In Chasing after Spirits, Barbara Bullock’s latest works at Seraphin Gallery, vestigial memories, oral tradition, characters, and abstractions do indeed chase each other through the artist’s fevered narratives. These huge structures, three-dimensional paintings spanning several different series of works, are close to the imagery one might experience as part of a vision quest.
Profoundly cohesive, each work forms its own narrative world, but also flows effortlessly into sync with the others in the room. With African culture and ancestry as her primary point of departure, the milieu consists of luminous, hothouse colors, prints teased into infinite abstraction, and curvilinear floral, animalistic, insect-like and reptilian shapes.
Bullock, a 1997 Pew fellow and distinguished art educator, uses a rigorously-layered painting process, with textured paint and abstracted cut-out shapes. Far from being oblique, however, the paintings are astonishing for their richness, and provocative in the inherent psychological exercise of interpreting them.
In the eleven pieces on display, Bullock captures both a spiritual language of Africa and the countries of its diaspora as well as an authoritative voice that could just as easily serve a number of other cultures or belief systems. From every angle, Bullock’s creations achieve the visual equivalent of the mythological writings of Joseph Campbell; where Campbell traced the paths of archetypes and totems throughout world religions and mythologies, Bullock uses shapes and colors to reveal the singular knowledge behind images and thoughts we confront every day.
“Gateway” pushes the shape of an arch slightly outside its dimensions, just enough so that it looks transient, ready to slip away at any moment. Within and without the gate, indefinite experiences take place: an outstretched limb, descending roots, and a snake-like figure hanging upside down are all potential findings to be extracted from the piece.
Bullock’s reverence for mystery, an inheritance from her work teaching children, is also a forceful presence. Shadows are an essential component of the works, and Seraphin’s sleek, bright open interior and lighting brings them into beautiful relief. “Chasing After Spirits 2” sends tendrils and swirls of shadow arching across the wall away from the piece, augmenting it and giving it an appearance of strength and power.
Generally, crows have acquired a bad rap, but Bullock is attuned to the more positive aspect of their nature. “Crow” is a clear-cut likeness of a bird with wings outstretched, and underneath the black wings, Bullock alludes to the crow’s renowned intelligence with some deftly-chosen color. The crow’s body in mid-flight is a faceted, iridescent blue, wreathed with a thin ribbon of bright orange, as if to represent its mythic and symbolic link with wisdom. Rather than reaching for Hitchcockian nightmare, Bullock’s crow evokes other mythologies, like the two ravens kept as couriers and informants by Odin, king of the Norse gods.
One of my favorite aspects of Chasing after Spirits (and there were many from which to choose) was the variation between works that conveyed stillness and those that communicated movement. “House Transitioning to Ancestor,” a neat summation of Bullock’s desire to harness personal experience to distant memory, is meditative, with the distinct impression of a figure with crossed legs and a calmly raised hand. On the other end of the spectrum, “Swallowing Bitter Pills, Chewing Dry Bones,” whose name calls up death and destruction, hurtles forward with the energy of a plunging horse.
Bullock’s grasp of archetype and a universal spirituality ferry the viewer from the past to the present and the future, and Chasing after Spirits is a triumphant expression of her desire to understand how we are guided by images and memories in every part of life.
Barbara Bullock, “Chasing after Spirits” at Seraphin Gallery has been extended to May 5, 2013.