Some artists work so much on the “outskirts” of mainstream contemporary art that they risk being overlooked despite their talent. And the reasons why mainstream ignores them are fairly obvious : they fit poorly with the art system in its merchant dimension, and they do not fit with the dominant ideology of the art system, which therefore either ignores or avoids them. This is perhaps the case of Minh Lantran, a young painter with a remarkable mastery of light and the ability to make it emanate from beneath the pictorial surface.
The art of Minh Lantran is one concerned with epiphany, for lack of a better word, to be understood as the moment when, and the place where, something is about to appear in a visible form, but has not yet fully manifested itself. From the perspective of representation, it blurs the line between what is figurative and not, as the figure is not yet discernible in the image, but one somehow knows that it is latent, or about to make itself identifiable. We are in the realm of latent figuration, which is to be distinguished from the idea of a form or figure projected by the viewer’s conscious or unconscious mind on some pre-existing “visual object”. One should exclude from the start the question of divinity as such, as by its very nature it cannot make itself directly visible, and it would therefore make no sense to expect any image to appear. Only its messenger (if we were to accept, say, the views of Islam), or the human hypostasis which it may have chosen to take during a particular time (when we consider the Christian doctrine), may legitimately be considered as visible.
Latency is quite different from being hidden, for instance behind some curtain or veil. The veil has a very long tradition in art history; both the veil that hides and the veil that un-covers. Photography keeps showing nudes behind all kind of veils, using various degrees of transparency or “fogginess”, and making the subject more or less explicit. Sculpture has used it as means of demonstrating technical ability, as perhaps the Veiled Virgin of Giovanni Strazza will illustrate: achieving transparency by the means of sculpted marble is indeed a prowess.
In some cases, such as the Modesty of Giovanni Corradini, which finds its « template » in the Venus Genitrix created by Callimachus, the veil is also a semiotic oxymoron, as it enhances the eroticism of a figure which title is absolutely paradoxical. What is however common to these more or less successful works is the classical duality of attraction and mystery: the veil is what you wish to lift in order to enjoy the object of visual desire, and what should not be lifted because the distance which it establishes is precisely the means by which that desire is brought to one’s conscience, so that such lifting would probably weaken, or perhaps annihilate, all visual pleasure.
But, unless taken in its allegoric sense, the veil is what hides – or uncovers – an image which both exists and, if unveiled, could actually be seen. It may therefore be connected to an expectation, and compared with such expectation.
Things are quite different if we are to consider some form of revelation, because in that case appearance stems from a state of non-appearance, rather than hiding. The question becomes that of epiphany and of the possibility – or not – of representing a Being of which nothing can be said. This question was always considered one of most delicate by monotheistic religions, which for centuries have thought about this question, and brought different answers. The point here is not to discuss the legitimacy of such a representation, which is a matter of theology. It is more to address the oddity of representation – a representamen in the vocabulary of Charles Pierce – without an object which is even conceivable in any terms accessible to the human intellect. An exception to this impossibility, or a solution to this conundrum, is the so called “acheiropoieta” image (from αχειροποίητα in Greek, non hominis manu picta in latin, i.e. “not made by the hand of man”). This is the case of the veronica (“vera icona”, or “true image”), the cloth on which Christ’s face left its direct imprint, in the Christian tradition. Veronica was a woman who is said to have witnessed Jesus carrying his cross up to the hill of Golgotha for his crucifixion, and handed out a veil to him so that he may wipe his face from sweat and blood. Jesus did so, and handed the veil back to her with the image of his face miraculously impressed upon it. This “event” is a fundamental reference for any reflection about the image, as it questions the possibility – and the legitimacy – of representing visually what is by its essence not representable, the Being itself, detached from any “being of entities”, any Seiende to use Heidegger’s terminology, just as Dante’s Paradise is a poetic – and successful – attempt at approaching the non-representable without erring in the swamps of the unintelligible, or letting silence take over. As the poet says,
Trasumanar significar per verba
Non si poria; pero l’essemplo basti
A cui esperienza grazia serba.
(Par., I, v. 70-72)
which may be translated as : “It would be impossible to express transhumanizing (to pass beyond the human) by words, but this example should suffice for him to whom grace has allowed the experience”. The poem is itself a path leading progressively to a metaphor of Paradise which was only made possible by the untranslatable experience of conversion undergone by the poet himself; a path that could not have been put into words had it not been trodden first by the poet-pilgrim. This differs from the acheiropoieta image insofar as the latter was never made by human hands; it is not God Himself incarnate, but so to speak an incarnation of the second order, which we might choose to call an imprint of the principle of Being, a vision-image, not a mere signpost on the road to ultimate unity.
Some images, clearly human-made, suggest the existence – or perhaps only the possibility – of a path to the non-representable without ever attempting to representing it, which would be naïve. In that, they are a visual analogon of Dante’s verses in the Paradise. They stand somewhere on the frontier between the appearance and the non-appearance, between word and silence, asserting the potential of an image that is exactly on the brink of becoming visible, and would be so but for our inability to see. In the Christian tradition, but also in the mystic tradition of Islam, the means to achieve this rests on the subtle use of light, since light was always a metaphor of divinity.
Pseudo-Dionysios the Aeropagite, who wrote at the beginning of the 6th century, re-interpreted neo-platonism in the light of the Christian revelation, and built an influential doctrine to explain how the spiritual world may manifest itself and take shape in the terrestrial world by means of a hierarchical chain organised by principles of harmony, symphony and symmetry. God is called phôs, light, and the question becomes how this intelligible light, phôs noeton, which Plato refers to as truth, may be communicated to humans who can only conceive it through their mind (epistémé) or perceive it through their visual senses (theôria). The Aeropagite had a major impact on iconography, and in particular the art of icons. One of the key concepts here is that intelligible light differs radically from natural light, it does not create illusions of reality by the interplay with shades, and the resulting shaping of three-dimentional forms. Divine light emanates from the image towards the viewer. This is usually achieved through the use of gold, or mosaics, or stained-glass; divine energy is infused into the material world, it does not illuminate it. In the case which we are considering here, there is a perceptible and largely successful attempt at having light emanating from the painting, from the painting itself and not from behind the painting. Light – so to speak – is seeping into the darker space, setting aside the veils of darkness. When Dante reaches the empyrean, in Canto XXX of Paradise, beyond the universe, there is nothing but pure light : “Noi siamo usciti fòre del maggior corpo al ciel ch’è pura luce” until, in his extasis of Canto XXXIII, he perceives as light the source of all being,: “ O Luce eterna che sola in te sidi, sola t’intendi e da te intelletta e intendente te ami ed arridi! ”. The exact same could be said of Islam, where Light is the image of the creative source of the universe; and a doctrine particularly developed by Sufism is that the cosmos is but a symbolic veil hiding the Divinity.
Minh Lantran’s paintings are akin to veils which both hide and suggest reality, perhaps the Reality symbolised by Light as just evoked, veils beyond which, or in the opening of which we can guess, rather than perceive, the existence, or at least the possibility, of the veiled Reality. A concept illustrated by the excellent description which Patrick Riggenberg makes of Taoist painting in his monumental work, To Paint the Invisible, sacred images from the West and the Orient , a passage of which it is useful to quote in full: “ When the lower part of a mountain is hidden by mists, the spectator is attracted to this dissimulation because, even if he sees nothing, he knows that something exists. The imagination is stimulated by secret, but the contemplative will discard any imagination to let himself be illuminated by this absence-presence of the mountain. The cloud hides the plenitude of the mountain through its vapours. In reality, it is the Truth of all mountains that manifests itself, because the cloud is as colourless and impalpable as the Tao: if it conceals the full of the mountains, it is to better show the ultimate identity of the Full and the Empty, of the mountain and the Tao. For the mind, the visible-invisible of things open to their unity and their overtaking”.
One could also draw on the story of Saint Roch, whose iconography shows him dressed as a pilgrim, and unveiling his knee and thigh injured by plague. Obviously this is the symbol of the Initiated who has accomplished – just as Dante narrates in the Commedia – the voyage of conversion which starts through hell, or the realm of evil (the plague a symbol of malum which in Latin means evil, and probably comes from mala, the Sanskrit for filth, excrement), then continues upward on the path opened by Christ (the healing bread brought to him daily by the dog), until the pilgrim may reach his goal and be allowed to contemplate Ultimate Reality (the “unveiling” of the knee, i.e. of the accomplishment of the walk). The Taoist plenitude of the mountain, just as the plenitude of the pilgrim’s rebirth, or conversion, are visually expressed by means of a disclosing veil. Absence-presence is at the core of this visual approach to the invisible, a narrow path indeed to walk as an artist.
A philosophical rationalization of this may be taken from an essay by Raimon Panikkar (Sein und Nichts, Fragender Durchblick auf die entfaltete Problematik, 1984). He notes that it is not possible to think of something without simultaneously thinking about it together (mit-denken) with its limits; while thinking, we are indeed aware that we are not thinking about other things, and that it is us who is thinking. Any object thus exists in a relationship with the rest of reality, thought is always bound by a negation, by what it does not embrace. These boundaries between the object of thought and the non-object are a manifestation of the Negation, the Void that makes our thought possible in the first place. The western mystic tradition (Liber XXIV Philosophorum, continued by Meister Eckart and Nicola Cusano, tells as much: Deus est oppositio ad nihil mediatione entis, God – understood as the essence of Being – is the opposite of Nothing mediated by the existing entity. The artist focuses on these boundaries when introducing a dark or a bright mist, a “cloud” which leaves some brighter or darker portion of the canvas to suggest the “object” of the quest, of the thought, of the vision. To suggest the plenitude of the Light, or in the white canvases the coming of a shape to being. Minh Lantran’s canvases become reflections of the boundary between object and non-object, image and non-image.
Of course, her work should not be understood as centred exclusively on the idea of theophany, or the renovation of the age-old theological doctrines of light; she embraces the question of representability in its full extent, in an age when science itself has progressively undermined the very idea of reality as the coming into shape of any stable entity in the universe, and when social “sciences” focus on dismantling any remnant of intellectual categories, of “universals”, or of human values and specificities. In this arid land-that-is-no-more, is there something left to be represented? And is it legitimate to represent anything as what is then given to see is a lie, the imposition of a view, of an aspect, of a character on something that escapes such determinations? One may legitimately apply a very secular and very actual lens to the observation of such work.
It would require a long exploration indeed to visit pictorial universes that echo the work of Minh Lantran. One of them, which is of particular relevance, is the admirable quest of Michael Biberstein, the Swiss artist who died in Portugal in 2013 while still working at his opus magnum, a sky (see picture on the right) on the vault of the church of Santa Isabel, in Lisbon’s Campo de Ourique district.
Biberstein’s sky is conceived as an ascent towards the light, actual and metaphorical; a means of elevation. He who said “we physiologically need metaphysics”, this master of the art of watercolour, did explore the limits of representation, which is quite different obviously from mere abstraction, both in its intent and in its effect. There is a looming quality of the image which overcomes or transcends form and colour. Something that induces the viewer to wait and expect. The boundaries with abstraction are tenuous indeed, but can be felt by most sensitive persons.
And why is it, may you ask, that J.M.W. Turner’s watercolours (such as the painting of Margate here shown) which spring to mind when looking at some of Biberstein’s own works, those delicate watercolours executed by one of the greatest geniuses of colour in art history, and which sometimes attempt at letting loose their moorings with the landscapes they emanated from, why is it that they remain so definitely profane ? I would argue that a trace of horizontality always betrays the horizon, the here and now of the image, while remaining only partly satisfied with the answer.
The pictures which illustrate Michael Biberstein’s work are all taken from exhibitions at the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery, which very effectively and courageously supported the artist for a number of years.
Another work which is close in its spirit to that of Minh Lantran is The Deep, one of Jackson Pollock’s very last paintings, dated 1953. Pollock’s exposure to the life and traditions of Native Americans and his interest in shamanism and Jungian theories is no secret. In Shamanism, transformation of the self (i.e. « conversion » as it is termed in other traditions) requires the sacrifice of one’s previous self through symbolic pain and death; after such sacrifice, a form of reincarnation, or « incorporation » occurs when the individual’s spirit joins with nature, thus vastly enhancing the individual’s capacities. One may recall the conversation between Jackson Pollock and Hans Hoffmann in 1942, when Pollock declares: « I am nature », and expresses his conviction of « oneness » between the inner and outer worlds, the absence of any split between object and subject. « Krasner explained: ‘People think he means he’s God. […] He means he’s total. He’s undivided. He’s one with nature' »(Quoted from Meanings of Abstract Art: Between Nature and Theory, Crowther and Wunsche). Through his abstract paintings, and somehow by developing the technique of drippings, Pollock sought to reach an inner transformation that might liberate him from the demons that tormented him, and probably eventually killed him at a relatively young age.
Interestingly, the horror vacui that characterizes most of the canvases painted by Pollock until 1950 – let us think of Eyes in the Heat of 1946, or Galaxy of 1947 – starts dissipating with Number 1A, 1948 where the density of coloured lines and « stains » is made more stiking and intriguing by the white area at the top of the canvas, and is somewhat « let go of » with Number 32. 1950 as if the power of the Void had manifested its effectiveness in replacing the painful chaos of indetermination by some nascent sentiment of plenitude. As William Rubin lucidly observes, « For the spectator, the picture is an isolated object, a closed, self-contained system of meanings and, to that extent, an end. For the painter, the making of it is part of a process of self-interrogation and, hopefully, self-discovery, and it is therefore also a means. » (Rubin, 1999). With The Deep, we are connfronted with a more powerful expression than in many other paintings by Pollock; whether an abyss is opening, or a shape striving to emerge through the mist, a surging of the unconscious, or the inner and outer worlds fusing with one another, we cannot tell. The intuition that we may have is that of a borderline event, a direct confrontation with the question of visibility. Isnt’t the « deep » a place beyond our ability to distinctly see or apprehend ?
Barnett Newman’s ink dated 1946, and later titles The Break, leaves a white space in its middle that may legitimately be construed in the same manner, as a space left for something to appear… or not.