A LARGE painting stretching across one wall of the gallery arrests and intrigues me. There is something positively Wagnerian in its dimensions, in the scope of its emotions, and in the strength of its brushwork and imagery - like a grand piece of music, fully orchestrated and stirring.
I know Wagner does not appeal to everyone, and neither would an abstract painting like this one. But even now, after a few days' absence from the gallery, I remember every line of paint, every floating form, every stubborn metaphor.
The left panel holds mysterious vertical lines intersected with primitive marks, and one perfect, rational sphere, luminous and strange against the seething emotions of the red ground. The center panel is a dark field with a fire-like red disturbance in the center, crowned by a prominent white ring. The right panel is ultramarine blue, glazed many times so that one can look a long way down into that color. Flame-like forms in darkest gray recall in shadow the fiery theme in the other panels.
``Tierra,'' (``Earth'' in Spanish) by Dale Chisman, makes visual music that stirs and inspires.
``The idea interests me,'' says Mr. Chisman of the ring, ``the continuity of the circle. Completeness. There is so much instability in our world, and maybe somehow this offers hope; I see it as a symbol of that.''
The ring was the beginning of the idea. Then he decided to do a large painting that would stick out away from the wall - more sculptural than most of his work. ``Tierra'' formed itself into a triptych, the ring as the central, eye-grabbing icon. Earth, air, fire, and water, he affirms, are here in this painting. The elements play off of each other - the juxtaposition of echoing forms, of flatness and depth, of abstraction and referential image. The red panel opposes the blue not only in the echoing forms, but in the depth of that ultramarine glazed to reflect light as if through water. The subtle burnt sienna insinuated in the gray flame of the blue panel recalls the flame of the central and left panels.
The ring surfaces again in other Chisman paintings, sometimes transformed into looser bands, echoing the same hope, the same desire for completeness.
In ``Passage,'' for example, the gray-green band hovers at the top of the painting as if gathered into a loose cloud. All the forms seem to float up from very far away - from deep within the dense fog of the surface, layers and layers of thin paint in subtle modulations of light and darkness. An oblique reference to the human figure hovers on one side, disappearing into abstraction under the viewer's gaze.
Chisman started out drawing figures in art school - both at the University of Colorado and at the Royal College of Art in England -
as well as landscape and still life. He still draws the human figure.
``But I became more interested in abstract issues,'' he says, ``in expressing myself in more abstract symbols. The figure became a lot more expressionistic and looser than the early work. I became interested in a sculpture by Duchamp-Villon, a sculptured head of Baudelaire. I was juxtaposing this with a female figure. I took the head and put it through a series of more and more abstracted forms - which was more interesting to me than the female form - and the figure disappeared. The head was going through various degrees of abstraction. That went on for a period of a couple of years. It kept losing the direct reference to anything as object.''
Though Chisman's work became abstract, much of it contains symbolism - some of it overt, like the ring in ``Tierra,'' and some of it personal marks or painterly gestures that recur again and again. They are symbolic because the viewer can read them a variety of ways.
Abstraction is still difficult for many viewers, though the 20th century has vindicated it time and again. Chisman likes the elasticity of abstraction, the scope it allows for the exploration of formal elements, the process of painting and development of visual language, and for the controlled freedom of emotional expression. And then, too, the freedom it allows the viewer is also important to him.
``It can be something different to each viewer: The viewer brings his own set of associations.... I don't think painting always has to have a meaning,'' he says, ``but it can evoke an emotional response and it does not have to be a rational response. That is the great thing about art - it does not have to be rational, it can make people feel horror or joy or any other emotion [without reference to the world of events]. Maybe art can help us understand our feelings and what we are. It doesn't have to have a meaning beyond that; it doesn't have to have a linear meaning.'' There are more ways of knowing than through linear or rational modes.
Chisman says that whatever he is thinking, reading, or experiencing in daily life influences what's happening in the work, no matter what he chooses to paint.
Sometimes he starts a painting without any idea of what it is going to be, and it just evolves. It's a lot of physical effort, stretching the canvas, working with the brush. Often, he will sit before the canvas for days. But eventually, he has to attack it. And it can be frightening - what, he asks, am I going to say? Have I said it all?
``So, I may start with a color I feel strongly about.`` Chisman says. ``Then as I start to make marks, I see relationships. And then the painting goes through an incredible change from where I began. Entire paintings change, as my thought changes. Things will occur to make me think of other things. Some paintings take a long time to complete, others much more quickly - spontaneity can be achieved.... I may ask, what can I do that maybe will throw the eye off to something unusual - so that it makes the artist think, and then the viewers will think about something besides their everyday life. I want to achieve some kind of a transcendence out of the mundane.''
CHISMAN hesitates to use the word spiritual in relation to his work, because he says the term is applied to too many things. But his work is about the life of the spirit. Through line, color, space, and form, abstraction does, he says, get into the essence of things. Abstraction is not as tied to the limitations of the human eye and to the visible world as is more realistic art. In fact, abstraction most often deals with realities for which no words or natural description are adequate.
Paintings can be about a wide assortment of emotions, but in order to arrive at any transcendence, he says, the most humane aspects of thought have to be developed first.
``It is progressive. And the process of art is like that - it is a progression. I look back over the years, and I see [my work] progressing, developing, drawing closer to what I am trying to say. Sometimes there are no words for it - it is illusive. And then you see that the painting is talking to you visually.''
Abstraction at its best can be a kind of wordless visual thought.
It can also upset complacency.
``I'm not sure we should just be satisfied,'' says Chisman - ``be happy with the mundane existence. There is so much apathy - `Oh, the politicians will take care of it.' There so much apathy and people wonder why the crime rate is so high among young people, why so many young people are in trouble. All the politicians can think of is new jails when our social structure, our economic structure is in a state of chaos.... We have to have more love for each other - try to understand different people, cultures, lifestyles. We have to stop living in the past. We have to wake up, to be able to live together with some kind of understanding, and maybe art is one way I can contribute.
`BEFORE I painted `Tierra,' I was thinking about this kind of thing. What can I say that would have any relevance at all? Is art just this useless thing to hang on the wall for decoration? I think art can go farther than that and make people think.''
And so it can. ``Tierra'' makes the viewer think in almost the same way music stirs feeling and inward images, memories and associations. For one viewer, the ring in the central panel might evoke heroic exploits, for another religious metaphor, and for another, the vastness and complexness of the cosmos and the earth's elements. It can make one think of large spaces of the imagination and larger spaces of the universe. It replays in the mind like music - a persistent melody, a choir, a crash of symbols, or a roll of drums. There is drama, mystery, and harmony here - the unexpected form beside the fully realized brush stroke.
I am reminded again, that abstraction is serious business, as capable of pleasing and cautioning us, of waking and inspiring us as even the greatest and more accessible work made in the likeness of the eye's perceptions.