SWEET OBSESSION, A TWENTY-YEAR SURVEY AT THE TRITON MUSEUM OF ART

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Lynn Powers’ Time Wheel Mandala, 1999

Lynn Powers paints the great mysteries.  Sweet Obsession is a selection from twenty years of painting and relief assemblages that represent Powers’ fascination with essences of spiritual and alchemical truths. In her pursuit of harmony and balance, there are reflections, an ongoing interplay between the macrocosm and the microcosm, presence and absence, the known and unknown, the finite and infinite through geometry and between foreground and deep space.  Fundamentals like the line, square, circle and oval conspire to suggest a symmetry or formula, only to be broken by an asymmetrical element appearing in our peripheral vision and throwing our initial assumptions into question. Powers likes the orbs of outer space and poses them against an infinite number of patiently developed textures, mostly in earthy mineral colors, that look like multiplying cells examined through a microscope, or cross sections of earth, or the weathered surface of a long treasured domestic object.  Some of her pregnant ovals are quite literally eggs; sometimes they are more precisely an ellipse in the context of geometry, mathematics or numerology.

Sometimes Powers’ rounded forms play the multiple role of representing a celestial sphere, a mandala and an opening to the great secrets.  Powers refers to many specific ancient practices, particularly Eastern, without insisting upon any specific interpretations of truth, or demanding that the viewer be an adept to appreciate the beauty and peace embraced within her images.  She asks the eternal questions of the origin of life, the depths of the universe and the means of knowledge.  She employs symbolic substances and eternal phenomena such as silver, gold, lead, earth, air, water, fire and light, and suggests with her own apocryphal script that someplace, perhaps in our beginnings, we were closer to the pulse of the universe and its secrets.  Her process is intuitive, often taking inspiration from dreams.  Answers and interpretations remain open for the viewer.

Searching for Balance, 2006

A major painting at the exhibition entrance, The Ten Thousand Things, like many of Lynn Powers’ paintings engages the ineffable, especially as contemplated in Eastern religious practices.  The Ten Thousand Things originated in the philosophically complex Tao – the Mother of the Earth – and evolved perfectly into a Buddhist concept of conundrums and mystic reverence. Like Powers’ own secret language and indecipherable marks, the names of the ten thousand things that constitute the universe are words that cannot be spoken and things that cannot be named.  It grows out of the first fundamental numbers giving birth to the Ten Thousand Things, and the Yin, carried on the back of ten thousand beings, encircling the Yang.  The painting has three panels in the form of a T with the two smaller panels emerging from the upper left and right corners of the central panel.  (Many of Powers’ paintings take the subtle form of a T in reference to the repeated small T found in the mandala.)   The central panel is a magical landscape on a reddish brown field.  It may be night.  An Asian waterfall, full of calcium and glowing, illuminates the clouds, surrounding landscape and faint rock formations, providing a nascent light. In this panel the artist articulates the four traditional elements: earth, air, fire and water.  The left hand panel is the enigmatic moon in a dark blue field above an ellipse that represents space.  The nurturing sun in the right panel floats above a small red dot that represents time.  This, among the many and diverse historic stories and interpretations, is Lynn Powers’ universe, encompassing The Ten Thousand Things.

The Ten Thousand Things, 2009, introduces Powers’ Sweet Obsession

Hidden Mandala is a complex painting that invites the viewer to recognize both forms and meanings inherent to the mandala. In this painting, the T is seen as a gray textured horizontal bar at the top — it is gray matter and the realm of pure thought or idea  — and a central vertical in the seam below it is the vertical stroke of the letter.  Hidden Mandala’s central horizon line seems to divide the earthly plane from the heavenly, and the circle of the mandala reclines at the center across the horizon of the earth and is seen as an alluring golden oval.  Slightly above it in a rectangle to the right, the oval warps into the sign of infinity. An upper golden rectangle on the left is bardo, the Buddhist description of the experience between life and death, characterized by sparks or fireflies. Below, in the realm of earthly experience are nine eggs giving birth to the moon, representing the complete female cycle of fertility, from menarche to menopause. To the right are explosive phenomena bursting through the deceptively calm surface of the living planet earth.  In Hidden Mandala, Powers offers a confluence of many notions of heaven and earth, birth and death, substance and pure concept as are so frequently found overlapping in beliefs ranging from Sanskrit and the Tao to Hinduism and Buddhism.  She also seems to reveal bits of her own construct of metaphysical / physical truths, injecting some observations based in that very small quantity of new knowledge brought forth through modern science.

Powers’ Hidden Mandala

Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi uses some of the same coloration and symbolism as Hidden Mandala: an ambiguous ellipse (Is it an egg or a translucent dome?) that is hovering in front of a gold field, black shadows and marks, and a light source that either comes from below or within.  The complexity and detail of many mandalas of Hindu and Buddhist origin are frequently flat and lend themselves to meditation and losing one’s self in a maze of rich color and decorative motifs.  But the relative simplicity of Anima Mundi, is surprisingly compelling as a focal point for meditation.  In Hidden Mandala the viewer can become endlessly involved in narrative and signification.  In Anima Mundi, the illuminated oval moves and its strange shadow is an ever-changing hypnotic event.  In the former, Powers talks about the mysteries per se.  In Anima Mundi her love for the mysteries is revealed.

Powers’ The Heart of the Matter

One of my favorite paintings is The Heart of the Matter. The major motif of this uncomplicated work is a large brown hybrid shape silhouetted against a gold field. The shape looks like a temple dome, and container of powerful forces.  Instead of releasing its contents, it appears to be drawing fire from the upper margin into it like a black hole.  Perhaps the fire is an inadequate attempt from another realm to break into its store of secrets or the black jet in the center of the fire is meant to suggest the invisible made visible and a connecting force from the earthly plane to the heavens.  It’s illusive meaning and exquisite shape captivate me.

In contrast to the elegant simplicity of Powers’ works that qualify basically as painting, Walk on the Moon is an assemblage that weaves together a lot more small three-dimensional elements. Its earthy components and colors are George Herms rusty, crusty, discolored and aged, with a few smooth surfaces in the form of a glass lens, a sanded orb of wood and a steel sphere on a polished marble shelf.  There is marble, brass, glass, gold, tin, wood and paper. With the stuff of the earth and our limited understanding of the great plan of the universe, we have dreamed and mapped our fantasy of traveling to the moon for eons. We have invested the moon with a feminine mystery (and learned that its role in monthly madness is no myth.)  A long delicate diagonal rod breaks up a basic symmetry in this work.  It suggests a tightrope walker’s balancing pole, and the disorientation of weightlessness.  Perhaps Walk on the Moon is partly about our historic affinity for reaching out to the moon but it also expresses the artist’s delight in knowing that certain mysteries shall remain occult in this shining celestial presence.

Lynn Powers’ assemblage, Walk on the Moon

Some of Lynn Powers’ more recent paintings narrow the focus of her work to a single element such as light or absence or stillness.  In realistic replications of Vermeer she takes a long look at Vermeer’s domestic paintings, and what is embodied in the quiet presence of his female subjects. She explores the compositions without the female figure, and as if her essence has dissolved into the most fundamental particles of being, she substitutes floating small shiny orbs into the space.  In this series I miss the coloration, the rich textures, the subtle earthy surfaces, script marks, symbols and variations on the mandala that populate her longstanding oeuvre.  For all her skills as a realist painter, I find the Vermeer studies to be relatively impersonal next to Powers’ signature painting style.

Lynn Powers’ Sweet Obsession can be seen at the Triton Museum in Santa Clara through February 26th.

Erin Goodwin-Guerrero is an artist, the founder and the former editor of Artshift, San Jose, and a Professor Emeritus of San Jose State University.

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