Conversations with Mystery
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: Moving Toward the Light: Watercolors by Joseph Raffael, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 6, 2016 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666 / www.cantonart.org
“…It’s because the act of color and water joining together on a page can begin to enter the portal of nature’s enigmatic energy, its spiritual breadth and breath. The subject becomes spirit, and it is at oneness with all nature…My dialogue all this time, and now more consciously than ever, is between the seen and unseen. My painting is and has been a kind of conversation with mystery…”
- Joseph Raffael, from a conversation with Betsy Dillard Stroud, in her exhibit catalogue essay, “Moving Toward the Light”
First, I offer my joyous thanks to the Canton Museum of Art (CMA). Once again, in presenting an artist of Joseph Raffael’s stature, the CMA has asserted its place in our midst as a vital cultural entity of immeasurable worth.
Joseph Raffael’s particularly compelling attachment to and relationship with nature (which is to say his perception and realization of the visible world) is not without historical precedent. In a 1921 article published in Mercure de France, the French painter Emile Bernard (1868-1941) recalled a marvelous conversation with Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) from 1904, who had at that time declared, “One must make an optic, one must see nature as no one has seen it before you…” Bernard then asked, “What do you mean by that word? Is it a case of our nature or nature itself?” Cezanne responded, “It is a case of both.” Bernard: “Therefore, you conceive of art as a union of the universe and the individual?” Cezanne: “I conceive it as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work.” Bernard: “But of what sensations do you speak? Of those of your feelings, or of those of your retina?” Cezanne: “I think that there cannot be a separation between them; besides, being a painter I attach myself first of all to visual sensation.”
What Cezanne called “personal apperception” is another way of saying that his “new optic” was a self-conscious pursuit of nature as a metaphysical experience, and something beyond concrete expression of retinal forms. Yet for all of that, he remained a concretizer, a manipulator of those forms, though an eminently innovative and influential one at that, seeking to delineate a specific pictorial rationale. In his correspondence with Bernard, he wrote at one point, “…one is more or less master of one’s model, and above all, of the means of expression.” Late in his life (1906), Cezanne offered this observation to his son, about the daunting challenges he faced in realizing his sensations: “…I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my eyes. I have not the magnificent richness of coloring that animates nature. Here on the edge of the river, the motifs are very plentiful, the same subject seen from a different angle gives a subject for study of the highest interest and so varied that I think I could be occupied for months without changing my place, simply bending a little more to the right or left.”
Enter contemporary American painter Joseph Raffael (b.1933). This utterly stunning exhibit is indeed prodigious, dazzling proof of the unfolding intensity and “magnificent richness of coloring” in nature that Cezanne seemed to find both so alluring and elusive. To hear Raffael tell it (evident in the wonderful essays by Lanie Goodman, Betsy Dillard Stroud, and David Pagel contained in the gorgeous book/catalogue that accompanies this show), his view of himself as a painter - responding to nature in the South of France where he’s been living for the past 30 years - is infused with equal parts unfettered awe and disarming humility in the face of nature’s infinite mysteries.
While it’s certainly right to consider him as indisputably accomplished in watercolor, he hasn’t achieved that status by intentionally manipulating it in the same manner that, say, many oil painters would be “masters” of their materials. He has come to terms with a notoriously difficult and unforgiving medium, stipulating control to its inherently unpredictable behavior. In allowing watercolor to have its way more often than not, you could call Raffael a wise enabler, or permissive supervisor of his medium’s capacity for delivering both surprises and accidents. He doesn’t “invent” or design the finished painting in a premeditated fashion (aside from his initial “mapping” based on his photographs of the subject at hand) so much as proactively witness its evolution. In fact, Raffael has said on more than one occasion that the subjects of his paintings aren’t fish, foliage, flowers or figures, but the very act of painting. Viewing the mesmerizing video of his process that accompanies this exhibit, you get the sense that for as much as he makes paintings, they make themselves known to him.
The results of Raffael’s methodology of ardent witnessing – his situated apperceptions, if you will - are big (measuring up to 5’ x 8’), complex, and courageous declarations of light. But his isn’t a traditional application of light as a formal device for creating an illusion of sculpted dimensionality. This is, rather, light as a constantly expanding, labyrinthine essence, expressed in myriad impossible colors, yet here they are – luminous, puddled and pulsing, and so glowing they seem to illuminate infinity, or what Raffael has called “the vaporous depths of not knowing.” These monumental paintings are inspiring embodiments of an ethereal incandescence, celebrating the marriage of the physical to the spiritual.
As you stand before any one of Raffael’s unabashedly beautiful watercolors, then, don’t analyze or theorize or even recall art history too much. Instead, be willing, as he is, to be baptized, immersed, surrendered. Be there, in the sheer liquid largeness of the moment of looking. Such moments, phenomena in their own right, absorbed the artist just as surely as his paper surfaces absorbed the pigmented water he so generously lavished upon them.
So be absorbed. Joseph Raffael offers us the possibility of really seeing what is at once outside of us and present within our entire being. Not sensing it yet? Give it time. Or perhaps try bending a bit more to the right or left.
PHOTOS, from top, courtesy Nancy Hoffman Galleries and CMA: Crescendo, 2013; Flower Dream, 2013; La Rose D’Ariane, 2014; Solstice Light, 2013