Agnes Pelton exhibit at The Whitney Musuem of American Art

On the day after Christmas this past year, I went to an introductory session to Transcendental Meditation. I think I saw a facebook link advertising that this method doesn’t rely on chanting or specific breathing, is easy (I find other types of meditation hard), and has evidence-based immediate effect. The ad also said that it requires one-on-one introduction.

Clear your mind…..and your browsing history

At the introduction, the speaker’s hard evidence was something like, ‘75% of participants rate improvement in their ability to notice if they are improving their focus during tasks involving self-improvement’ or something equally bogus-sounding. And that one-on-one requirement? That was so that a certified instructor can give you a unique mantra based on sounds matching your personal needs.

In the interest of linguistics and semiotics, I asked how they are coming up with those pairings. Are there certain sounds of language, from different vowels perhaps, that resonate with different emotional needs? If the point of the word is something abstract and unique to give the mind focus without worldly connection, why can’t a computer generate that? I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that.

Jiyahmehoo. There you go. I made that up specifically for you after this intensive me-sitting-at-my-computer session. That’ll be 80 bucks.

The speaker couldn’t give me an answer at all. Sounds like a money scam to me. And now, since I clicked that stupid link, I can’t rid of these ads all over facebook and Instagram.

It’s kind of funny that I was interested in distancing my mind from earthly distractions like success or money or social media presence and now the same company promising to do just that is promoting their brand all over my social media feed and trying to take my money. It’s enough to make me want to retreat from society and spend the rest of my days painting.

*I don’t think this form of meditation sounds bad at all, and their belief that it alters the chemistry and function of the brain sounds very plausible. I was not impressed with their statistics in demonstrating said effects and I think this TM company is trying to capitalize on a simple premise by attempting to place themselves as the central and necessary delivery system.

When I received the press preview invitation to an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art titled, ‘Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist’, I was very skeptical. “Oh boy, here comes one more pseudo-spiritualist promoting the ideals of transcendentalism like independence, free thought, and the importance of nature while trying to sell their branded aesthetic in a ritzy art gallery”, verbatim thought. Personally, I tend to find materialized spiritualism on display through art ranges from tacky to hacky to transparent. All those little Buddha statues…yuck.

Arriving on the 8th floor of the Whitney, the space with the light wooden floors and far-spaced paintings seems airy, the distance between the hung works reflects the isolation and separation from the world inherent both in Pelton’s life and the purpose of her art. Unlike the Moran exhibit, where the gallery was filled with voices from interviews, independently playing pianos, and jazz recordings, the Pelton exhibit is quiet. There is a thoughtfulness in the design of how the art is to be appreciated that matches the artist and her intention.

I did find it curious that many of the paintings seemed to emanate light from the center, to be projecting out from the many thin veils of paint. They were luminous, as Haskell described, almost glowing. It was an interesting design choice to then have the center gallery room painted deep blue, with darkness at the core of the exhibit. The contrast of light and dark was felt in the space, but most of her paintings were darkest at the edges. I wonder how the experience would change if the gallery mirrored that with the layout.

With curation by Gilbert Vicario,and organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, the exhibit has approximately forty-five of her paintings, almost half her body of work from 1917 to 1960. Pelton’s work is often characterized as Southwest art of O’Keefe style, but Vicario explained that neither are truly precise. Her intention was “to portray a spiritual realm beyond material appearances”.

Coming from a strict upbringing surrounded by the public scandal after her father had an affair, she was a rare woman who did not marry, and moved from Long Island to the Southern California desert in the mid 1920’s. She mostly supported herself through portraiture or landscapes while developing her signature style, incorporating contrasting shades, layers of color, and mystic symbols such as stars, fire, and mountains to depict the ‘Divine Reality’ she experienced in dreams and meditation. She once described her process as, “painting with a moth’s wing and with music instead of paint”. She received little critical encouragement for her work, selling hardly any of the transcendental paintings on display at the Whitney. One had apparently been found for roughly $5 in a resale shop.

A key difference in her work to many of her contemporaries such as Klimt or O’Keefe were in the diverse approaches to transcendental emphasis of nature. While other extracted the reality of nature in attempt to show spiritualism or God, she abstracted nature with the intent of not seeing the world as it is with the perspective of spirit but in creating something entirely separated from the world.

The words most repeated by Barbara Haskell, Whitney curator, in describing the paintings and people’s reactions to them were ‘luminous’ and that people would spend long periods of time looking at them. It seems that taking in these works are an act of meditation it itself.

It is strange to me that her biography seems rather sad, yet these paintings are filled with light, harmony, optimism. It was heartbreaking to hear Vicario and Haskell describe her life of isolation and how research into her journals show how exhausting and time-consuming each painting was to make to almost zero financial or critical success. The layout of the space and descriptions from the curators, also available through Mobile Guide, enhanced my understanding of the context though the content alone evokes the untethered feeling of weightlessness and boundless horizons. The effect is there without having to sell itself.

I think this is an enjoyable exhibit for all who wish to escape from the mundane, who appreciate objects for sentimental reasons, whose sense of peace or enlightenment or enjoyment comes from something that exists just outside of our realm of visual perception and everyday experience. What I enjoyed the most about them was the luminous feeling of inner light, a play with the usual single-light source principle that guides the biophysical visual processing system. As humans we normally assume that light shines from above from logical understanding of the sun and solar system. Interestingly, I didn’t see any representation of the sun, only stars. Something about that fact speaks to me of collective, universal society rather than individualistic.

These paintings reminded me of the uplifting, magical beauty of ballet, which is possibly why I both loved and hated them. There was upon viewing, a vague reminder of the transcendent feeling of abandoning the gravity-bound ugly human body that I used to feel in ballet that I don’t anymore, and called into the spotlight the lack of this presence and it just made me angry.

The symbol of White Swans follow me everywhere

  • This is my kind of yoga: Humming Puppy NYC Studio Review
  • Or this kind: Yoda Yoga
  • Pelton isn’t the only one to capture music with art/paint. Kandinsky did it with his brushes, I do it with movement: Dancing With/Without Music
  • Interested in brain rewiring, decreasing stress, and neuroplasticity without the Trans Meditation price tag? Check out the Neuroscience, Cognition, and Well-Being Archive

I probably need to meditate more often.

Jiyahmehoo. Jiyahmehoo. Jiyahmehoo. I feel better already.

Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist is on display at the Whitney March 3- June 28.

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