Synthesising control and chaos, Lama Ghost
is a poignant example of the revered American painter Pat Steir’s distinctive painterly dialect. With a career lasting over fifty years that began in earnest with her first solo exhibition at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, New York in 1964, Steir creates outstandingly original compositions that marry a wide range of influences, ranging from Abstract Expressionism and nineteenth-century Romanticism, to Japanese woodcuts and Chinese landscape painting of the Tang and Song dynasties. Widely considered one of the most important American artists of the last hundred years, Steir has exerted a seismic impact on aesthetic judgements and practices in painting, not least by means of her teaching position at the California Institute of the Arts in which her students included David Salle, Amy Sillman and Ross Bleckner. While Steir’s effacements of culturally significant symbols in her early work of the 1970s evinced a cerebral conceptualism consolidated by her installation projects later that decade, it was in late 1980s New York that she produced the paradigm-shifting Waterfall Paintings
on which Lama Ghost
builds. Beginning by pouring and flinging layers of thinned white oil paint onto an upright canvas tacked to the studio wall, Steir allows pigment to travel down the canvas’ surface of its own accord. The result not only dramatises the dialogue between the metaphors of ‘agency’ and ‘chance’, but bears uncanny resemblance to natural forms in the world. With a careful release of control, Steir ensures that the viscosity of each paint layer, the duration of the pours, and their order of occurrence are decided by a strict plan of her creation prior to the randomness of the paint’s trajectory. Lama Ghost,
then, exudes the most powerful effect of the Waterfall Paintings
: the incarnation of the Taoist thesis that our putative ‘agency’ exists only within a unity of body, nature and cosmos.
In Lama Ghost a lustrous golden layer shimmers beneath a celestial crescent of explosive white paint. From this arc of whiteness emanates both upward sparks of paint made in an instant, and elongated, tendril-like downward drips. Associated with the purity of the Dharma in Buddhist teachings, the effusive whiteness of Lama Ghost gives rise to the redemptive suggestion of a soul or ‘ghost’ that outlives the corporeal realm. The fourth dimension of time’s passing is captured within the white rivulets running along the work’s surface, and the stratifications of geography and evolutionary history within the innumerable layers of paint built into the work’s origins. The elements of stillness, sublimity, and chance, of course, recall the work of John Cage; and Steir has frequently expressed an admiration for the American composer. “His whole system involved chaos”, she has said in a recent interview. “I try to make chaos within the work; that’s why I depend on gravity to leave a lot of space for accident. For chaos.” (Pat Steir in conversation with Anne Waldman, Bomb Magazine, 1 April 2003, online). Through her distinctive process, Steir reflects in a microcosm the inextricability of human activity from the unfathomable unity that produced it.