The Laughter at the Heart of Being: the Art of John Lyon Paul
by Paul Sawyer
On the wall, a long stain of brilliant copper light, shaded and tempered by verdigris, surrounds and highlights a soaring shaft, capped at the top and bottom by identical copper pendulums. The upper one is mounted like a spear, the lower suspended freely. One thinks of Brancusi’s “Bird in Space,” except here the main thrust is downward: copper lines stream alongside the central spine, like a vertical wake, the entire plunging force concentrated delicately at the tear-shaped tip. The tip seems motionless though, in fact, it is all the time describing minute circles: it is a Foucault’s pendulum, aimed at the earth’s center (the seven feet of the central column is the minimum length for a suspended copper wire to register the movements of the earth). For all its blinding energy, the actual shape of the work is a rectangle, a stabilizing form that modifies the downward thrust and anchors it by a horizontal checkerboard of copper wires that rib the surface and lap gently over the central furrow. Is this mounted oblong a spear-tipped shield or body-armor for a god? Or is it a topography, incised with the four main directions? The sheer splendor of the work – classic in its economy and concentration of energy – makes one “hear” it like a hymn.
“Heart Sutra” is on a wall of the second studio if you enter the complex by the left porch. By this time you will have passed some two dozen sculptures in an enormous variety of forms, ranging from the figurative to the abstract and from the austerely minimal to the intricate and ingenious. There are a hesitant but resolute child-ballerina, carved out of rosewood; a pair of winged raptors – or rather, a single raptor and its reflection – seizing a fish in its beak, pulling apart from its double, yet still sealed at the wing-tips; an intricate copper construction called “Spirit Trembling On the Face of the Deep.” Five “Peace Tablets” of black concrete, shaped like gravestones, range across an inner wall in solemn silence. On the outer wall, three constructions of rice-paper and wood (“Morning Star,” “Day Star,” and “Evening Star”) whirl playfully like pinwheels or kites designed for giant children, though the third, with its repeated circles suggesting a star broken and reflected across spoke-like surfaces, seems somber. In a corner is a three-wheeled cart bearing some kind of shrine, its interior dimly lit by the flicker of twenty electric candles.
Upstairs are the paintings – scores of huge canvases and smaller framed paper works stacked in every available corner. (The unfinished “Pilgrimage” series now contains over ninety items.)
John Lyon Paul is an upstate New York painter and sculptor who lives with his wife, Katherine Gottschalk, at Frog Heaven, 27 acres outside of Ithaca that contain woods, three ponds, and the studio complex he built in the 1980s. How can one describe a body of work as prodigious and many-sided as his? The rigidities of the current art-system, dominated by competing signature styles and a rapid succession of trends, become apparent the moment one encounters an artist who does not define himself by a single variable image, and whose works belong to the nineties no more than the eighties or the seventies. He seems unmoved by the urgent, contradictory demand of today’s art-world: to make something both “new” and commodifiable. Instead, his direction is inward – a long-term fidelity to the truth of his work as he sees it, which he calls “integrity” – though the works themselves look outward, as it were, eager to communicate. In some ways his art is traditional: it re-affirms the aesthetic values, subject to powerful challenge in recent years, of sensuousness and intimacy, and it uses materials that are pre-industrial and ready-to-hand (instead of, say, polyethylene or fluorescent tubing). Yet it is complex and audacious enough to challenge and expand what one thought before about the possibilities of art. Moreover, John has so studied the achievement of sculptors and painters before him that his own work belongs, if not to a trend or a decade or a school, then very much to art history. And if one cannot locate a single signature style in this eclectic multitude, one can still describe some features of the imagined world they inhabit – a world that enlarges and interprets the world we know.
John’s inventiveness obviously inherits the liberation of sculptural form at the beginning of the last century. In the years since Picasso and Duchamps and Nevelson and Beuys and Calder and Eva Hesse, sculptures are not (as they largely were in Rodin’s time) limited to freestanding human figures: nor are they even limited to objects on bases. As John’s work shows, they can hang on the wall like rugs, or belly out like three-dimensional paintings, or crank like machines, or hover in space. His own definition is appropriately wide: “Sculptures take their place among us in our world. We relate to them with our bodies. Mine are magnetized by silence. Their presence witnesses. Their stillness invites us to listen.”
A sign on one step of the stairway to the upper floor of the studio announces: “Warning: Rude Mechanical at Work.” The punning reference to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is especially appropriate since Shakespeare’s tradesmen are, of course, crafting a play (one of them is even made love to by the Queen of the Fairies and plans to compose a poem on the subject, called “Bottom’s Dream” because is has no bottom). Bottom would have enjoyed the first sculpture one sees on the top floor, “Eight Crows Rumba with the Gibbous Moon.” One winter, looking out at the nearby pond, John saw a crow flick snow on another crow, which began what was clearly an avian game; but the work this incident inspired bears little trace of crows. Within a drably painted open box or case on the wall are eight croquet mallets angled at each other beneath a toilet float “moon.” The mallets come from an abandoned John found among some weeds. The balls do not appear in this work, but do turn up as the main spherical elements in another work, “Laughter Prayer Net,” in which objects are “written into” and suspended in a grid-like armature, which is in turn encased in a glass box. John explained to me that this work captures the experience of coming out of a deep meditative state – and bursting into laughter at the banality of the first thought that came to his waking mind. Combining a lost croquet set with the memory of crows playing in the snow and then again, using the balls to make a point about religious meditation, are both classic John Paul “strokes” (many of his works carry a double reference to the world without and the world within). By rewriting bird behavior as a human game (not to mention the lunar toilet float), he asks us to think of play as a law of nature, just as the oxymoron title “Laughter Prayer Net” asks us to think of laughter as a portion of the spiritual. Both works locate the child-like at the heart of artistic creation, in this case perhaps as a Whitmanic laugh at all human pretentions and decorums. To “read” these and other works like them is to participate in that Whitmanic spirit – one that is democratic, generous, and accepting – but also to understand looking in a new way: to grasp how reading a work of art is at once like entering a meditative trance and enjoying a good joke.
Literary theorists traditionally define “wit” as the faculty of seeing resemblances; it brings together differences on the basis of sameness, and re-contextualizes the old in order to make it new. The effect is always in some way surprising or startling – often comical, though it may be cerebral or even tragic. In the twentieth century, cubist and surrealist artists made sculpture a supremely witty form; they played with volumes and shapes, heads and limbs and breasts and guitars, and made ingenious visual puns based on found objects (the famous toy car, for example, that forms the muzzle of the mother ape in the sculpture at MOMA). John Paul’s found objects obviously belong to this tradition, but his wit works in other ways as well. Very typically, his works “pun” on their own forms by proposing resemblances between sculptures and other objects. “Prayer Door (Mezuzah),” like “Laughter Prayer Net,” suspends objects in a metal grid, but here the “door” resembles a metal mattress-frame, strung with wires that are occasionally wavy, like script. John’s three “Prayer Wheels” (objects for transmitting prayers to the gods) are mounted vertically on walls and can be turned by moving the wheels at the base, like barber poles; one of them produces a calligraphic infinite loop that ascends and descends as one turns the wheel. His “Desert Prayer Rug” is not a wall-hanging, but an intricate assemblage of sunny blond wooden puzzle-like pieces, notched into semi-circles and drilled with holds and “cross-stitched” by undulating copper bands. One thinks of beaches and sunlight perhaps more than of God, but also, as the eye moves over the voluptuous intricacies of textile patterns, and then, maybe, of the idea of pattern itself. Art history is, of course, full of religious objects like prayer rugs (stoles, chalices, altars, gravestones, censors, candlesticks, to cite only instances from the Christian tradition), which we do not normally think of a sculpture, but which John joyfully, appropriates to his own purposes. Strikingly, John sometimes calls his works, “tools.” In fashioning occasions for meditation out of cast-off objects (brass wheels, iron frames, rusty screens, lost croquet balls, and so forth), John suggests another sense of the word “tool”: something that aids reflection, that puts one into relationship with the spiritual world. The pendulum-like objects in “Heart Sutra” are actually tools in the literal sense – they are plumbobs, which are weights suspended by construction workers to assure that the building walls are “plumb.” According to John, all buildings are based on the use of the plumbob and its horizontal relative, the spirit level – the vertical and horizontal axes by which humans locate themselves. In this sense, “Heart Sutra” is a mammoth compass, orienting the viewer to the earth’s heart.
Some of these meditative aids illustrate the processes of meditation itself – another way John draws upon the artistic tradition. Cubist and surrealist sculptors experimented with breaking up three-dimensional monumentality by suffusing objects with space: linking shapes along welded lines, like thought-associations, or creating scrawl-like strings in the air that resembled an aerial calligraphy (for example, David Smith’s “Hudson River Landscape,” also at MOMA). John’s beautiful “Pilgrimage Scroll” is an intensely lyrical example of mock-calligraphy. Mounted on a pedestal and enclosed in a glass box, like a display case from a museum of antiquities, the “Scroll” is an unrolled copper sheet inscribed on both sides with flowing copper lines and geometrical ornaments. The shining surface is both a map and a record of a journey, which we may also think of as the journey of artistic creation. (The metaphor of creation-as-a-journey gives the “Pilgrimage” series of paintings its title.) An example at the opposite extreme – all heavy, murky, and enclosed – is a particularly audacious piece, called “Slipping Through Dream,” in which John uses lead (of all materials) to represent thought without an object. A pair of hollow gray masses mounted on six poles and slightly waved like a half-open book (the color of the cerebral hemispheres), almost meet at their knobbed and knotted inner surfaces. But on the smooth outer surfaces, a series of puckered, raised elements flow and ripple in an endless circle – in ambiguous relationship to the inner gap from which they may or may not emerge. The viewing here is odd, because one circles the piece, enjoying the quiet surging of the dream-thoughts, but one can never see fully into the occluded inner surfaces. Thought without an object, as John told me, is the corollary of a fire without a wick. There is a meditation practice in which our attention slips snake-like through the stone wall of the phenomenal world, as through the spaces between words or the pauses between breaths.
As the metaphysics of this meditation practice suggests, knowledge arises from meditative vacancy – just as creation arises from a void and as being itself, according to Buddhist scripture, is but a transient manifestation of nothingness. A fascination with negation, wit the disembodied, even with non-existence, is the opposite pole of an artistic impulse that I have been describing as exuberant, abundant and energized. John’s few figurative sculptures are oddly reticent, tentative, blunt-featured. The most extreme example is the monk in “Catacomb Self-Portrait,” whose limp and abject body all but dissolves into the clothes in which he hangs. But the most stunning representation in John’s work of the nothingness just beyond life started with a pair of shoemaker’s lathes he found in a ditch.
The lathes are sectioned frames that hold polish, brushes, and other implements. John removed the sections, keeping the frames, and inserted steel rods to form a scaffold or support for a pair of white, tapered wooden slabs which he then suspended horizontally, about one inch apart. Somber, hushed, and mysterious, “Momento Mori (Moment of Death)” hovers weightlessly before us (a musician friend called it a single note sounded so deeply that one can not so much hear it as one can feel its vibration). Ingeniously, the piece is shaped like a body on a bier, but it represents a motion or process, which is almost the opposite; the loosening of the spirit from its bonds. The separation appears to yawn wider as we gaze, though still (for a second longer) bound by a pair of steel hoops that encircle the ends without touching them and, so, seem to float as well. The illusion if unearthly, yet the work is uncompromising in its absolute bareness. Like the rock cliff in New Hampshire that “looks” like a human profile, the sculpture is also just its material elements: rusty steel and rough-hewn wood. “Momento Mori” is a severe visual reduction, apprehended all-at-once.
“Saint Francis’ Shrine” is the most complex of John’s works, in tis detail and conception; it is also the only work in his oeuvre composed of an assemblage of images. The cart bearing these images is, as John’s notes point out, at once “shrine, hearse, and circus wagon.” The phrase that borders the bottom of its single glass wall –“Instrument of Peace”—is derived from the famous prayer of St. Francis, mounted inside on its own frame (“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace … ”). The first item for the shrine John found in the window of a gun shop: an outline of the human form, composed of concentric rings spreading from the heart, which is used by the police for target practice. The rings now form the torso of St. Francis, (as is clear in the detail accompanying this article). The witty idea of saint-as-target generates a second transformation: birds, traditional symbols of peace that are associated with the saint because he ministered to them, here also appear as targets. John’s notes read: “Inside is a kind of shooting gallery filled with targets of haloed dancing figures, birds and animals, all of which appear ready to flip, spin or fall over if struck.” The addition of crosshairs etched across the glass surface reinforces the implied analogy between shooting and seeing, but they also “line up the viewer’s heart with the center of St. Francis’ own heart.” This puts the viewer in extraordinary relationship to the objects within, which “aligns” with us at the same time as they are open and vulnerable to the aggression of seeing.
The figure of the circle organizes the interior. As the detail shows, the golden circles are both targets and haloes, but as globes they are also eggs, one of which hangs suspended above the heart of St. Francis. The birds in all their forms – the heavy wooden dove on the saint’s hand, the crow skeleton in its “reliquary,” the cut-outs spinning on the targets, and so forth – link up with the seven dancing figures at the bottom of the shrine, a dance of death borrowed from the celebrated final image of Bergman’s “Seventh Seal.” Taking this all in, one seems to behold the cycling of biological life itself, from egg to charred relics, which is no longer a purely “natural” cycle, but a self-destructive one, as the inconspicuous but ominous biomorphic mushroom could makes clear. The “Shrine,” in short, is about “the availability of vision o a planet where mankind threatens to create the death it fears,” offered as an “instrument of peace” for the world today.
There are obvious reasons why St. Francis should stand at the center of such an instrument. It was Francis who affirmed the unity of life by addressing the natural elements as family members (and death itself as a “little sister”); whose inner wealth grew from his physical poverty; who took upon himself the suffering of Christ by bearing His seven wounds. But John has radically re-conceived St. Francis for his purposes. The saint’s left side, composed of wood, bears the dove and sprouts a massive wing; the right side, composed of Masonite cut-outs, branches into seven arms like Shiva’s with seven gestures with seven spiritual meanings. (The meanings John has given them are … to shield, bless, suffer, receive, pray soothe, an be paralyzed.) The hands, moreover, bear the stigmata – the wounds, as it were, of the shooting gallery – which form their own poignant rhythm across the bodies of the birds and other figures. This Francis is a syncretistic angel-deity with, nevertheless, a human face which is also his most arresting element: the photograph of a black girl who confronts the viewer in a frontal stare. Her eyes “make no demand other than that you recognize her/his (our) humanity.”
The paradoxes increase as we look above. The little wooden structures topped by egg-shaped domes may, as the notes say, be a “housing project for living birds,” but this peaceful habitation bristles with “arrow-perches”” (flagsticks taken from cemeteries) that point outward. The lower part of the
“Shrine” is for aiming in, John explains, but the upper part aims out. If the “Shrine” is an “instrument” for peace, it is not itself a peaceful object; if anything, it appears to stage a “scene” of explosive energy – attack, defense, suffering, bleeding, regenerating, propitiating. What is the function of the Saint in this scene? John has given him the traditional attributes of Christ, the martyr-god who is our victim, but also our judge, and our healer; one also recalls that Shiva in the Hindu religion is the deity of destruction. The enigmas deepen as we return, again and again, to the stare of the child, who inhabits a body at once vulnerable and monumental. “It makes no judgments, asks no questions, and takes no prisoners,” John says of the figure. “Like a mirror, it leaves you to confront yourself.”
Fascinating as these suggestions are, the “Shrine” is, finally, an experience of color and form. Its dazzling assemblage of objects and shapes vary and repeat, binding the disparate implications of the work into a densely energized unity. Circles of gold, as I have mentioned, form the main unifying devices, but another is the use of biomorphic cut-out shapes as a stylistic signature, visible here in the saint’s tonsure and beard but also the arms and other figures, all of which contribute an undulating motion to the vertiginous energy of the circles. Seen under ordinary conditions, the electric candles “cause shadows to dance and the central figure to float”; but when Jon Reis backlit the structure in order to prepare his brilliant photograph, a surprisingly new effect occurs: the several planes of the interior flatten into a single surface, resembling in color as well as subject a Late Gothic painting. It is as though John has entered the mind of the late-medieval allegorical painter, producing for our times a loving meditation on an old artform.
(I have limited myself to sculpture in this essay only because the paintings depend on resonances of color, which would be lost in any black-and-white reproduction. At their most ambitious, however, the swirling lines, swimming planes and symphonic color gradations bring an extraordinary number of elements into an apprehensible unity. The effect is voluptuous, and at least one of the paintings – the third canvas of the “Pilgrimage” series – is, I will dare to say, a timeless masterpiece. Many in the series are priced within the range of local purchasers.)
I matters to me as an Ithacan that I can drive to the end of a country road in Tompkins County to a homestead called Frog Heaven, stop near a pond, and into a modest frame building to discover an entire imaginative world – and to leave it later with the mind dizzy with thought. As one enters the little upstairs bathroom and finds it cluttered with ready objects (a pair of king crabs in an unused urinal, an old telephone with its gracefully-hung receiver, a flamingo lawn ornament), they seem like beautiful raw materials about to enter another of John’s visions, like the “gibbous moon”/toilet float in the structure just outside the door, or the eerily haunting head of a “Muse” – her face a thin copper triangle, her hair blown by a silent storm – that broods above the staircase. If the closed eyes of this Muse were open, she could see beneath her the warning about the “rude mechanical.” The tow of them – sculpture and sign, the dream and the joke – suggest on of the fundamental polarities in John Paul’s imaginative would (the impersonal, transcendent, and cerebral; the makeshift, witty, and down-to-earth), opposites that are two sides of the same vision. I like to think that the artwork I own myself embodies some of that complex vision in a way distinctive enough to conclude this essay.
“Krishna’s Mouth” is a gaily-colored abstraction, dancing with gilt paper, pastel paper triangles, and other elements emerging from a radiant turquoise and overlaid by a cover of shattered glass – the visual equivalent, one might think, of a cry. The story goes that Krishna’s human mother did not know her young child was anything but an ordinary mortal – until the day she began to spank him for some naughty deed. As he opened his mouth to cry, she looked in and saw the universe.
From The Bookpress, Vol. 12, No 1, February 2002, Ithaca, NY
Paul Sawyer is a professor of English at Cornell University, Director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, and a founding member of the Cornell Prison Education Project.