Geographical Blood: Ian Boyden's New Paintings
We sleep inside a bullet.
—Heather McHugh, “Not a Prayer”
Consider the history of lamp black, of cuttlefish ink, of ground stone and earth pigments, the ochres, siennas, and umbers. These materials are geographical blood, and images made from them should look alive. Ian Boyden's work displays the force and repose of bodies—bodies of humans, of birds, of rivers, of angels. Because the materials are geographical, and because a master artist is in control, these are new designs that look as if created over eons.
And you can question the way the artist achieves this work in a way you can't argue with tree bark or a glacial moraine. These pieces acknowledge their debts to geography—azurite and Tunguska are, respectively, a stone and a stony river—and what is so pleasing here is the obvious restraint the artist used to let active pigments and receptive paper obey their natures—natures that follow water's channels and turn around hills. What is so profound in these paintings is how the artist re-inspires faith in water, ore, and light by letting these materials appear to have their way.
Look closely at his palette of blacks, at the importance Boyden gives to space and whiteness, and how, in a piece such as Demiurge (2004), the concentric circles, the blur, and the planned scatter stop exactly in time to give the suggestion of a Buddha or a child, of something that seems to be in prayer or meditation. Artists can go too far in their translations of mystical experience; they can overextend and make “product” and dogma. Boyden's startling images show control and temperance. As the artist translates from the language of wood and mineral, atmosphere and animal, he reminds the viewer that the deepest spiritual and psychological messages are partial, are broken, and that as epiphany rewards disciplined intuition, so too it unsettles certainty. The way epiphany depends on both rigor and wonder is well illustrated in the two exhibitions of Boyden's work for which this catalogue is a companion: Mirror Over Tunguska and Translations from the Azurite.
Not many people directly observed the great, mysterious force that struck the Siberian region of Tunguska in 1908. The few locals who did see it, an ethnic group called the Tungus, practiced a shamanistic religion and believed they lived beneath a mirrored world where what happened to them was the opposite of what happened in the world above—that their days and nights and all else were reversed, and the agencies from one world sent ripples through the other. In the exhibition Mirror Over Tunguska, Boyden builds the sequence of what these people and their remote, northern region may have experienced when a sky-born cataclysm changed the Siberian landscape and flashed light and ash over much of Europe and Asia. Two Plumes and Tree With Echo (both 2005), for example, portray the fiery spirits and the shimmering spiritual landscape the Tungus must have perceived. People who lived surrounded by such a huge horizon must have felt profoundly the vertical visit of the meteorite, the comet fragment, or whatever cosmic force leveled their forests and altered their lives.
One should notice how these paintings can often shift between the horizontal and the perpendicular. In the Translations from the Azurite exhibition, a horizontal river or skyline may become a vertical channel for the spirits, and the paintings display a current between sky and earth, between the body and the soul, the flesh and the word. A feather can be attached to a bird or be a writing quill, a spirit at play between the sky and the page. So the series of Azurite Angels can explore the relation between the earth's horizontal and the spirit's vertical pull, but these paintings also show a more intimate, but still inspired, meaning of translation: the transcendence of a stone ground up, or down, to ink. Azurite bleeds through these paintings in the multiple blue-greens we also see on copper steeples and roofs, in glacial rivers and lakes, and between the play of sun and ocean. So, here again is the meeting of mountain and sea that fascinated the Chinese and that Boyden saw so often as he grew up on the Pacific's estuaries, helped out in his father's studio, and watched the sea shift and the sky change around the Cascade Head.
There is much to intuit in these exhibitions. Both provide plenty of room for wonder. Boyden begins these paintings by carefully choosing his paper; he then sizes or semi-seals it to hold the particular inks and solvents whose colors and chemical language inspire him. This is near-alchemy. The materials have spirit and the artist wants them to be alive. When cochineal, hematite, lapis lazuli, logwood, malachite, titanium, and azurite, to name only a few, function as the artist's inks, what occurs is action and reaction between artist and material, back and forth. The intentionality is, first of all, to know how the inks feel, what their properties are.
That Boyden is exacting and in control is obvious to anyone who has seen his books, but in the pieces being discussed here, there is a controlled free-flight, a “controlled loss of control,” in the artist's words. He experiments with each pigment's behavior and records how concentrations of inks and reagents move across the paper. He decides when to combine ink with ink, when to stop the reactions, when to let the ink and paper, through gravity and dispersion, go to their own ends and when to have them stop. He turns and pares and isolates the image until he feels it has the right timbre and tempo, a “sound” that translates something from the materials in the ink into the ephemeral materials of the poetic. The result is a kinetic image, a framed momentum.
Anyone fortunate enough to know this artist as a marvelous creator of fine books may find these new works to be a surprise of scale and vision. Certainly, Boyden's book Segments Along a Horizon (2005), from his Crab Quill Press, includes some similar, smaller-scale images. In that book, the artist explored, with techniques magnified in this exhibition, the visual-emotional power of the border between earth and sky, and hence all other borders our minds equate with an archetypal skyline that binds our bodies to earth while opening all of space for our imaginations. We can also imagine how Boyden's fine-book craftsmanship could accommodate some of the smaller pieces in this show, but here his brilliant use of large, white spaces, of an open paper, allows each of these pieces to display the vigorous but controlled motions of its individual creation. We see, in these geometries, the vectors and the flight lines of the painter's process; we also imagine the secrets that make these images still fly and shine in their frames.
It is interesting to trace the evolution of this work, for these colorful washes and momentous, seeming abstractions have remarkable origins. In short, these images come from a clear narrative that begins with Boyden's notable parents and their home on the Pacific Ocean, his childhood fascination with a particular Japanese scroll painting, and his very early lessons in calligraphy, the art form to which the current works are most aligned.
The Boydens lived in the rain on the Oregon coast. Ian notes that even today, no matter the space from which he's working, he can still transpose this home country into his intentions. His Oregon grounding is also tied to the artist's contemplative life. As a child, he would consider for hours on end the clouds as they built and dissipated above him and the coastline's Cascade Head. (He's often wondered if his fascination with ghost and spirit stories came from this experience.) He also studied the nest-building habits of the huge orb spiders that rebuild their nests nightly to adjust to the prevailing winds. He loved looking for such small changes. Now, his precise attention to the making of books and paintings reflects this care for close observation, for multiple, discrete activities and tasks.
At the age of five, Boyden began to study letterforms with the accomplished calligrapher Margot Thompson. She, along with the likes of poet Gary Snyder, had studied with Reed College polymath and art educator Lloyd Reynolds, a man who taught students the “disciplined freedom” of Asian as well as Western forms. Thompson impressed upon the young Boyden the importance of understanding each letter as an aesthetic object, independent of its context. At home, the artist's mother, Jane, an accomplished pianist, and father, Frank, a noted artist, had hung a huge scroll of the Bodhidharma. The image, whose one eye and powerful personality followed the watcher around the room, had been masterfully executed with just a few brushstrokes. This Bodhidharma scroll became a seed-image for Boyden, a lesson in how much could be expressed with very little.
In 1989, Boyden began formal study of Chinese language and art at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and he made his first travels to China while a student there. His senior thesis, based on interviews with Chinese-American calligraphers, examined their ties to Chinese calligraphy's canonical traditions. For this work, he won a Watson Fellowship to study the early history of Chinese writing as inscribed on stone and the influence of this ancient art on modern Chinese writing. He followed this study by taking a master's degree in Asian Art History at Yale University. Soon after, he began to show his own calligraphy in a number of international galleries.
Ultimately, this interest in the written word led Boyden to printmaking and the book arts. In 1997, he began the study of letterpress printing and bookmaking with Kathy Kuehn at Salient Seedling Press in Portland, Oregon. That same year, he founded Crab Quill Press in order to publish books that united calligraphy with poetry, printing, and translation. One of his first publications, Peach Blossom Fish (1999), beautifully realized this concept through its binding together of Chang Ch'ung-Ho's stunning calligraphy and poems opposite fine letterpress translations by Hans H. Frankel (with Ian Boyden and Edward Morris). This book's multisense experiences range from its fine wood covers to the book's scent, its lush binding and paper, and the high-art cooperation between image and text that has characterized the Chinese ideal for calligraphy through the centuries.
This text-image correspondence is at the heart of Boyden's project. He has begun, through Crab Quill Press, to articulate those ideas that, by nature, could unfold most significantly in a book's form. This articulating does not refer to the usual language-based ductility we know so well through prose texts, nor does it refer to a book of text with illustration. It means, rather, that even as there are art forms best suited to rest on pedestals as static sculptural ideas, there are also ideas that require the kinetic interchange a book provides. Such ideas, like music, would celebrate the passing of time, a sense of pacing, and the relation of object to object.
These ideas illuminate the cooperation of hand with mind. As is traditional in the Chinese paradigm, where images are texts and texts are images, Boyden worked with the book form to juxtapose and sequence images and texts, to show, perhaps as scripture and the mappa mundi did for both medieval Asia and the medieval West, how the word and the vision are the same, how one is read as the other.
So, in 2003, when Boyden began to create the paintings on view here, he found it impossible to escape the idea of the book's structure. His first images, those that presaged the images here, were actually made in a hand-sized book. They are the artist's painted translations of the atmospherically produced skywriting called “virga,” where rain is visible in the sky but evaporates before reaching the ground. This dreamlike action, this falling without touching, [nice] informs his paintings with its access to an interior narrative.
We can consider these works, then, as a narrative with several progressions. As mentioned above, the images tell the tale of Tunguska and of the translations written by azurite's mineral-ink spirits across the grain of paper via Boyden's brushed sequences. But they also form a narrative of the artist's own progression, from calligraphy to text to image as text. It is my hope that this brief history serves as an objective companion to our private progressions through Boyden's creations, whereby, as we look at his images, we hear the narratives we draw from inside ourselves.
Interspersed through this catalogue, the reader will find a handful of meditations I have written or collected while considering these paintings. These are often preceded by poetry in order to make a contemplative bridge between the image and meditation.
Daniel Lamberton chairs the Humanities program at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington. Much of the material for this essay was gathered during the spring of 2005, in a series of interviews at Ian Boyden's home and studio, and in the writer's office.
This essay first appeared in Translations from the Azurite/Mirror Over Tunguska: Paintings by Ian H. Boyden. Co-published by Ochi Fine Art (Ketchum, Idaho) and Augen Gallery (Portland, Oregon) 2005.