Waterston's Big Artistic Gamble Pays off
by Kenneth Baker
April 25, 2009
The art public has accepted installation too uncritically as an open-form mode of invention. Masterly examples by artists such as Dan Flavin (1933-96), Joseph Beuys (1921-86), Jannis Kounellis and Barry Le Va have unintentionally paved the way for all sorts of slack, self-indulgent production by others.
So San Francisco painter Darren Waterston risked a lot when he set out to create at Stanford's Cantor Center his own version of a Victorian "mourning parlor."
In it, he daringly mingles his own paintings and watercolors with relics of the university and of its founding family. Any note of flippancy or false feeling might have poisoned the whole affair.
Extremes meet here: the Victorian obsession with remembrance of the dead, with its class-conditioned overt display of grief, and contemporary culture's instructions to "get over it" and indulge our instinctive wish to deny mortality.
When 15-year-old Leland Stanford Jr. died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy, his parents embarked on an eight-month procession of mourning that made headlines and culminated in the founding of Stanford University in the boy's memory.
Of course, we continue to profess and feel sympathy for anyone whose children die, especially when they die young. But we regard as pathological the immersion in grief expected of privileged Victorians, particularly women.
Waterston does not take sides. He merely sets up the polarity of attitudes, challenging us to position ourselves within it, hence the aptness of the installation mode, which makes positioning an issue on one or more levels.
Some visitors may accuse Waterston of morbidity or disrespect for including the plaster death mask of young Leland. But the object paradoxically reanimates a representational literalism that to us seems artistically bankrupt. Perhaps postmodernism's ironic and embittered treatment of representation in art disguises unarticulated fears of its magic.
Waterston has designed his own woodblock-printed black-on-brown wallpaper, incorporating butterflies and an owl motif based on a taxidermied owl in the Stanford family collection. Like a spreading stain, some 3,000 synthetic black morphos butterflies adorn the ceiling above a circular padded bench.
Yielding to the cushioned bench's implicit invitation to sit and contemplate Leland Jr.'s exemplary death proves surprisingly hard to do.
Placing his own plainly anachronistic oil paintings in this environment must have given Waterston pause. For years, his paintings have evoked something of the strange unease that comes of recognizing oneself as a conscious organism. The setting of "Splendid Grief" heightens the paintings' reminiscence of the Victorian vogue for seances and belief in the individual's spirit as "ectoplasm" that might extrude itself from the body and even survive it.
Such notions lay closer to the historical origins of abstract painting in Europe than the Constructivist tradition acknowledges.
On an unpapered wall, Waterston has scattered family memorabilia, including contemporary and posthumous portraits of the deceased Leland Jr. He has interspersed these in the salon-style hanging with his own watercolors and ink drawings of motifs, invented and borrowed, evoking omens of death and dreams of its transcendence.
Waterston's Haines Gallery show in San Francisco contains new paintings and works on paper suffused with moods and aesthetic effects similar to those he orchestrates in "Splendid Grief." His mastery of fluid media is apparent in both shows, particularly in the haunting watercolors at Stanford and in grand paintings on panel at Haines, such as "Assumption" (2008).
We see too seldom the alignment of artistic difficulty with difficult issues and feelings that Waterston achieves in these concurrent shows. People who genuinely enter into them will not soon forget them.
- Kenneth Baker
Darren Waterston: The Flowering: The Fourfold Sense at Gallery 16
by Dewitt Cheng
Religion is not something that artists and galleries discuss readily: it looks woozily sentimental to hardheaded investors. However, given America's sanctimonious capitalist-warrior mentality, and its visibly disastrous results, many artists are now exploring the idea of spirituality, as did early abstractionists like Mondrian and Kandinsky who studied Theosophy. With contemporary artists, the spiritual leanings are eclectic and nondenominational, with an ecological spin, and blessedly free of the dogmatic certitude and bellicosity that bedevil organized religions.
Darren Waterston's older paintings were lyrical misty landscapes with silhouetted flora and fauna. His newer works, symbolist abstractions, become mindscapes in which ambiguous transparent forms arise, float, flutter, and sink amid mist, clouds, swirls, drips, and vermicular coils of brushstrokes; each image with its poetic cycles of life represents the cosmos as "a divine chaos." A student of Shinto, Japan's traditional animism, Waterston now examines the career of a fellow visionary (though one more attuned to penance, weeping and other austerities than anyone except performance artists). "The Flowering (The Fourfold Sense)" is a series of digital prints based on the legends surrounding St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th Century mystic and monk; they're accompanied by broadsheets printed with scholar Tyrus Miller's contemporary versions of the fioretti, the hagiographical "little flowers" that followers wrote after Francis' death. In theological parlance, the four senses are historical (literal), allegorical (esoteric), tropologic (moral, practical) and anagogic (mystical) interpretations of scripture. Waterston's imagery should be interpreted through a contemporary ecumenical sensibility. According to the artist, his works are "metaphors for--or meditations on--transience and impermanence" rather than literal narratives or prophecies; the titles, texts and images work in parallel, but not programmatically. Mount Verna with Wound refers, of course, to Francis' receiving the stigmata from either a six-winged seraph or from Christ nailed to a winged cross, but Waterston's ambiguous image refrains from illustration in favor of suggestion. Leper's Conversion features a ghostly figure (borrowed from Vesalius) standing amid the artist's familiar orbs (eggs, eyes, breasts) and spermatic serpents. In Umbria, a gigantic reddish-pink orb floats in the sky like a strange balloon or eye, covered with blurred dots, as if seen through a spattered windowpane or through blinding tears.
Copyright © 2009, Art Ltd.
Darren Waterston at the Hoffman Gallery, Lewis & Clark College
by Sue Taylor
ART IN AMERICA
Blue Passage, by Darren WaterstonIn addition to a selection of Darren Waterston's ambitious abstract paintings, this exhibition introduced The Flowering (The Fourfold Sense), 2007, a suite of prints and broadsides that the artist created with writer and literary critic Tyrus Miller. The paintings, such as Threshold or Gravity (both 2006), present mysterious spaces haunted by translucent emanations, floating orbs or clouds of mist. Adept at a myriad of fluid effects, Waterston is a virtuosic colorist as well, enlivening the palest mauve and powder-blue fogs with passages of burning orange or hot pink. In these apocalyptic dreams, he imagines flashing, otherworldly realms at the brink of consciousness. Waterston is steeped in Eastern and Western artistic traditions and, like Kandinsky and Kupka before him, puts abstraction in the service of a visionary project.
In Italy in 2005, Waterston became interested in the cult of another visionary - Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). The Flowering alludes to the 14th century hagiography, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, that inspired the print collaboration with Miller. Known for his voluntary poverty an brotherly love, Francis also exemplifies spiritual passion and mortification of the body. The stigmata marked him as a living avatar of the Savior he worshipped. Waterston's 13 hand-colored digital images and Miller's 13 printed texts - the Christlike Francis had 12 disciples - constitute a Blakean meditation on mystical experience, but in this case fully embodied. The texts feature vividly sensuous descriptions of Franciscan ordeals and miraculous cures, as the devoted band of believers wander preaching through the countryside.
Waterston's prints inject figurative motifs into his otherwise abstract vocabulary. Clustered black wings in Seraph conjure the angel that delivered the stigmata; rocks and trees in Mount Verna suggest the legendary site where the miracle occurred; the skull in Body and Dome repeats the momento mori upon which Francis meditated. His deprivations and empathic tears are said to have driven the saint almost blind, while intensifying his inner vision, a concept exquisitely articulated in Umbria and Eye as Moon, where Waterston treats the organs of sight as heavenly lights. Most poignant is Wounds, whose title reveals that the gorgeous pink, red and warm-brown abstraction is in fact an evocation of festering lacerations of the skin. Indeed the saint did not shrink from the sores of lepers and warmly embraced those afflicted by the disease. It may be well that The Flowering offers the medieval mystic, a model of male bonding and compassion in the midst of contagion, as the perfect patron of San Francisco, Waterston's home.