ARTIST'S STATEMENT: REPETITION AND RELIGION
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
A long time ago, when I was still in graduate school, one of my professors mentioned something about how a piece I was presenting during our final critique was similar to another one I have previously shown before. He said I was doing things over and over again and that he wanted to see something different. I understood what he meant, and I agreed with him. Even to this day, it’s something I consciously and continuously think about. It is important, after all, to make the work evolve and grow.
Over the course of my career, as I matured and more clearly defined my message, certain patterns or motifs often repeated in my art: compositions, techniques, processes, titles, etc. There were themes and ideas I kept going back to. I felt the work was telling me that there was something not yet done. And so, I continued to go back and repeat. Change shouldn’t be forced into art making. I think it’s better if it happens on its own. Repetition was not necessarily due to stagnation or lack of creativity but, for me, it came to symbolize a re-affirmation of my beliefs. Each work of art was like a prayer that acknowledged and celebrated the beauty in the geometry that I admired.
In part one of my statement, I discussed geometry to explain how I use it to represent the order that can be found in Nature. Although I mostly wrote about how dynamic symmetry appears in my compositions, one of the points I also mentioned touched a little bit on the topic of religion – about how I make religious paintings.
In this second part of my statement, I’d like to discuss how religion expresses itself in my work and how repetition is connected to it. I also would like to give some explanation as to why the imagery is represented in a grid; how it is demonstrated in my various processes; and the different ways the repetition relates to meditation.
People who follow a religion often times repeat prayers. The idea behind it is that it strengthens the meaning of the words into one’s faith. Repetition encourages piety and devotion. I don’t know enough about psychology or sociology to explain the science behind it, but I do know, just from observation, that various forms of repetition in organized religion happens a lot: through meditation, rituals, celebrations, stories, and especially through art. God, as the creator of the Universe, is its beginning and its end. In certain religious art, the repeating shapes and patterns expresses the infinite nature of the divine.
The image above is from the Kizill Cave near Kuqa, in the western-most province of China. I visited the site several years ago and it was an incredibly meaningful experience – very similar to being inside a gothic cathedral for the first time. It was significant because when I saw the repeating images of the Buddha, not only did they re-enforce what I was trying to figure out in my work, it also made me realize that what I was pursuing was neither special nor unique. Even from early history, humans understood that repetition represented eternity and possibly something else that is outside our mortal existence.
REPETITION IN THE GRID
Anything that repeats will always make some kind of pattern. I primarily work with geometric shapes because, as I mentioned before, its orderliness is appealing to me. And so, a grid structure will naturally show up when rectilinear shapes repeat. I can appreciate the unpredictability and beauty found in chaos, but it’s something I currently find uncomfortable when I apply too much of it into my art.
The grid is the most significant element that I repeat in my drawings and paintings. Not only because it is a compositional tool, but because it is a way to guide the process which visualizes the organization and patterns that I admire. The grid is actually extremely flexible. Regardless of the rules that I apply in measurements and divisions in the space, there’s a countless amount of variations that can be explored. It rests inside an idea of both being restrictive yet limitless. This is important because it also plays into the notion that even though my work repeats, absolutely none of them are the same.
REPETITION AS MEDITATION
In certain types of meditation, the mind is cleared of thought so that a person can focus on each breath or sound. The idea is that a state of euphoria is eventually achieved through the trance-inducing effect of concentrated repetition. This feeling of elation, or enlightenment of the spirit, is often believed to be equivalent to an encounter with the divine.
The repetitious mark-making in my work actually pre-dates my interest in the grid. It started in the early 90s with a project in which I started copying prayers and text from the Christian Bible. It then evolved into phrases that I would continuously repeat until the entire area of the paper is filled. The texts eventually transformed into small lines or circles on the paper and so I was able to retain the act of mark-making while removing recognizable words and letters. It was a time-consuming process that taught me patience and focus. At the same time, it was also a little bit addictive. There was something very satisfying in the monotony that ultimately lead me to an interest in Buddhism.
Although the compositions are more simplified in the paintings and the repetition is not as obvious as in the works on paper, both processes have similarities: an empty rectangular space is filled with marks or paint. For the works on canvas, the process involves the application of multiple layers of thin acrylic paint. I don’t count anymore, but they average to about 15 to 20. It often depends on when they achieve the relief or thickness that I am looking for.
The lines are initially drafted using a ruler, but the application of paint within the space are carefully done by hand. Each layer is built up by carefully painting to the edge without the use of masking tape. The required focus and concentration are also part of the ritual and represent another form of meditation.
As I mentioned earlier, the repetition involved in my work led to my interest in Buddhism. Although I am not a Buddhist, I regularly practice sitting meditation and my artworks are, in many ways, an extension of it. The catch is, because it is so process-oriented, the viewer will only get to see the visual, physical, product in the end. My relationship to the work, as the artist, is completely different. This often makes it difficult to explain the ideas I’m trying to share because the paintings look very simple. Without understanding how the artworks are made, it’s very easy to make inaccurate judgments.
“There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself. What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. what we can't understand we call nonsense. What we can't read we call gibberish. There is no free will. There are no variables.”
― Chuck Palahniuk
“I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform—or perhaps distort—yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.”
― Haruki Murakami
One of the things I sometimes tell my students is that creativity is not just about having the freedom to do whatever you want, but also the ability to work within a limited set of rules or materials. I don’t repeat my work because I don’t have anything else to say or that I lack other ideas – I do it because I know exactly what my message is about (generally speaking) and I get inspiration from my attempts to work with what I currently have.
I actually find myself in an interesting juxtaposition because, as an atheist*, I don’t believe in a supreme being that designed the Universe. Yet, here I am making self-described religious paintings. I can be very critical of religious people because their devotion, or religiosity, can also be seen as a kind of stubbornness or narrow-mindedness. However, on the other hand, it can also embody loyalty and love. Therefore, in my case, a very simplified explanation would be is that I do all of my work as a form of adoration.
For the third part of my statement, I will write more about my interest in the ideas and conflicts concerning dichotomy: the division or contrast between two different things. I see enlightenment as a form of harmony when two opposing ideas merge together: like how my artworks are the same but different or how an atheist like myself is making religious paintings.
*Regardless of my atheism, I identify as a Unitarian Universalist.
Aside from examples of my own work and photography, I do not own the rights to any of the other images included in this personal writing.