Transcultural Intuition and Beauty in the Paintings of Robert Percy
by B. Kalivac Carroll
The abstract paintings of Robert Percy acknowledge and empower an emanation of ecstasis in the human encounter with art. The uncommonly rich sensibility inherent in these paintings reflects an aesthetic rooted in the mystery of beauty. Although Percy has stated that his goal is not to create “beauty” as a goal or end in itself, his paintings serve as visual evidence of why a work of art is offered for viewing in the first place. As Professor John Barnett Brough has suggested, “an artwork is presented for the sake of contemplation.” Or as artist and spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj described it, “The ‘aesthetic experience’ of ‘significant form’ (and, thus and thereby, of real and true beauty) is neurologically based–pre-‘wired’ into the human nervous system and brain.” Contemplating beauty in art is natural to us.
Some salient features of Percy’s creative process point to an inherent singularity at the root of that process. His unusual use of line, the transcultural nature of his artistic orientation, and the intuitive means he accesses in creating his Sumi-e ink and kozo paper paintings all serve to magnify the same intention common to early modernist abstract art—magnifying a sense of prior unity and seeking or invocating an awareness of the absolute. By allowing his intuitive intelligence to govern his uses of line and color via spontaneity and chance, Robert Percy applies what philosopher and writer Michel Henry identified in the abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky as “the invisibility of absolute subjectivity, then the ontological homogeneity of the content.” Although the work of Percy and Kandinsky express distinctively different styles, an abundant and liberating generosity towards the viewer-participant surfaces in the work of both painters.
Percy has worked with line in many forms throughout his decades of making art, and his use of line in the paintings in this exhibition convey a visual geography between form and formless. Despite the fact that the features of “line” appear differently in each painting, there remains an aesthetic continuity. The painter’s back-to-front saturation of color diffuses the vertical and horizontal compositional grid, repeatedly lending a sense of visual beauty bleeding through a curtain, or “body” of life, as in, for example, Percy’s painting “Rondo.” This sense of curtained translucence in a given painting may express, in its almost tactile sense of motion and exquisite rendering of color, a bodily terrain and a saturation of life presence that is ultimately an expression of consciousness. Viewing “Water Flows Om” feels like (to this viewer) being immersed in rainfall, and yet it conveys less a sensation of falling water and more a sense of being soaked in a rain of consciousness. These paintings are visual gateways accessible only by perceptual and intuitive intelligence.
Intuition is key to Robert Percy’s art making, as it is for all original artists. Although intuition is more than a concept, it is nonetheless also conceptual, as Professor J.N. Mohanty has noted in his description of why the concept of intuition in aesthetics is extremely important to any study of art. When Robert Percy says, “Whatever happens happens” subsequent to the act of painting a work by his unusual methodology, he is expressing a similar orientation to artist Robert Irwin’s “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” Mystery, self-forgetting and self-transcendence, intuitive knowing and spontaneity, chance and invisibility—all are germane to art and aesthetics, just as they are to life. Indeed, as the scholar Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei has written, everyday ecstasis, or the “ecstatic quotidian” is with us from childhood. In fact, ultimately we do not even know what the quotidian object “is.” To the phenomenologist, both conceptual awareness and the mystery of intuitive creativity are inherent in prior unity.
Robert Percy does not speak of abstraction as a style; he speaks of the inherent association of “abstraction” and “seeing.” Similarly, he speaks of his artistic process as a partnership in making a painting; he is a partner with the paper, the ink, the casein (or milk paint), the brushes, the water used, the objects he sometimes uses to emboss a work. Percy’s calligraphic uses of brushes in his paintings, his preferences for Sumi-e ink, casein, and kozo paper, and a general Asian quality in his art that evolved from his trips to China and Japan, come together to erase any east-west dichotomy. This transcultural aspect of Percy’s work expresses not so much a self-conscious “borrowing” of Asian aesthetic as a demonstration of “Asia as Method,” a reference made by scholar and curator Alexandra Munroe to a 1960 lecture of that title by the Japanese scholar of Chinese literature Takeuchji Yoshimi. Munroe, the Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the curator of the 2009 exhibition at that museum, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, referenced Yoshimi’s lecture in her brilliant introductory essay of the catalog for The Third Mind.
Like much of the art included in that exhibition, Robert Percy’s paintings in this present exhibition are, in regards to artistic accomplishment, museum quality work by an accomplished American painter, work very much influenced by the painter’s sensitivity to spiritual orientation.
B. Kalivac Carroll (Bob Carroll), who has published nonfiction and fiction, is currently working on his PhD in art theory and the philosophy of art and aesthetics with the Institute for the Doctoral Studies of the Visual Arts.
Adi Da Samraj. Transcendental Realism: The Image-Art of egoless Coincidence With Reality Itself, second edition, The Dawn Horse Press, 2010.
Brough, John Barnett. Art and Artworld: Some Ideas for a Husserlian Aesthetic, in Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Tradition: Essays in Phenomenology, Robert Sokolowski, editor, The Catholic University of America Press, 1988.
Gosetti-Ferencei, Jennifer Anna. The Ecstatic Quotidian: Phenomenological Sightings in Modern Art and Literature, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.
Henry, Michel. Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, Continuum, 2009.
Mohanty, J.N. The Concept of Intuition in Aesthetics: A propos a Critique by Adorno, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 1, 1980.
Munroe, Alexandra. The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, Guggenheim Museum, 2009.
Weschler, Lawrence. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin, The University of California Press, 2008.