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Woodstock Times                                                                                        Sept. 11, 1986

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Art inspired by the Dharma
Byrdcliffe hosts a most unusual exhibit of works

by Liam Nelson

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Curated and organized by Peter Blum, a variety of work under the general title "Art Inspired by the Dharma" is on display through September 14. This remarkable collection, part of the fundraising effort for Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery on Mead's Mountain, represents work by artists whose inspiration is the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha.

Many of the artworks, which include collage, painting, photography, sculpture, video art and so on, are interpretations of Buddhist dogma or tradition; in other cases the artist is representing life from the Tibetan Buddhist perspective as he or she understands it. The combination of personal expression within a philosophy and direct representation of the myth makes for an exciting and stimulating exhibition.

Apart from the ideological challenge, Byrdcliffe Barn itself is a prime location for this show. While its architecture does not lend itself easily to display -- much credit must go to those who recreated the interior environment -- the barn has its own special aura of tranquility. After many of the more difficult surfaces had been transformed through the use of dark paper; after windows had been blocked to avoid confusion or provide more display space; after effort had been expended repositioning lights for maximum effect; after all this, the venerable natural woods of the barn, the bell-like music and interpretive artwork combined to create a total ambience of almost other-worldly peace, a kind of metaphysical happening!

As inspired or influenced by belief in or connection with Tibetan Buddhism, all the work in this exhibition has a religious connotation. It is attached to a traditionally Eastern set of beliefs which have spread to the West and been accepted by many. Nevertheless, it is still largely unfamiliar or exotic. In any exhibition the ideals and beliefs of the artists come into focus as do the subjective interpretations of the viewers.

With religious art there is a particular "theme," a set of special subjective parameters which will also interact with the viewer's values. An exhibition such as "Art Inspired by the Dharma" should be able to stand as art regardless of the background and knowledge of the artist or the viewer. In this case many of the works do, combining Eastern mysticism with traditional Western qualities.

Perhaps the very unfamiliarity may make it possible for those unacquainted with Buddhist beliefs to view this exhibit objectively; the initiated may be less critical. No matter what the considerations, the exhibition represents a visual process whereby great ideas and values may be interpreted through the involvement and dedication of artists who search for truth in this particular way, and who can share their discoveries with us.

Purely as an exhibition of art this group show has a wide range of techniques. Richard Zelens displays ceramic dishes and some exquisite handpainted silk banners. The banners are decorated in motifs and images traditional to the philosophy, but also have a coordination and harmony which is universal. His painting "Insui" seems less successful and perhaps should be treated as a primitive icon-like motif rather than a representation of someone meditating.

Nona Howard shows sensitive pen-and-ink wash paintings which have their own mystical quality, serene and simple, while her "Journey to Shambala" contains some minor masterpieces. A series of drawings in ballpoint pen which all contribute toward the title, they are described as "work in progress," an appropriate image for this particular exhibition.

David Stoltz submitted a sculpture, angular and geometrically precise, its forms relating to Buddhist symbols. The intellectually intense need to relate subject matter to symbol makes this a difficult piece, yet it has a harmony with the rest of the show. Much freer are Loren Standlee's collages where a melange of Tibetan and Western symbols create intricate visual puzzles, exotic or earthily familiar.

Bob Dacey shows four pieces, each one representing a Tibetan deity. The forms are exactingly cut out of masonite and have their surface outlines and. textures drawn by a process using Duco cement and heat. The result is detailed and strong, with precise draughtmanship.

In collaboration with Terry Leigh Britton, Dacey also shows a 45-minute video. It deals symbolically with aspects of Tibetan Buddhism -- the forms of Buddha, mandalas and so on. Even on a prosaic 19-inch TV screen surrounded by the accepted paraphernalia of knobs, dials and brown TV set plastic, this video is exceptionally moving. Though no computer enhancements are used, the screen shows a series of shapes and colors which seem to float and glow, representative of inner visions, mystic harmonies linked with thoughts of the Buddha. Of all the works in this exhibition, it is the one which through its vivid glowing colors and its stylized yet abstract moving shapes seems to touch the mystic inner continuum in a fully contemporary fashion.

Torben Ulrich, well known in the tennis world, is an artist, writer, musician and filmmaker. He has been involved with Tibetan Buddhism since 1972, and was the original mover behind the fundraising activities to assist Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, of which this exhibition is one. He displays a series of paintings which he created on white paper using tennis rackets, tennis balls and skip-ropes dipped in paint, then applied freely to the paper.

While this technique seems most apposite in this environment, it also seems unlikely to produce serious works of art. But in fact this is not the case. The forms created by the rope, racket and ball simply become abstract shapes balanced by the clarity of the white negative space. Often the sheer understatement of the compositions seems an embodiment of the philosophy Ulrich follows, while the use of prosaic tools to create the visual result connects the artist, his place in the physical world and his Path all in one.

Within each arrangement of abstract forms Ulrich has a short ideogram-like poem or statement. For example, a white sheet of paper is edged in textured black and contains only a circular red blob. The ideogram states: Did you pay/ Your respects/ To the bail today? Look, it bounces/ Void of greed/ Void of ground/ Show me a kinder/ More exacting/ Teacher.

The show is an experience and an education. Judy Martin's clear, still photographs record not only the Mead's Mountain monastery but the ambience of a religious belief. Deborah Salt shows drawings and paintings which portray traditions and personalities in Buddhism. Her large oil/acrylic painting "H. H. Gyalwa Karmapa-Refuge" is exceptionally powerful and represents a symbolic initiation process. Mark Rogosin has two simple near-primitive pieces, painted on cardboard, dealing with his expression of the symbology.

However, the most striking aspect of this exhibition is its sense of harmony. It is a representation of the works and beliefs of many varied artists working in a variety of media. It is displayed in an old barn which has few of the "necessities" for showing- artworks. Yet it comes together in this mundane setting in a way that is both gentle and harmonious.

Controversy seems muted by the common theme, inspiration by the dharma, so there is created instead an unusual atmosphere of near-contemplation. Thus the art may be examined, studied and mused upon until perhaps like ripples on the surface of a once-still pond it will spread its meaning and share something not only of the artists' vision but of the universal belief which lies behind it.

– Liam Nelson