Light Fantastic: Paintings on Mylar and Glass
by Robert Mahoney
In his solo exhibition, Light Fantastic: Paintings on Mylar and Glass, John Lyon Paul translates the benefits of meditation into a series of color-drenched abstract paintings on Mylar or glass eliciting the luminous mystery of nature and existence. Grounded in a lifetime practice of spiritual exercises, Paul makes use of a geometric and vectored abstraction to focus and concentrate the mind on the often overlooked fullness of lived experience.
Using an underlying net or grid form that first appeared in his relief sculpture, Laughter Prayer Net, an assemblage of wood objects woven into and strung on a copper wire mesh framed in glass, Paul lays out, in his Mylar or glass studies, meditative pathways to deeper appreciation of nature and experience. These paintings are conceptually modeled on the Navajo Beauty Way Ceremony, whose purpose (“it is finished in beauty,” as the prayer goes) is to restore our natural state of harmony, balance and beauty. Sometimes dominated by net-derived checkerboard order (Glass Study #20), at other times taken over by vectors and vortexes (Glass Study #28), at other times resting in between (Glass Study #24), still at other times overcome by large iconic forms, including circles, squares and oblongs (Glass Study #27), each panel is a record of the ritualized creation of mindfulness, and may be viewed as sequentially therapeutic in that the eye moves from one element to the other, gradually approaching calmness (instead of taking the whole in at once, as per modern art optical fixing). Mylar and glass as surfaces also keep a record of the painting act itself, lending a forensic authenticity to each segment and the marks or strokes of painting it contains.
The exhibition contains both works done on Mylar and on glass. Paul painted the first twenty-seven works in this series “in reverse” on the back of squares of clear Mylar, a thick, polyester film, subsequently he moved to painting on plate glass in part because this allowed the paintings to overflow their borders. Both substrates are non-absorbent and slippery and can retain the subtle intimacy of brush and pen. To the extent that as on Mylar Paul worked, as it were, intramurally, inside the sections of the forms, creating almost ‘stained glass’ type washes, from panel to panel (Mylar Study #23), then, moving to glass, began to paint extramurally, over borders more often (Glass Study #14) and then even tugging at and pushing out beyond a fictive frame or boundary of the picture as a whole (Glass Study #19), indicates the degree to which the material unconscious of each substance played on his mind when at work to exploit first the slipperiness and later the sliding quality of the media. It is also apparent that the sculptor in Paul responded to the physical breach of the conventional material support of painting—canvas on stretcher—by giving himself license to break boundaries and push out beyond frames, making the studies on glass in particular come alive and surge out at the viewer. His sensitivity to materials indicates that for Paul ‘painting’ is but one more way of negotiating a relationship between artist and viewer, not a genre tradition bound by its materials.
The physicality of these paintings relates to Paul’s history as a sculptor. Paul’s sculptures emerged from his practice of meditation in the 1970s, and intersected with art as part of a trend toward a more humanistic reading of the anti-monumental tradition of public memorial sculpture that developed in artistic mainstream the U.S. after World War II (intersecting again with the grandiose minimalism of Richard Serra), primarily in response to the Holocaust. Perhaps the signal work of the anti-monumental tradition is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in Washington, a stark black marble inscription placed down an incline, a work whose stark anti-monumentalism nonetheless has learned to accommodate the fact that people need to interact with rubbings, leavings, mementos, flags, flowers, taking pictures, touching (always touching), leaving notes with prayers on them, saying goodbyes (the severe World Trade Center memorial is currently receiving the same human makeover). In works like River Prayerwheel, Paul engages the votive element in the long history of such sculpture, conversing with a class of anthropological objects such as relics, reliquaries, pilgrimage badges, acheiropoetoi, brandea, measures (a cord the exact length of the circumference of the pillar of the scourge or Buddha’s footprint), bells, gongs, candles, any offering or take-away that brings the baraka (grace, an Islamic tradition too) of the sacred with it, back home. He allows viewers to touch and often leave marks of remembrance on his work, and the stream of touch points in all their unanticipated variety has been translated into his physical manner of painting (as if Paul has learned about the full unpredictability of touch from his momentary collaborators). In his sculptures, the Buddhist prayer wheel emerged as the primary prototype, given three dimensions in Sunrise Prayerwheel and in Great Spirit Prayerwheel especially its diverging and converging spiraling, depending on which way you spin it, radiates out as a fluid gestalt almost in the nature of the yin-yang symbol (some have suggested the waveform of the sign of Aquarius as an apt Western counterpart for the relational era upon us) through his paintings as well. Together, eschewing the hard physicality of sculpture, it is touch and flow that are given free rein in the paintings.
Paul’s practice is often guided by meaningful, even milestone dreams. His paintings on Mylar received a jumpstart after he dreamt of being engulfed by a colorful swarm of bright butterflies, the visual startle and wonder of it Paul calling the butterfly effect (a phrase which also refers to the incalculable serendipity of nature and life, little things leading to great changes). The shape of that foundational dream features: a burst of many colors, the startle of multiple effects happening all at once, the involvement of dynamic geometry (wings moving quickly away but also around) and, again, the diverging and converging, or swirling, action of lines of flight (meanders). The shape of the dream, then, is a natural translation of the prayer wheel dynamic adapted to painting. That the image emerged in a dream also indicates that Paul’s vocabulary has a deeply eidetic quality. These signifiers of altered states can be clearly seen in Mylar Study #14 and #15, for example.
Paul has noted that nature itself consists of broad unchanging constants, often expressed geometrically (the horizon, the vanishing point toward it, the dimension of nature mostly accounted for in Western thought, alluded to, here and there, in Paul’s work, by insets of map fragments, as in Glass Study #19), but also endless meanders and fractal states productive of infinite microscopic variety (fractal scientists have determined, measuring the scale of nature, if a scale is defined as every doubling of scale, that nature encompasses one thousand degrees of scale!). In this context, “abstraction” is less the modernist’s aloof Platonic ideal, than the by-product of immersion. The fact that Paul lives in nature and on a geographic scale in the glacial landscape of the Finger Lakes whose variety offers a built-in antidote to what Campbell once called the “terminal moraine” of the materialistic view of life divested of myth, undoubtedly keeps him buoyant and receptive in response to these macro and micro currents. The landscape element, suggestive of storms, hills, rivers and farms, is evident in Mylar Study #22, #23 and especially in #26, capturing both the cloud and reflected in water quality of sunset, as well as Glass Study #12 and #14.
As he moves from painting to painting, one proceeding from the other, Paul follows a macro path exploring various motifs or techniques devised in moments of response to materials and circumstance, dealing with geometry, or wide meanderings or the placing and breaching of the frame. But at the same time he is constantly scattering an endless variety of micro effects, additive and subtractive, washy or sticky, wet or dry, that occur to him in the process of each particular work. In doing so he builds up a rich vocabulary of touches, there to be felt with him, in the manner of a mentor, by the viewer (the participant touches which he hosted in his sculptures have been translated into demonstrative touches shared internally, moving, spiritually, then, past the stage of orientation to the stage of guidance). The vocabulary is not to be catalogued in a denotative manner but appreciated in a purely connotative way. In a cursory scan of Paul’s series, one detects brushwork, but also scratching, splashing, splattering, spotting, tearing off and many other devices which can only be encapsulated by reference to the “etcetera principle” of life’s plethora. Both Mylar and glass provided Paul with a mechanism to show all this detail to the viewer in a transparent way.
In each series of paintings, it is possible to tell whether Paul was at the beginning or end of the sequence. In one sub-series, Paul meditated on the meaning of the “x” symbol, subjecting it to all kinds of polysemous pushes and pulls of meaning, from Jasper Johnsian iconic, in Mylar Study #8 to the scratchy-pawing intensity of the ‘x marks the spot’ of letter serifs zeroing in on the place on a treasure map. In an accompanying statement, in a classic example of what Jung called symbolic elaboration, Paul teased out nine meanings from x, including the illiterate’s signature, “you are here” and treasure map markings of the spot, a mathematical multiplication sign, crossroads, crossing out and even Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, all adding up to “the symbol of your journey through life”. In other works, when Paul juxtaposes meandering landforms against a checkerboard backdrop one can feel form loom (Mylar Study #14) or step aside to make way for something else (#15) from panel to panel. None of this push and pull happens, however, in an expressive or argumentative manner: inquiry, reflection, sometimes even humor, is the norm.
In all cases Paul has reserved for this work a single state of mind, what Cziksentmihalyi calls flow, the holy grail of athletes, saturated in alpha brain waves, when one is totally immersed in one’s work, but which Ramakrishna (also) touched upon in his remark, “Whatever I saw I worshipped.” Each panel is an enactive record of the mind moving on past the hiccups and hesitations, sharp edges and lines in the sand drawn by reason, self-consciousness, anger, alienation and other vices of consciousness, to a fuller state of awareness. Perhaps having learned intuitively Giotto’s ancient lesson of a giornata (one can only do a day’s work in a day), Paul reserves only his top form of mindfulness for his art and it shows. The easy fusion of subjective and objective in his painting also exemplifies what is called the participation mystique, defined by that fusion, in the childlike mind. Because of this, Paul’s paintings have about them an alterstil ease which reminds one of Matisse and his cutouts, an artist of a certain age proving the adage that male youth, in particular, is wasted on the angry young men of the world.
Paul has remarked of his work, “(The paintings) are mysterious environments where we are free to move about as if out-of-body, drawn and released by the pulse of color and energy of line. Within them the word ‘abstraction’ gives way to ‘freedom’ as we surround ourselves with a vibration of color that is almost musical.” John Lyon Paul has sculpted and painted in a rural studio in the Finger Lakes region of New York State since the mid-1980s. His Many Thousands Gone and Nagasaki Prayerwheel are prominent works of public participatory memorial art that elicit interaction with the public. The Studies paintings commenced in 2010, preceded by several others series of paintings, including Pilgrimage (102 paintings from the late 1990s) and his Meditation Shawls (2005-8). Paul’s work has been exhibited at the Arnot Art Museum. In 2010, Paul was chosen as the Featured Artist of the “Conflict and Visual Culture Project” at the Solomon Asch Center and in 2011 was selected by the NYFA MARK professional artist program. His Studies have been exhibited in Light Fantastic: Paintings on Mylar & Glass, Crary Art Gallery, Warren, PA (2012) and in Paintings on Glass, CAP ArtSpace, Ithaca, New York (2012). His work has been exhibited in galleries and museum continuously since 1976.
Robert Mahoney has been an art writer for over 15 years. He currently writes for Time Out New York, ArtNet.com and Art in America.