Marlene Yu, "Forces of Nature," Nov. 14, 2003-Feb. 1, 2004, at the Las Vegas Art Museum, 9600 West Sahara Avenue, Las Vegas, Nev. 89117
Marlene Yu's paintings of the "Forces of Nature" are among the most esthetically rewarding works Ive seen in a long time, both in their sensitivity to the medium and in their evocative power. Their lush sensuality, grounded in sweeping gesture, radiant color and forceful rhythm, convey what Roger Fry called "cosmic emotion." Their physical immensity -- they seem made for the high white walls of the Las Vegas Museum of Art, a modernist oasis in the glitzy desert of Las Vegas, indeed, an unexpected sacred, reflective space in the facile, mindless paganism of the city that has come to symbolize the profane American Dream -- confirms their cosmic import. (The gambling casinos are not exactly Kubla Khan's pleasure palaces, while the museum of art is a hortus conclusus -- a genuine sanctuary in the midst of vulgar delusions of populist grandeur, punctuating an otherwise relentlessly banal mainstream American urban environment.)
Yu's grand landscapes hold their own with Monet's luminous water lilies series, which also seem intimate and sublime at once. Both Yu and Monet seem to nail down the detail of nature while conveying its panoramic sweep. They are concretely cosmic, as it were: in works by both artists, natural process, painterly process and perceptual process ingeniously converge in a seamless esthetic unity. Their paintings are marvelously fluid, with no loss of coherence and intelligibility. But I think that Yu realizes more completely what Monet implies but never dares unequivocally acknowledge let alone directly engage: the immeasurable. Monet remains bound by the Western idea that "Man is the measure of all things" (Protagoras). His murals are carefully measured -- closed systems, however ostensibly open-ended. Strange as it may seem to say so, they have a Poussinesque balance and poise -- a certain stateliness and orderliness, even sedateness. Monet's water lilies float, but they seem to be following the steps of a dance, like proper young maidens. In other words, they seem predetermined, however indeterminate their effect. Monet's stream flows, but there is no strong undercurrent in it, which is why each water lily seems fixed in place however freely it seems to float in space. It remains anchored to its appearance rather than absorbed in the primal reality of the water. It never loses its physical specificity to become an emblem of the "metaphysical" inevitability evoked by the water.
Monet's water paintings are a decorous continuum of petites perceptions rather than a convulsive outpouring of the elemental, like Yu's cosmic vistas. Instinct is muted in Monet, but it is conspicuously intense in Yu. She is not afraid of the immeasurable: she meets it with the immeasurable instinct within herself. It is as though Monet uses the decorative to avoid the numinous while conveying his fascination with it, while Yu fearlessly encounters it: no hesitancy before the mysterium tremendum for her. Her paintings are as overpowering, awesome and urgent with energy, otherness and infinity as the mysterium tremendum, drawing us into itself even as its radical difference "repels" us. I have used Rudolf Otto's description of its numinosity in The Idea of the Holy in order to suggest that Yu is a genuine nature mystic while Monet is a nature mystic manque. He is too Western to submit to the sense of the beyond conveyed by the mysterium tremendum.
Newman, Rothko and Still come closer to doing so by sublimating the beyond implicit in every detail of nature -- each is a microcosm of the whole -- into the abstract beyond mediated by art. But their paintings remain too self-contained -- self-consciously framed (as though the framing came before the painting, thus foreshortening the sense of infinite expansiveness, uninhibited flow and infinitely nuanced immediacy we find in Yu) -- to suggest the unconditionally and inexplicably and immeasurable beyond. Indeed, in all three there is a similar sense of internal measure as in Monet: Still's line, however meandering, partitions his canvas, and Rothko's canvases are geometrically structured, while Newman's zip represents man the measure of the immeasurable. Divided by the zip it no longer seems so immeasurable and intimidating. (At first glance Pollock's all-over paintings seem infinitely expansive, but in his case the flow turns on itself, shortcircuiting the expansiveness in self-defeating conflict, thus making for an abortive sense of the immeasurable or infinite. Pollock's all-over paintings look convoluted compared to Yu's jubilantly expansive paintings.)
As David Bohm writes in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, "in the East the notion of measure has not played nearly so fundamental a role [as in the West]. Rather, in the prevailing philosophy in the Orient, the immeasurable (i.e. that which cannot be named, described or understood through any form of reason) is regarded as the primary reality." As few other artists today, Yu grasps the immeasurable without forcing it into the procrustean bed of measure. Her Oriental heritage no doubt helps her do so, but so does her knowledge of Abstract Expressionism. Her paintings integrate Chinese landscape, with its abrupt shifts between incommensurate spaces within a harmonious expansive over-all space, and Western gesturalism, with its highly differentiated, richly textured surface. (Its assertiveness has a subliminal connection with Oriental calligraphic painting as well as an explicit connection to Surrealist automatism.) She in effect synthesizes the natural sublime and abstract sublime, restoring a unity that science has sundered by making "measure. . . more and more routinized and habitual," as Bohm says.
Her paintings are meditations on the immeasurable, whether it be experienced in and through nature or in and through art: Yu reminds us that the latter is a refinement of the former. Bohm writes that "techniques of meditation can be looked on as measures (actions ordered by the knowledge and reason) which are taken by man to try to reach the immeasurable, i.e., a state of mind in which he ceases to sense a separation between himself and the whole of reality." He adds that "the immeasurable. . . contains the formative cause of all that happens in the field of measure." Thus the immeasurable invites us to take its measure by meditating upon it, even as such meditation confirms its immeasurability. This paradox informs Yu's paintings, which not only remind us that art is a mode of meditation, but that nature is immeasurable however carefully we may measure it, differentiating its colorful parts, as Yu does. But for her nature is in formative process -- a process of what Alfred North Whitehead calls creative concrescence -- rather than already formed, as in Monet, or having form imposed upon it, as in Newman, Rothko, and Still, so that it seems abstract and prescribed. Nor does she regard it as the objective correlative of a subjective formative process, as Pollock does, rather than as a phenomenon in its own right. Yu reminds us that our inner drama and agitation are part of nature's drama and agitation -- subjective and artistic processes are natural processes, however unnatural their results sometimes look.
Perhaps most crucially from the point of view of art, Yu reminds us that the immeasurable has a numinous beauty than no human figure can ever have. The sense of the beyond brings with it a sense of unfathomable beauty. It is an immediately experienced beauty, inextinguishable in memory however incomprehensible to the mind -- beyond reason, however much reason struggles to take its measure (put it in perspective, find its "correct" proportions -- anything to bring it under human control). Yu's paintings embody this incalculable beauty in all its sensuous immediacy. Sense experience of the beyond is the paradoxical core of all esthetic experience, which, as the psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer argues, is inherently tragic not because of its transience but because of its enigmatic quality, that is, its evocation of the mysterium tremendum. Fry thought that the cosmic emotion conveyed by the best modern paintings arose "from the very conditions of our existence." Their "inexorable sequence" of forms convey what he called "the inexorability of fate." Yu's cosmic paintings, with their sense of nature's inexorable, poignant dynamics, make it clear that the immeasurable radically conditions our limited existence, which is why they belong among the best modern paintings.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.