A Story of Creation – Post 1
“Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu
Post 1 of 2: The Photograph,
From time to time in these posts, I’ll write about an image that has caught me in its spell. No, my present subject isn’t the sorcerous tree above, which is mine. My flimsy excuse for putting it here (not that I need one — hey, it’s my blog) is that it led me to discover the superb artwork below – “Mushrooms & Trees 5” by Van Chu, a young Vietnamese-American photographer — because both were included in the recent “Seeing Seeing” exhibition at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, Connecticut. (The obviously-discerning juror was Felice Frankel, a celebrated science photographer.)
A little .jpeg, especially one that’s sized to fit the confines of this column, and especially if it’s a long panoramic, can hardly do justice to its original . The framed dimensions of Van Chu’s exhibited photo were 24 x 74″. So I’ve also provided a larger .jpeg of the image, which you’ll see if you click on the one below.
The first thing that happens to me when I immerse myself in this image is that I feel its spatial depth, its large apparent scale, which results from its atmospheric perspective, from the way its clouds seem to thin out as they retreat toward a distant horizon, from the backward tilt of the body of liquid at the bottom of the frame, from the difference in sizes among the smaller shapes rising at its center and the enveloping cover of cloud above them. And then, looking more closely at the work’s details, I enter into the rhythms of floating and curling and wavering shapes, of darkening or brightening spaces, of shifting areas of turbulence or calm.
Then we home in on the points of sharpest focus, especially the three vertical “trees” at the bottom center of the frame, which seem to grow upward from a relatively calm expanse of liquid. They draw our attention not only because they’re centrally placed and comparatively solid, but because they’re backlit by the brightest area in the photo. Yet even those three more definite shapes are calligraphic, somewhat unstable and insubstantial, as though they’re not just growing from some kind of ground, but still in the process of coming into being. The suggestive title increases this impression (and yes, I do appreciate titles that actually do something): “Mushrooms & Trees 5.”
Our first reaction when we compare the title to what we see is likely to be “Wait a minute, there aren’t any real mushrooms or trees in this photo.” Our next thought may be “Well, I guess you could say that those shapes are the beginnings or the ghosts of mushrooms or trees,” leading us to think that what we’re witnessing is a stage in the spectral creation of living things. We think of mushrooms as growing in the dark, and certainly this image is pervaded by a dark, mysterious, brooding atmosphere that brings to my mind the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.”
But our view is also affected by our presence in this year 2011 A.D. (the photograph was made in 2010). Which of us can see this image and not think at least briefly of, say, the natural disasters we’ve seen this year, the roiling clouds from which tornados grow, or the “mushroom clouds” of nuclear explosions. Or we might see oil in those viscous black shapes, the oil of devastating spills, or the enormous billows of smoke from burning wells in post-invasion Kuwait or Iraq.
At the same time, the image remains a dance of drifting, curling, flowing shapes, of delicious gradations of black and white, of implied motion as in a Jackson Pollock “drip” or “action” painting. But Pollock’s rhythm is more likely to resemble that of boxing, with flurries of punches, jabs, hooks; Van Chu’s rhythm is more like the rhythms of Tai Chi, flowing and curving like the motions of water in a trance.
If we’re open and attentive to our experience, we can see that the whole of it or any part of it may play its role in any moment. A vivid dream or nightmare can color our feelings for hours after waking. A stray piece of scrap metal seen on the beach may bring to mind war or societal waste. A song may flood us with emotions that we felt during the year in our childhood when we first heard it. Van Chu’s photograph, as good art does, opens us to a concentrated vividness and variety of associations, to a greater-than-usual wholeness in the moment.
But the qualities of Van Chu’s imagery don’t summon up only a host of contemporary and personal evocations; they also recall and revive the artistic and spiritual tradition that inspired Van Chu: of the Chinese Taoist and Buddhist painters of inkbrush calligraphy and landscapes, a tradition that blossomed late in the First Milllennium, in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties of China. I hope that you’ll follow me into the realm of Quo Xi, Ni Zan, Ma Yuan, and their descendant Van Chu, in Post 2 of “A Story of Creation.”