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Inward Passage 

Artist John Pearson takes a meditative approach in his fine tribute to Japan.

"Sado Triptych," by John Pearson, wood sculpture
  • "Sado Triptych," by John Pearson, wood sculpture
John Pearson's residency in Japan last year was well-spent. His new sculptures have the characteristics he's cultivated in his art in the past, particularly the gem-like refinement that evokes Japanese art. But they're about much more than the land of geishas and Mt. Fuji. Rather, Japan here is the point of departure for an insightful investigation into the way we view the world.

The Oberlin College art professor's most recent work is now on display at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary art in an exhibit called Japan Passage, curated by the center's director, Jill Snyder.

Pearson, 59, is something of an artistic maverick. Born in Yorkshire, England, he received his graduate education at the prestigious Royal Academy in London, but early on, found that that institution's strict requirements for painting rocks, landscapes, and human beings interfered with what he wanted to express. He explained what he sought to express in an interview a few years ago: "We've all encountered flashes of enlightenment, moments of deep insight. I wanted to create a reductive language that would express an echo of that sensation." His sculptures have to be minimal, because the artist is trying to evoke a sensation that we all have had at one time or another. If the sculptures were to be full of individualizing touches, we would no longer be able to project our own experiences on them.

In Japan Passage, we find hard-edged geometric shapes allied with a feeling of spiritual purity. This combination is what separates Pearson's work from other artists who are entranced with Japan -- he's a philosopher, not a tourist. The Japanese belief that nature mingles with art and completes it (Japanese temples, for example, are traditionally thought incomplete without the rocks, rivers, and trees that surround them) is here also given a distinctly 17th-century English twist. Poets like Thomas Traherne (for whom Pearson has an affinity) wrote about ecstatic visions of the world perceived through the eyes of children.

Much of the work in this exhibit is visual Haiku. Japanese poets use the strict rules of that form to their advantage. With three lines and 17 syllables, the goal -- in the words of Geoffrey Bownas, scholar of Japanese poetry -- is "to so express the nature of the particular as to define, through it, the essence of all creation." As an example, Bownas cites a work by the 17th-century poet Basho: An old pond/A frog jumps in -- /Sound of water. Here, Bownas concludes, is simplicity and mastery: "First there is a statement of what is unchanging, then the momentary, and finally, the splash, the point of intersection of the two."

The same principles are at play in Pearson's compelling "Shukunegi: Japan Passage." Two narrow strips of polished plywood lean on the wall. The irregular outer edges conform with the grain of the wood. In the middle is a plywood painting in white of a figure-eight shape. The stark and symmetrical figure eight is the statement of what is unchanging. It's flanked by the narrow plywood strips, which, though unpredictable in the way they dip and swerve, are ultimately still pure, because the artist, in cutting, has respected the natural grain of the wood. So the sequence here is: Nature is predictable; nature can look unpredictable when touched by human hands; when the hands are those of an artist, nature can be transformed, but it still remains itself. Pearson, with the barest means, has created a concentrated inquiry into the relationship between the artist and his materials and has also found a fresh way to look at the age-old debate about whether an artist should imitate nature or attempt to go beyond it.

Pearson's work also reveals an affinity for specific Zen concepts. There is a notion in Zen aesthetics known as "mu," which designates the empty space between the flowers in the Japanese art of flower arrangement and more broadly refers to the doctrine that the spaces between the materials used to create a work of art are an integral part of the work. This is true of most of Pearson's sculptures. For example, in "Sado Triptych," a three-part work created in 1999, the artist has taken pains to retain the natural properties of the wood, but while the surface remains spare, Pearson hollows out elliptical and spherical shapes. The empty spaces help to articulate the surrounding wood. They are not something added. Rather, it's as though the shapes were always embedded in the wood, and Pearson has merely freed them.

This kind of meditative work is not fashionable in the current art world, and Pearson has a few thoughts about why. These are included in the essay written by author Barbara Weintraub in the catalog that accompanies the show. "In our culture," says Pearson, "nothing stops still. We are afraid of stasis and silence . . . What is popular today either takes cues from the urban setting or technology or politics, or it is sensuous and visceral. My inspiration is internal."

According to the artist, museums are among the only places where such internal work can take place: "Museums provide one of the few places where images are not moving, where it is possible to focus on a few things, and where there are no expectations placed on you."

Pearson is surely right about the fear of silence. How else can one explain the Muzak that invades shops, supermarkets, even art museums? Exhibits like Japan Passage, Pearson seems to say, are conceived in part to help viewers regain what psychiatrist and author Anthony Storr has called "contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life."

Pearson's emphasis on extreme refinement does not preclude the occasional piece that revels in surface texture. "Japan Passage: Shukunegi" (similar title but different work), is fashioned from birch plywood, acrylic, and glitter, and in it, the artist uses every means at his disposal to suggest a place. He describes Shukunegi as a Japanese village "nestled into the cleavage [of a] craggy coastline." To distill the essence of that village, Pearson applied gel to his plywood surface, and after it dried, he added layers of paint (some of which had glitter mixed in). "I have this terrible habit," the artist admits in Weintraub's essay. "When I am chasing an idea, all of the implications of the idea get thrown into the process of making it. It becomes baroque or rococo, there is everything there, too much." The piece works, the artist's protestations aside. Its lavishness and willingness to take a risk for the sake of expression suggests that the leanness and austerity elsewhere required considerable self-discipline.

Occasionally a work like "Nikko 6" (nothing more than a large teardrop shape fashioned with acrylic and birch plywood) seems too austere for its own good, but the overall impression is always of an artist able to find an essential idea for each piece -- one that is both simple and haunting.

With his spare sculptures, Pearson seems to say that moments of deep insight can only be had if we can recover our abilities to perceive the world in the simple, unsullied way that children do. We are encouraged to view the world the way this artist has viewed Japan. In other words, the artist is leading gallery-goers by example, and this fine exhibit is his way of encouraging them to open new doors.

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at charles.yannopoulos@clevescene.com.

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