I recently visited a new-to-me forest near my home. Sycamore and oak leaves draped yellow and orange over a black pond. I stood barefoot and let November swirl around my ankles. In the dusk, I found a nest inside a fallen tree trunk that reached over the lake. I took it as an invitation to embrace nature’s coming sleep.
In Japanese art, the term wabi-sabi revolves around an idea: nothing is perfect, nothing is permanent, and nothing is finished. Intuitively, we sense that things are most beautiful when they begin to wither. Here in the forest, autumn advances nature’s guileless process, her integrity intact, unashamed by my presence.
Before the 14th century, the term wabi was only awkwardly translated into English as an idea: the loneliness of living remotely in nature. Sabi meant roughly to “chill” or “lean.” The term suggested an indifferent universe inherently beautiful in her austerity. Modern definitions are more gentle and include the possibility of an artist’s hand — wabi is translated to rustic simplicity, freshness, quiet and understated elegance, and sabi is connected to the serenity that comes with age, including an object’s patina or signs of wear and even repair. Think of rust, the patched eye of a child’s stuffed animal or the coaxed and grafted limb of a hybrid plum. Haiku, ceramics, flower arranging, tea ceremony and the wandering, polytonal plucks of the samisen de-clutter for contemplation and heightened awareness. Here are the principles:
Asymmetry: arrange, then un-arrange.
Asperity, or the roughness and irregularity of things: let your materials tell the story.
Simplicity: describe less.
Economy: describe with less.
Austerity: be bold with space.
Modesty: speak in a whisper.
Intimacy: tell the truth.
PS: “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” (Andrew Juniper)
Esoterica: In decay and transformation is hope. As the forest grew silent, I wanted to join her, imagining, longing for her mysteries. In his 2003 book Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, Andrew Juniper describes a kind of pleasure gained through appreciation for the transience of earthly things. This acceptance is a benchmark for beauty. As artists in the pursuit of creating evermore earthly objects, might we re-commit to this perfect imperfection?
If you’re in New York, a show of my paintings and those of fellow abstractionist Joshua Avery Webster will open on Thursday, November 19th at Voltz Clarke Gallery on 62nd Street. http://voltzclarke.com/exhibit_genn-webster.html