TOWARD THE EMPYREAN
Empyrean - The highest reaches of heaven, believed by the ancients to be a realm of pure fire and by early Christians to be the abode of God and the angels (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969).
When he was younger, Ron Pippin created figures that were his emissaries in the great battle between Good and Evil. Later the struggle shifted to one of trying to integrate the self and move from egotistical concerns to those of serving and caring for others. Motivated by experiences in his early life, the artist still feels the need to keep digging into the "dark material" that lies within all of us in order to reach a condition of clarity and light. He describes his work as "visual prayers" that aim for healing and "grace." His art draws on religious and mystical impulses without belonging to any church or sect. Pippin feels compelled to elaborate the universe he has created by constantly making new figures to populate it.
Although each artist possesses a unique sensibility, it is possible to group artists according to the kind of work they do and their common concerns. This is not to say that artists within a group copy each other, but they are aware of each other's approach to solving mutual problems of technique and content. To situate Pippin's work among some masters of art history is not to belittle his contribution but to insist on its importance. So one approach to understanding would be to see it against the background of California assemblage work begun in the late 1950s by Ed Kienholz, George Herms and Bruce Conner.(1) But Pippin does not share Kienholz' interest in satire or Herms' fascination with banal objects or Conner's love of decay. Pippin's work is not messy or sprawling but linear and at the same time fussy, overlaid with wrappings or beads or feathers or pieces of old sepia photos which have been scrawled upon with a spidery handwriting. Another branch of the California assemblage tree is that represented by Betye Saar and John Outterbridge, but Pippin does not share their African American background and imagery. The root of the tree is in the collages that started to be made around 1920 in Germany by Kurt Schwitters, and which incorporated the trivia of everyday life such as train tickets, cigarette papers, playing cards, and pipe stems. His aim was to merge art with the commonplace. However, Pippin wants instead to transcend the commonplace discards he picks up at swap meets, junk yards and thrift shops, to disfigure and at the same time ennoble them. His figures try to overcome their awkward and vulnerable status, the constraints of their bandaging, and in this sense they do not come from the Dada movement like Schwitters but from the predecessors of German Expressionism such as medieval German wooden pietas.
Following this line of reasoning, we can even link Pippin with Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, since their work too expressed the pathos of the individual's heroic struggle against the cosmos. Pollock tried to evoke the archetypes of the Jungian "collective unconscious," and so does Pippin.
Instead of comparing and contrasting Pippin's work with assemblage artists because they share a common technique, or expressionists because of a common pathos, we might group him with those artists who have had the intention of realizing spiritual and mystical intuitions in their art. This would include figures such as Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian among early twentieth century artists, and Agnes Martin and Alfred Jensen among contemporaries. The range of what may be considered "spiritual" in art is of course very wide. Some "spiritual" artists have belonged to cults such as Theosophy, while others like Pippin have cultivated private visions.(2) Many of these artists have been familiar with Eastern religious traditions and that is also true of Pippin.
Still another tradition that may help us situate and thus better understand this work is that of the grotesque, which includes Bosch, Brueghel, Arcimboldo, Fuseli, Goya, and some of the Surrealists. The grotesque is an effect achieved by conjoining disparate fragments that may each be realistically depicted but which do not realistically belong together. For example, a centaur is a grotesque achieved by joining the realistic representation of a man's head and chest to that of a horse's body. Typically grotesques have something ominous about them and often something humorous as well. Sometimes they have a mechanical aspect, like puppets. In this respect Pippin's illuminated glass-walled boxes with tubing are a particularly grotesque part of his work. He uses sculpture much as Joel-Peter Witkin uses photography to create work that is both grotesque and somehow religious.
. . . for Witkin, photographic representation is the incarnation or revelation of a transition between the material and the immaterial, between good and evil, life and death, sacred and pagan. It is almost a manifestation of a visual theology that allows the visible world access to the invisible world. . . . He attempts to conjoin and intermingle them, abolishing the distance between them in order to stage an ontological revelation, an illumination of man's relationship with the godly and holy as manifested in such creatures as the hermaphrodite and siamese twins . . . He sees freaks as the manifestation of something exceptional and extraordinary: the infinite will of God. . . . In darkness and degradation, in abjection and ruin lies the source of a new vitality. The pure springs from the impure; to find the light one must immerse oneself in darkness.(3)
It is only fair to say that this aspect of Pippin's work is countered by his sense of decorum and restraint. Catfish was originally intended to be motorized but Pippin found the motion extravagant and unplugged it. A pair of metal-bladed wings with harnesses and braces looks as though it were intended for performance but the artist will not permit this lest it appear "goofy." In his restraint Pippin appears old-fashioned and "modernist" rather than a "postmodern" artist. He has little interest in contemporary art world trends and movements and might well accept this designation. He is less interested in the present moment than in making a contribution to what he sees as the uphill struggle that is the human condition.
If the illuminated glass-walled boxes relate to the grotesque, the flat black wooden-walled boxes of the "Paradise Regained" series invite comparison with those of Joseph Cornell and the Fluxus artist George Brecht. But whereas their boxes might be seen as games whose pieces might be moved around in the boxes' empty space, Pippin's boxes are close packed and seem more like survival kits from some archaic civilization, with medicine vials, packets of powders or possibly needles, blowgun darts, feathers, discolored files, maps, sepia photos that may portray the original owner. Or perhaps these kits belonged to magicians or healers of some sort. Some slightly larger boxes from the "Homage to Unknown Ancestors" series seem to contain the distilled essence of the deceased persons in such a way that they could almost be reconstituted.
Still another series of the artist's works, not fully represented in this exhibition, has to do with spiritual journeys made by boats or flying machines, perhaps from the dark prison of the ego-bound self to the light of compassion for others. Or perhaps these are journeys made by the artist searching for how best to realize his visions. Then there are the animals, some of which are grotesques. Perhaps they are totems or witches' familiars. At this point art history can help us no further. We are left with the artist's private iconography, which is a kind of darkness through which he dares us to see glimmerings of our own light.
(1) See Sandra Leonard Starr, (Santa Monica: James CorcoranShoshana WaynePence Galleries, 1988), and California Assemblage (Los Angeles: UCLA Wight Gallery, 1989).
(2) See (Los Angeles County Museum of ArtNew York: Abbeville, 1986), and Roger Lipsey, Twentieth Century Art (Boston: Shambhala, 1988).
(3) Germano Celant, "Joel-Peter Witkin: Photography between Flesh and Spirit," in (Zurich: Scab, 1995).