Critical Reflections: John Guernsey - Mu

Touching Stone<br /> 539 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe

Date June 30, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Zip, swoop, surge, pop, whip-these are all words that evoke a spontaneous, decisive movement of some kind. They are words that might be thought of as launching pads for the mind to express mu, a Japanese and Chinese word of the Zen tradition that is meant to convey "nothing."€ They also happen to be some of the words that John Guernsey uses to title the seventeen exquisite oil paintings in this show, practically all of them executed with a single stroke of a palette knife loaded with different colors. The smooth Japanese paper allows the translucency of the colors to manifest-eggplant purple veers into lustrous brown, gold shimmers with green-and the fact that the artist has chosen to float the paintings, uncovered, makes them appear scroll-like, less "captured"€ as definite entities. In the entrance there are a trio of almost figurative, paired markings on the left wall: Mushin, Up and Over, and Turbid. Guernsey has no intention to create forms imbued with any concept of a deliberate entity behind them, so it may say something about the mind's habit (mine, anyway) to impose the notion of "couple"€ on these paired images. Likewise there is a suite of three paintings on the left wall of the second room that are perhaps even more suggestive of specific forms. Tumble could be a Japanese doll: hairpins, torso, little feet; Seduce suggests a proud yet dignified acquiescence; Frisk might be a samurai, "sword"€ held upright. Even though all those projected ideas are mine and mine alone, might this say something about the inherent notions of top, middle, and bottom? Beginning, middle, and end? This threefold order might even be imposed on a single stroke of paint being applied to paper: leap, carry through, and finish with incidental flourish. That implies plenty of space to be playful, and you do appreciate the flicks and sprays and wisps and dots of color that accrue: perhaps as incidental afterthoughts as motion subsides, or maybe they are the marks of a wrist deftly wriggling the knife.

All of the work is aesthetically pleasing, yet collectively the paintings may make the viewer wish that Guernsey had dared to be more playful with the space surrounding his vibrant strokes. That is, the marks are mostly vertical (occasionally horizontal), positioned in the center of the paper. But what about the surrounding spaces? Don't events ever happen off-center, in the southwest corner, for example? Maybe there is a Zen etiquette, an esoteric rule that advises you to always aim for the center, and to contain yourself there?

You would guess that a lot more time goes into preparing the mind before the artist makes these single, deliberate, one-stroked creations, first allowing mental fabrication to subside. The swipe of a palette knife is a good measured bit of time-just the right amount of time for everything to go right, just the right amount for everything to go wrong. If only we could all accustom ourselves to live our entire lives like that: relaxing on the edge, keeping on the dot, coursing in expert and correct responsiveness to whatever materials might be at hand. Paint and paper and a palette knife seem like a good place to start.