Monday, September 27, 2010

When a Buddha Meets a Buddha: Zen Art and Sweetcake Ensos


Michael Wenger, 1, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.
By Catherine Seigen Spaeth

The exhibition of Hakuin’s work in the United States together with the series of Sweetcake Enso exhibits provide an opportunity to revisit the notion of  a Zen Art.  That there is a Zen Art is a notion that has earned its place, but at the same time there is no insurance of its security. The interest here is in a shift from the monastic practice of Japan to a stronger emphasis upon lay practice in American Zen, and what this means for understanding contemporary art as Zen practice.   Michael Wenger’s paintings, and his sense of the value of trust and permission in contemporary American student-teacher relationship are an opening towards such a discussion.

Many scholars of the relation of Zen and art have identified specific principles between them.  Of interest in the context of Sweetcake Enso is that in the history of Zen practice painting has been a vehicle of dharma expression between teacher and student.  Helmut Brinker explains that in broader Chinese aesthetic theory it was already the case that the signature of an artist was considered to be a “mind seal,” bringing the artist, the work and the viewer together simultaneously in absorptive aesthetic experience.  This became particularly important in the Zen tradition, where the brushwork of a Zen Master is an unbroken continuity of embodied dharma expression across generations.  Contemporary American practitioners will flock to the Hakuin exhibition at the Japan Society, becoming absorbed in the authentic gestures of Hakuin’s eighteenth century teachings.

Audrey Seo, who together with Steve Addiss curated the Hakuin show, has done considerable research to understand this phenomenon in the context of Japanese monastic practice.  A Zen Master will teach his painting practice to his disciples as yet another way of carrying the dharma forward mind to mind.   These simple and direct works meet well a practice of art historical scholarship in which the connoisseurship of various hands supports what is understood of the artists personalities and their varied expressions of the dharma, from teacher to student.  This includes their relationship to one another:  Seo explains that where Deiryu portrays his Zen Master Nantenbo with awe and slight apprehension, Nantenbo portrays himself as a weathered old man, “But the strong force of the Master’s brushwork is still felt in the dramatic splash of the ink surrounding him.”**
Michael Wenger, 2, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Japanese Zen painting is not always as lineal as this, however, and it is Hakuin who is the most well known for painting for the laity.  There is no question that Hakuin is understood to be a Zen master of considerable force, “a sea of vital energy,” but the manner of this energy was as much in his fondness of  humorous characters in popular folklore, and his own humor in the visual pun as it was in anything else. Hakuin was not terribly interested in the Enso, there are only four known such paintings of his.  But an ox is staring at a round and gated window from a distance, and Hotei fits in his own round sack.

Hakuin Ekaku, Hotei Watching Mouse Sumo. Ink on paper, 14 5/8 x 20 5/8 in. Ginshu Collection. Photo: Maggie Nimkin.  Found here.
In contemporary American Zen circles the Enso is more likely to be seen without words or punning tendency.   In postwar American Zen direct experience and the absolute present occupied the space of high culture at the expense of meaning and the figurative, and today there are numerous Zen painting workshops that work abstractly with the Enso in an attempt to fuse art and life as unmediated experience.

But among those with an appreciation of the Enso tradition, the circle is rarely an isolated abstract form.   Audrey Seo explains that in 1969 when Shibayama wrote his book Zenga no enso:

His only request was that the book should not merely reproduce the enso but also provide the calligraphic commentary accompanying each enso.  He believed that the teachings given by Zen Masters in their inscriptions was of the utmost importance, and that therefore the image of the circle should not be indiscriminately introduced without the text.  To this end he also said that an enso without an inscription was like “flat beer.” ***
Michael Wenger, 3, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.

Not unlike Hakuin in his popular approach, contemporary artist and Zen teacher Michael Wenger of the San Francisco Zen Center was perhaps first well known for his book 33 Fingers: A Collection of Modern American Koans.  Drawing upon a variety of teachers as well as popular figures such as Yogi Bera and Woody Allen, vending machines, candy, patience and ruinous hyphens recast the traditional koan meanings of clay tiles, a man up a tree, and the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo.

About eight years ago, Wenger began painting as a regular practice, something he had only done occasionally before.  He describes this practice in the subtitle of his blog, inklings:

My work runs the gamut from primitive cave paintings to the post modern; it is influenced by traditional Asian brushwork, modern painters and new yorker cartoonists, from doodles to bizarro.  Its subject matter is meditation, sports, politics, social conventions…in short, everything that crosses my brush/mind I call them inklings…creations brought to life by ink, brush and the air the secret of the work is in each stroke of the brush.
Important to Michael Wenger is that “it’s easy to do freestroke painting, but it’s not so easy to tie it back into the mind.  That’s a different step.”

Michael Wenger, 4, 2010, sumi ink on paper, a percentage of the proceeds have been designated to the Empty Hand Zen Center.
It was eight years ago that the painter Max Gimblett came to the San Francisco Zen Center and met Michael Wenger.  Across the distance from the east coast to the west, a Buddha met a Buddha.  Gimblett was already a painter of some renown, and encouraged Wenger to paint his inklings, noticing Wenger’s inclination to write on his finished drawings and encouraging this.   And Max Gimblett accepted the Precepts from Michael Wenger in 2006, exhibiting in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, in 2009.  The permission and trust between them has amplified what they each can do:
When two Buddhas shine
Teacher and student 
Become Wisdom *****
What exists between Michael Wenger and Max Gimblett is rare in that very few teacher-student relationships in America today are grounded to this extent in the shared practice of painting – I know of no others like this one.   What their relationship does show is how generously the dharma unfolds in the acceptance, permission, and trust between a Zen teacher and a lay practitioner. 

Of course these existed equally and well in the Japanese monastic relations of teacher and student.  But it does seem to me that if there is such a thing as a Zen Art today, without the narrower parameters of monastic life proscribed forms and previously understood principles are loosening and shifting to make room for what acceptance, permission and trust will allow in a culture of lay practice.

Exhibitions such as Third Mind have done much to show how much room there has been, but in the context of “contemplating Asia.”  Sweetcake Enso does want to narrow the parameters from such a broad contemplation, but only in order to understand how open the contemporary lay practice of Zen is to contemporary artists.  This is the acceptance, permission and trust of these shows.

Below is the painting Free at Last, painted by Michael Wenger in 2009.   He explains that he was providing a workshop and made the statement that religion and art belong to no one.  It was at this time, when painting Free at Last, that he most understood what it was that his student Max Gimblett had given him the permission to do.

Michael Wenger, Free at Last, 2009
* Helmut Brinker, Hiroshi Kanazawa, Andreas Leisinger, “Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings,” Artibus Asiae Supplementum, V. 40, c. 1996, pp. 3-384, p. 37.

** Audrey Seo, The Art of Twentieth Century Zen: Paintings and Calligraphy by Japanese Masters, Shambala Press, c. 2000, p. 37.

*** ibid., p. 187.

**** Telephone interview, September 16th, 2010.

*****Michael Wenger, 33 Fingers:  A Collection of Modern American Koans, San Francisco, Clear Glass Publishing, c. 1994, Verse from Case Number 13, "She is my Teacher," p. 33.

3 comments:

susan said...

This is lovely, Catherine Seigen--seeing Michael's paintings, seeing them treated so respectfully, seeing this expression of your practice. Thank you so much.

Hands palm to palm,
Susan Shokyo

Sweetcake Enso said...

Thank you, Susan Shokyo. I too am grateful! Tomorrow Michael and Max will be together at the Brooklyn Zen Center for the opening of the Sweetcake Enso show there, it is a very happy occasion!

In gassho, Catherine Seigen

Brion said...

Thank you for this writing. Great video on the Third Mind exhibit referenced above: http://www.artbabble.org/video/guggenheim/third-mind-american-artists-contemplate-asia-1860-1989

(^)