LINES IN THE SAND by Robin Peckham
Not every artist thinks of a painting as a place. For many artists—I would venture to guess the vast majority—a painting can be anything from a discrete object or a window into a fantasy to an object out of time or a representation of an ongoing practice. Some painters, though, think of painting in architectonic terms, imagining how future viewers somewhere down the long temporality of art history might approach the work, wondering what kind of spaces paintings might one day be displayed within, considering how paintings themselves might evoke or even create spaces for meditation, conflict, romance, salvation. This is, in some important ways, the more classical approach to painting, in that it is beholden to a religious sensibility. Every painter of a medieval altarpiece, for instance, knew exactly where that painting would reside for the duration of its worldly existence; removal would be tantamount to cataclysm. Through modernism, the artist wrests control of the siting of the work away from the commissioning institution—the image slinks from the church to the museum, freed from something spiritual and bonded instead to systems of circulation. Museums are, all of them, tomb raiders. In the twentieth century, artists who have built homes for their prized works have been subject to ambiguous admiration and derision, the accusation of arrogance and egoism no doubt stemming from a lingering religious aura that has, despite it all, never been entirely stripped away from painting: in creating paintings for particular spaces the artist is seen as rejecting the invisible hand of circulation, and in creating spaces for particular paintings the he builds a temple to his own hand. The Rothko Chapel, which technically functions as a place of worship; Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin, often oddly described as an atheist temple; Monet’s Water Lilies, suspended in the air against a wall of their own; Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, and its immediate predecessor in the Gettysburg Cyclorama. These are all grand, masculine gestures that stake their claims into the frontier like so many flagpoles thrust into the surface of the moon, or the wastelands west of the Mississippi.
Charles Munka, forever a guest on the island of Sado, treads more softly. Working on the site of an old Noh stage, his paintings make place by being born of a place, as he suggests in the title: Riken no Ken, to see a detached seeing, to understand at a distance, to grasp formalized beauty and its referent—real, past, or imagined—all in the same instant. On the exterior of the Haguro Shrine’s stage, he constructs five dark panels, five paintings of negative space that derive their graphic forms from the abstract choreographic manuals of the Noh tradition. The same pattern is repeated topographically, in Adrift, by stacked cairns of scavenged buoys, an object that washes up locally on the tides after being loosened, by nature or by accident or by villainy, from grids engaged in the aquaculture of oysters. They are nautical navigational aids, sculptural reinventions of the diagrams, street signs, and informational graffiti that Munka has lifted from the surfaces of walls, streets, and roadmaps time and time again, from rural France to the dense heart of Hong Kong. One imagines the criss-crossing wakes of the ships that have brought him here. His choreography appears again, a third time, inside of the shrine, but here reversed: crisp black lines on a light canvas, a confusion of routes that may once have traversed this very space, sucking all of the air and all of the history out of a room that nearly collapses under its own weight. Every mark, from beginning to end, is revealed to be intentional. In making a place for these paintings, in making a place out of these paintings, Munka maps paths that do not move forward but rather pull us backward, spin us around, and deliver us right back to where we started. As viewers we stand at an altar without a specific purpose, other than to remind us that we can see what we are seeking only by stepping back from what is in front of us, to see our own detachment, and to allow the world to wash over us in waves.