Sweetcake Enso at the Garrison Institute



curated by Catherine Speath
curated by Catherine Speath
Across religious traditions the circle has often served as a symbol of unity and spiritual wholeness.  Indeed today for some in the spiritual community there is an idealization of evolutionary consciousness, to the extent that absolutely everything from the smallest particle to the furthest reaches of the universe might become as though a single living mind.  And yet the circle also serves symbolically as zero, providing a fundamental counterpoint to any such idealized notions of fullness and wholeness.  How might the circle continue to be an adequate expression of spiritual life?
Without arriving upon any one answer, Sweetcake Enso is an exhibit that shows the work of Buddhist practitioners who are drawn to the circle as a form.  It is in the diversity of expressions and the timeliness of provisional views that the circle reveals aspects of our spiritual conditions.
Sweetcake Enso is named for the tradition of one-stroke brush painting in monastic Japanese Zen Buddhism, in which the Enso symbolizes the meeting of form and formlessness.  The spontaneity of one brush stroke is palpably sensed in time.  It is both the expression of an individual, to the extent that connoisseurs are able to tell one artist’s Enso from another, and the sense of that individual as composed of fleeting moments, however solid in presentness at each stroke of the brush.  
Max Gimblett’s Moon Enso is in this sense a traditional Enso painting.  The title, Moon Enso, stems from the practice of categorizing Enso with regard to meaning, and the quality of absorption that the artist would like one to become involved in.  Painter and Zen Master Shibiyama explained that an Enso without an accompanying text was like a flat beer, to view it as a pure abstraction was then to miss its true effervescence.  Accompanied by words these circles are not as abstract as they appear, and the category of the Sweetcake Enso, of which one might take a bite, is particularly related to everyday life.
Noah Fischer, Untitled Coin, vacuum-formed plastic, copper leaf, 20″, 2011
Some of the artists in this exhibit reach for the content of daily life more than others. Noah Fischer’s vacuformed coin enso reflects upon the coin as a sign for sheer emptiness in exchange value, and for a self draped in its purchase, always compounded at once by desire and obsolescence.  The word LIBERTY is declarative, but in this form it appears as though hovering in the present from a bygone era.
Gregg Hill, Enso for Thay, paint on steel, 22″ diameter x 4″, 2010
Gregg Hill’s Enso for Thay is a smashed oil drum.  Industrial 55 gallon drums are visible everywhere on the planet, rusty reminders of the global dependence on oil.  In Gregg Hill’s work this heavy object is transformed in the shift from the horizontal field of distribution and conflict to the vertical field of painting, losing its uniform weight in gravity to become a lighter erotic object imbued with a sense of loss.
Karen Schiff, Grate Weight, graphite on paper, 80×42″, 2006-2011
Karen Schiff’s Grate Weight is a rubbing from a tree grate in the sidewalk – the tree has died and been removed, leaving blank paper encircled at the center.  The artist explains that Grate Weight expresses the weight of love, of respectfully tending to the world in its varying conditions.
Arlene Shechet, Site Circling, hand made Abaca paper, 34×34 framed, 1997
Arlene Shechet’s Site Circling is a stencil print – paper is pressed to paper as skin to skin.  In Tibetan Buddhism votive stupas are often made to be placed nearby a pilgrimage stupa, a large round structure housing a sacred relic.  Clay is pressed into a mold, and this tsa tsa is then pressed to the earth. Stupas are believed to generate a cosmic energy radiating from their centers, like a stone thrown into water.  Here the architectural footprint is oriented vertically, depicting the iris of an eye as much as a blueprint plan.
Suzy Sureck, Chance Operation, sumi ink and dye on mylar, 18×18″ framed, 2010
Suzy Sureck’s Chance Operations are characterized by a slower openness towards her medium than the traditional Enso painting.  The viewer’s absorption in her work is not directed by gesture so much as how pigment takes hold in the process of alchemy.Paper holds the ring of water which in turn receives colored ink, and the artist’s hand leaves the picture, now a field of delicate local incidents that exceed human will.
 Ross Bleckner, Four Locations, from the Meditation series, Color spitbite aquatint with chine colle, Somerset white paper, Image size 30″ x 22″, Paper size 39″ x 30″, Edition of 50.
Finally, Ross Bleckner’s Four Locations is a print from his Meditation Series.  At the center is the trunk of the Bodhi tree, surrounded by radiating leaves.  In the ‘80s Ross Bleckner’s work was understood to be ironic, an expression of postmodern simulacra – the copy of a copy for which there is no origin.  But painter and critic Peter Halley, who most strongly advocated for this understanding of Bleckner’s work, could in the same breath also write that Bleckner’s paintings are an uplifting response to nuclear energy as the superhuman code to knowledge.  Referring to the light in Bleckner’s paintings, Halley wrote: “His work conveys a mood of questioning in the wake of this troubled history, and a realization, relatively novel in Western civilization, that knowledge may be doubt and that doubt may be light – that the reality of disillusionment may also offer the possibility of transcendence.”*