Notes of Persistent Awe
Columns by Benjamin Terrell
Stefanie Popp: The Heart is the Pilgrim's Hollow
by Benjamin Terrell
2019, oil on canvas, 23.5" x 19.5" (60 x 50cm)
Most paintings depicting the figure also address the mechanics of the heart, our innermost authority on interaction and connection. The heart is the gatekeeper to emotional allowance and our most skillful guide to getting beyond the brain. Thinking and feeling alone are merely the black and white of temporal documentation whereas the heart is the master colorist of our continual authenticity. In the presence of the figure, we stand in the silence of our commonality and our heart can be bled from red to pink in its most intimate vulnerability. Stillness is the heart's first language, and its etymology is embedded in every great figurative painting. What is Edouard Manet's The Fifer if not first a dictionary depiction of the heart, wrapped up by the artist in the foil candy costume of a boy dressed as a soldier? But let's leave the heart here, not completely named, and allow it the rightful, respectful agility of a blinking cursor- one space beyond even our best definition.
2022, oil on linen, 18" x 16" (45 x 40cm)
The 1975 Japanese anime adaptation of The Little Mermaid is closer to Hans Christian Andersen's original fairytale than it is to Disney's 1989 retelling of the story. At the end of the 1975 anime, faced with never connecting with the prince, the mermaid chooses to return to the ocean knowing she will forfeit her human form, lose her previous self and dissolve into sea foam. Sea foam is the ocean's odd pocket emptied of everything -- interconnected ecosystems that bubble and bloom together. Perhaps an additional message of the story is that through the rejection of our egoic identity comes an ultimate selfless form of merging -- I lose me but regain us. In the 1975 anime, as the foam turns to colorful air-bound bubbles, the sea is joined with the bright morning sky. In another old tale (this one Tantric), a goddess refuses the advances of an unenlightened suitor until his outward actions are able to reflect an intense inward vision. "Then," as the story goes, "She dissolved herself back into space and time."
2022, oil on linen, 39.5" x 33.5" (100 x 85cm)
Critic Amy Goldin wrote, "artistic ideas are the particles of artistic meaning, and it is as difficult to define them outside the context of art as it is to define a word outside context to language." Imagine, also, that artistic ideas are like the luminous balls of gasses we call stars and meaning is like the gravity that holds them together. And just as stars shine past their own existence, creative ideas and what they produce often outlive the meaning once integral to their creation. We too are particles that only exist in relation to others, and we are also stardust, poured in the most fragile of forms, and we alone are concerned with naming the vast mysteries. Maybe meaning is a mantra repeated to merely get us beyond ourselves, or maybe meaning isn't an answer but a question that ends with infinite inquiry. Or perhaps meaning is bits of branches and multiple blue bottle caps brought by a Bowerbird to woo another to witness its dance.
2020, oil and graphite on linen, 39.5" x 33.5" (100 x 85cm)
Art museums are our new zoos where we go to view connection as if it were a distant relative or a separate species. We go for glimpses of our potential expressed best, but how often will we remember that what hangs on the wall has a better grasp of eternity than us in our brief temporality. We are babies beside a bristlecone pine tree and history is hence shaded beyond our comprehension. I lock eyes with a small Haniwa terracotta warrior taken from a Japanese tomb where he was placed a few thousand years ago. He is unadorned and seated on short legs wearing a cone-shaped hat with hollow holes for eyes and mouth. Made to guard the dead, he knows more about life than I'll ever know, I am at most verse to his volumes. It is I who is Rilke's "Panther," and from behind the bars of my finite cage every object of antiquity "...plunges into (my) heart and is (forever) gone."
Buddhists believe that time is female and eternity is male and that the union of the two is the balanced actual world. Perhaps then the mortal perception of disconnection is a human's greatest created illusion. Art is always an equal union; an artist can never go against the nature of her material. I have read that clay, by its very nature in the hands of an artisan, actively "...determines the possible forms in which it may be actualized." There is a type of wounding that also inevitably occurs in taking human form, and our relationship to our own imprint can dictate the integrity and nature of the lives we build for ourselves. We are frail finite grails for infinite, unknown capacities and we bloom only to be filled and soon disappear. Even an artist's paint has more permanence, it too is made from the dust of the earth and sediment of both star and sky.
GrimGrin (Double Eclipse)
2022, oil on canvas, 23.5" x 19.5" (60 x 50cm)
Joseph Campbell describes a "cosmogonic emanation" that occurred in the separation of the earth and sky and from the cracking of that cosmic egg came life. Every blank canvas, each inert block of earth echoes and reenacts the origin of eternity in its potential transformation. Our initial disconnection, our continual invitation to reunion, and our capacity for egoless resolution are the seed and spring season of every great hero's journey.
Spiritual teacher Robert Masters writes, "myths do not explain, but reveal. They are not meant to be analyzed but felt. What symbols are to the mind, myths are to the heart." We enter every encounter with a story or a work of art as both subject and author but not through ego or ability but because of action and fearless immersion. The universe is being recreated in every moment and access to every origin story is found in the heart.
aerated concrete, 39.5" x 15.75" x 15.75" (100 x 40 x 40cm)
Author and anthroposophist Willem Zeylmans explains that rapture is the highest form from which an artist can reveal the intrinsic self. Rapture, as he defines it, is a spirit coming into action and is a process where one can transcend the limitations of the individual and be of true and immediate value to life. Zeylmans makes this and multiple other observations that could be applied to the contemporary German artist, Stefanie Popp, when writing a 1917 analysis of the Dutch painter, Jacoba van Heemskerck. While comparing the work of these two artists would bring few similarities, both employ rapture to rise above self and contemplate something divine. In Zeylmans' observation, the artist can impart harmony through radical deconstruction rather than realistic description. Every great revelation in life and in art first resides in nature, and an appreciation and connection to the primitive can elevate one to the highest form of contemplation -- awe.
aerated concrete, 31.5" x 15.75" x 15.75" (80 x 40 x 40 cm)
Stefanie Popp often uses the cat or dog as a companion to the figure. In several shows, concrete animal totems share the space with her tantric-themed figurative paintings. Just like First Nation totem poles could be seen as lighthouses for souls, the artist's sculpted feline and canine deities feel like beacons for devotion and direction. Like the sacred suggested in the two sexed divinities of Hinduism, Popp's menhirs (Obelisms) are us and not us, is ego but also the ideal, and is both lingam and yoni balanced in its duality. As an object, the sculptures are only a few feet tall, look as if built of greyed asphalt pyramid blocks, and feel part worry stone and part wellspring. They are the perfect objects to symbolize the gravity that comes from existing, the cat as our reluctance to connect and thus depend, the dog as our unquestioning faith to this form, but also like a stone husk or hull seen as the byproduct of our potential resurrections. The artist's dog totem's defining difference from her cat is a centering hole where a heart might be, as if to say - I am a monument and marker only to what does not transcend, the hollow where a heart was is merely where the light was let in.
You can see more Stefanie Popp...
- on instagram @epiphanipopp
- at Norma Mangione Gallery
- at Keijsers Koning Gallery
- at Galerie Norbert Arns
The artist Stefanie Popp with her work and fellow travellers.