A Chromatic Constancy of Luminous Rhythms
By Tom Wachunas
“…The simplicity of the paintings and the intentional placement of each dot on the canvas felt like a meditation and a capturing of divine energy itself. I stood in front of their art with tears streaming down my face, the kinship so strong that I actually felt they were my paintings… My work is all about the energetic connection to spirit and depicts energy flowing through matter, energy flowing through color and various energies playing together…”
- from artist statement by Barbara Harwell Francois
EXHIBIT: From Down Under and Above - Aboriginal- inspired art by Barbara Harwell Francois, at Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton - THROUGH AUGUST 23, 2015 – 330.499.4712
Some of the oldest images in the world are the cave and rock paintings made by prehistoric Australian Aboriginal artists, dated to between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. The iconography of Aboriginal art points to an elaborate spiritual belief system articulated through ancient oral traditions that tell of the creation of the cosmos, death, and everything in between as it relates to communion with the land, forces of nature, and food gathering. Aboriginal artmaking continued into historical time, including the practice of making temporary images in the dirt (sand paintings) as part of the secretive and mysterious rituals of “dreamtime,” or “Ancestor Dreaming.” When the rituals were concluded, the symbolic images were rubbed out or left to the elements to reclaim them. In the early 1970s, contemporary Aboriginal artists developed a unique and more permanent visual language of abstract dot paintings on canvas that codified their traditional sacred symbols.
When Barbara Harwell Francois saw an exhibit of Australian Aboriginal works at the Toledo Museum of Art in 2013, she tells us in her statement that she was inspired to paint for the first time, and “…felt an immediate kinship to the expression of their connection to the land and the spiritual realm…” Indeed, the intense sincerity and urgency of her statement leaves no doubt that the Aboriginal pieces she beheld had spoken to her with palpable resonance.
A wonderful word, resonance. Webster defines it as “reinforcement and prolongation of a sound by reflection or vibration of other bodies.” I can’t tell you that all of this exhibit’s acrylic configurations on canvas are reflective of true Aboriginal iconography (though there are more than a few apparent similarities). But I don’t regard such knowledge as a prerequisite for embracing their spiritual sensibilities.
There is an uncanny evocation of ethereal music and dance in these paintings - a communing with entities (or persons?) far removed from the incidentally ornate profusions of luminous patterns that comprise their look. Meticulously rendered rows of dots in a full spectrum of electrified colors (some of the paintings are monochromatic) seem to pulse and breathe, as if chanting a song of life under construction (molecularly and cosmically), or beating out the rhythmic momentum of sacred energy in an eternal cycle of congealing and dispersing. Call it a divine resonance.
This ethereality is founded upon an exquisite materiality. Consider the somewhat architectural nature of the paintings’ pictorial structures, and their disciplined precision of execution. The myriad acrylic dots have a mechanical consistency about them, right down to the tiny crest of paint raised exactly in their centers, almost imperceptible from a few feet away. Maybe the applicator is a stamping device such as the eraser end of a pencil dipped in paint.
While many of the paintings suggest fibrous weavings (one painting, Rag Rug 5, does in fact live up to its title), Francois infuses most of them with an effective illusion of depth. Her patterns aren’t merely flat ribbons of dots floating on dark grounds. Via a chiaroscuro effect achieved by the graduated transparency of color in the rows of stamped dots (the paint wearing off the tip of the eraser with repeated pressing?), the bands take on a shadowed, wave-like dimensionality, curving into each other, or away from our gaze and into blackness.
It might not be too much of a reach to think of that blackness as the infinite expanse of the cosmos and the dots as codified stars and planets. Or better yet, notes in a musical score. Perhaps in the spirit of Ancestor Dreaming, I’m reminded of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras, and his poetic speculations about sidereal harmonics. Imagine the physical universe as a single-stringed lyre, with one end of the string anchored in matter, the other in spirit. A grand harmony of gravitational forces plucks the string ceaselessly, producing the ineffable, beautiful Music of the Spheres.
PHOTOS, from top: Winter’s Rest; Vitality; We’re Rollin’; Patch Work; Life Force