Ian Boyden: At the Vibrant Epicenter
This essay first appeared in a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition Standing on the Shores of Chaos: Dialogs with the Zhuangzi at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon, 2006. Essay copyright Kevin Greenwood.
The ruler of the Southern Ocean was named Brief, the ruler of the Northern Ocean was named Sudden, and the ruler of the center was named Chaos. Brief and Sudden would, from time to time, come together for a meeting in the territory of Chaos, and Chaos always treated them very generously. One day, Brief and Sudden discussed how they could repay Chaos' kindness. “All men,” they said, “have seven openings (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and one mouth) so they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. Look, Chaos alone doesn't have any openings at all. Let's try boring some holes in him!” So every day they bored a hole into Chaos.
But, on the seventh day Chaos died.
—Zhuangzi (4th. c. b.c.e.)[i]
One day I saw Zhuangzi and Ian Boyden sitting on a log at This-and-That beach, poking at the sand with sticks and laughing. Now, some would point out, and rightly so, that Zhuangzi lived long ago and far away, but that has never stopped him from visiting us occasionally. Sometimes he comes drunk at midnight, in a neatly-pressed Armani suit. Sometimes he appears at mid-day, fresh from the epistemology poetry slam in an ironic, thrift-store t-shirt. At times he is immediately identifiable, in the form of someone familiar, but at other times, he waits to be recognized, then smiles as we discover—in the depths of his eyes—our own collective face from before creation. And there is Zhuangzi waving at us from across the void.
“Look,” I overheard Zhuangzi say. “As the waves wash over our sand-scribbles, images spontaneously manifest. I see a feather, and a tree, and that one looks like Laozi's hairy mole. Manifestation—that's what spirit enjoys.”
Ian replied, “I see the feather and the tree, maybe the mole, but how do you know what spirit enjoys?”
Zhuangzi laughed. “Ha! You fell into my little trap! You asked me how I know, indicating that you knew that I already know when you asked the question. . . you know? I am spirit, manifesting, as are you and everything else. Don't you enjoy knowing this?”
They went on in a similar fashion. I understood the words but not the meaning, and began to reflect instead on Ian Boyden's marvelous paintings. Like the Ruler of Chaos in the parable that inspired this series of paintings, they are emphatically between: ancient philosophy and contemporary art, form and formlessness, calligraphy and painting, alchemy and poetry. Boyden himself straddles these seeming contradictions. With impeccable credentials in the rarefied, academic realm of Chinese art history, he also has deeply rooted experience in that most challenging of Chinese art forms, calligraphy, an experience that his recent work reflects. What might be a high-decibel confrontation between the cognitive and the expressive, Boyden manages to channel and re-direct. In using Zhuangzi's passage as an inspiration for this series, he told me he feared becoming “too didactic or literal” in his interpretation, allowing the tale to dictate and not motivate. Instead, he relaxed and let the materials mingle in what he describes as a “dialog.” This idea of a dialog can be extended to include the artist and the moment of creation. These paintings exist at the vibrant epicenter of materials, artist and moment, transcending all of them.
But now the dangerous part. In discussing these works, we run the risk of killing our transcendental subject, of poking holes in Chaos. Zhuangzi speaks of distinctions and words as ‘traps,' but while traps can trap us into a limited understanding, they can also be tools used to catch a deeper meaning, and, as he says, once this meaning is caught, the trap can be discarded. So let us make some necessary distinctions, use some words for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of Boyden's work. . . then, upon completion, immediately drop this essay like a hot potato at the This-and-That beach potato bake.
Boyden's unique materials have been addressed eloquently elsewhere,[ii] but a few of them bear further discussion here. Boyden says he paints not with color but with materials, the color almost secondary, and the materials themselves deeply evocative. For Boyden, they point to a larger realm of myth and symbol, of historical and cultural significance, intersecting with his paintings, but directing the viewer to wider, or even more personal, associations.
The deep reds are cinnabar, or mercury sulfide (HgS), which Boyden notes has been used for centuries in Chinese painting, and more frequently in the red ink used for seals on paintings, calligraphy and documents. Boyden points out that cinnabar was the source for liquid mercury, and mercury is also associated with the esoteric traditions of Chinese alchemy. Rather than a search for a way to transmute lead into gold, Chinese alchemy was the quest for an elixir of immortality, a quest made ever-more challenging by the insistence on using toxic materials such as mercury and lead.
The rich shades of black come from spinel, the crystalline mineral, and from cuttlefish ink. Cuttlefish are cephalopods, like squids or octopuses, and Boyden has expressed his fascination with their intelligence and ability to transform themselves by altering their skin pigmentation, a skill they use for camouflage and communication. He also notes how their defensive release of ink likens cuttlefish to gestural, undersea calligraphers. Perhaps that image is more than simply poetic, if we consider the close link that may exist in the cuttlefish brain structure between changing skin pigmentation for defensive camouflage and for communication. Ink released as self-defense may also be ink released as an artistic flourish, spewed out with élan in the face of an imminent threat, like the poem written by a samurai confronted by life-threatening danger.
Freshwater pearl powder creates the intense whites that counterbalance the rich blacks and deep reds. For Boyden, pearls are symbols of the moon and the internal light of spirit, and he describes the pearl powder used in his work as the “pigment of heavenly bodies.” Pearl powder has a long history in Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory and, rather recently and famously, as a potion to maintain the complexion of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi (1835–1908). More broadly, although the moon is a yin symbol in traditional Chinese yin-yang cosmology, one might see the hard and white pearl (yang characteristics) as the germ of yang essence in a vast yin body of water.
THE ARTIST AND THE MOMENT
Boyden stresses that these works, like calligraphy, are “time-based art.” There are no touch-ups, no second chances. Calligraphers in China speak of yi 意, or ‘intention' and qi 氣, or ‘cosmic energy, breath.' If properly harmonized, the creative intention mingles the qi of the artist with the qi of the materials, focusing them and creating a work that is a record of that moment when energy transforms into matter. In Boyden's work, seemingly recognizable images can appear out of this interplay of forces: trees, feathers, a horizon line, lightning, nebulae. These images, Boyden says, arise spontaneously during his experimentation, but his recognition of them in part comes from watching for inspiration in nature and “looking at evocative elements in the natural world.” Identifying these spontaneously manifesting images requires awareness and sensitivity, but encouraging his materials to recreate them is another matter. Like a calligrapher's mastery of brush, ink and paper, Boyden's familiarity with his unusual materials—their weights and viscosities, how they behave in different binders—affords him a large degree of control as he tilts and spins the paper, pours and blows the ink—the artist's literal qi (breath) a part of his artistic toolkit.
Let us conclude by addressing the heretofore silent partner in this dialog of artist, materials and moment: Chaos. Boyden, like a master calligrapher or ceramicist, has expert control of his materials and his technique, but he invites Chaos to have a voice in the conversation. In the West, chaos is the opposite of order, something to be feared and conquered. In traditional Chinese thought, opposites are not opposed, but complementary. The concept of ‘order' could not exist without the concept of ‘chaos.' On this Zhuangzi writes:
. . . Now do you say that you are going to make Right your master, and do away with Wrong, or make Order your master and do away with Disorder? If you do, then you have not understood the principle of heaven and earth or the nature of the ten thousand things [the universe]. This is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang. Obviously it is impossible. If men persist in talking this way without stop, they must be either fools or deceivers! [iii]
In Zhuangzi's allegory that inspired Boyden's works, Chaos is bounded at the north and south by what we may read as the human realm, or more deeply as the striving, purely cognitive aspect of mind. Chaos plays generous host to Brief and Sudden, who, blinded by their misguided good intentions, impose their will on Chaos, and Chaos dies. Chaos, the uncontrolled, the random, the unexpected, is revealed as not something to be feared, but in fact something rather delicate. As Boyden's work suggests, Chaos can become a source of great creative energy and renewal if one can relax and listen, responding to its ebb and flow like a feather or a butterfly in a breeze.
Instructor of Art History
This essay is based on conversations with the artist in August and September, 2006.
Special thanks to James and Martha Thompson, and to Daniel Lamberton for his comments.
[i] Translated by Burton Watson and adapted by the artist. Original translation from The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. 97.
[ii] Daniel Lamberton. “Geographical Blood: Ian Boyden's New Paintings.” Translations from the Azurite; Mirror over Tunguska. Ketchum, ID: Ochi Fine Art and Portland, OR: Augen Gallery, 2005.
[iii] Burton Watson, trans. Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 102.
IMAGES FROM THE EXHIBITION
The exhibition consisted of seven paintings based on the passage from Zhuangzi that appears at the beginning of Kevin Greenwood's essay above. These seven paintings were hung in sequence along one wall of a long corridor-like room of the Rogers Gallery at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon.