extraordinary historical alliance ofabstraction and spirituality, by the 1940's, the dominant focus of abstractionbecame the destruction of any lingering content, the abandonment of any richermeaning that abstraction might convey, positing instead a"liberation" from all value - moral, political, aesthetic and spiritual.Although this movement produced many works of undeniable power andauthenticity, many of its artists suffered from the nihilistic andself-destructive impulses that would come to characterize "modernart" in the popular imagination. The historical association of abstractionand spirituality was largely forgotten, suppressed, or neglected until a more receptiveclimate began to emerge in the late 1970's. Perhaps not coincidentally, thissame period saw the emergence of Buddhism in the United States as a significantcultural force, beginning to exert its influence beyond the confines of hipstersub-cultures and communities of "seekers." The confluence of interdependentforces that has resulted in the current status of Buddhism as a profoundpresence in the creative arts of the West, has also ripened into the improbableappearance of a Tibetan lama - Dzigar Kongtrül - who embraces the art-making strategiesof the modern West as a means of transmitting the “unfettered” mind of the dharma.How wonderful!
Rinpoche's paintings are pictures of what remains when the intensityof experience is expressed without the incidental paraphernalia of itsnarration. Rinpoche has said, “At some points there is a transitions where youactually become yourself fully… Then there is not so much form or structure…just the open ground as well as whatever arises from the open ground…. Nothing isbeing rejected in this process… everything is accepted as equally profound.” Thiscapacity for non-intervention links Rinpoche not only to modern abstraction butto the vigorous calligraphic traditions of Zen. Though they arise from withinvastly different cultural milieus, both of those traditions aspire to a directpenetration of reality, conveying a form of experience that goes beyond words.In that sense both art-forms are potential avenues for “transmission,” for therevelatory disclosure of profound, tender and vast experience – experience beyondthe anxious, fragmented, one-dimensional condition that we inhabit most of ourlives. Therein lies these paintings’ eloquent simplicity as well as their dynamism– alternately gentle purling or wrathfully turbulent. They appear to imply,withing the confines of their modest size, a vast space of oceanic depth andbreadth. At the same time, they never evade their materiality - the physicalact of painting, the density of the medium. They don't incline us towards somerarified state of transcendence, but to our own present condition prior to our conceptualreification of it.
Color is paramount here. Tantalizing colors, reds and blues appear to dominate Rinpoche's palette and remind us that colors encompass entire worlds of significance, not only in terms of their mundane associations - blood, sky, water, earth - but also, according to the Vajrayana, in their capacity to invoke particular wisdom qualities. These expanses of color are animated by Rinpoche's strokes that seem to dance and clamor within vast space, expressive but never violent, as though purely by chance and against all odds, the painter's gestures turned out to say precisely what the painter wanted. Those of us in the visual arts who aspire to integrate our way of approaching works of art with the insights of the buddhadharma have come to understand that in art - as in life - nothing can exist in itself or for itself but only in relation to others. In that sense, a genuine work of art - regardless of its marketplace cost - is always a gift. Its real value doesn't lay in its being an object of commercial viability or even aesthetic delectation, but in its capacity to suspend, if only momentarily, the clumsy fracturing of the world into seer and seen, giver and receiver, artist and audience - to move us past reactivity and deadened responsiveness. If we bring a certain kind of attention to them - an open, relaxed, lucid, receptivity - Kongtrül Rinpoche's paintings incline us towards that possibility which is nothing less than the possibility of being a whole person.