Do you have to buy into an elaborate belief system in order to savor the art it inspires?
Most people would say no.
There’s no need to be a devout Christian to marvel at the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the stained-glass windows at Chartres Cathedral. You can be dazzled by the design sense and architecture of ancient mosques while knowing precious little about Islam.
But what if the artist is very much alive and saying, “This is what my work is about”? If you don’t buy into his meaning, are you incapable of appreciating his art?
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These questions arise in connection with “Paul Laffoley: Premonitions of the Bauharoque,” a new exhibit on display at the Henry Art Gallery through Sept. 29.
The show, Laffoley’s first on the West Coast, consists of 12 paintings. Initially, what strikes you about them is their marvelous color, intricate symmetry and vibrant geometric rhythm.
Most are variations on mandalas, but they call to mind, as well, the eye-bending fun of Op Art and rock-show posters of the psychedelic era. (Laffoley’s 1960s credentials, incidentally, are hard to beat. According to his website, he was “recruited for viewing late-night TV for Andy Warhol.” His work does consciously echo the late-night test patterns aired on TV back then, once programming was over.)
In appearance alone, the work is enticing. But aesthetics aren’t what the 72-year-old Laffoley is about — or, at least, not the only thing.
Most pieces in the show are oil/acrylic-on-canvas, peppered with vinyl lettering — and that lettering is at the heart of Laffoley’s intent. He sees his paintings as visual-verbal treatises, in which he explores his takes on Eastern and Western philosophy, astrology, alchemy, astral projection, utopianism, time, space, death, psychological archetypes and other concerns.
“The Number Dream” (1968), for instance, establishes, in Laffoley’s words, “a system of presenting a dream based on Tantric, Jungian, and Platonic concepts.” It also works, more intuitively, as a glimpse at the self-contradictory components at play in any personality. Bits of floating text — “Aggression,” “Versatility,” “Dependability,” “Mystery,” “Adventure” — indicate what those personality ingredients are. Other snippets — “I’m flying,” “Slipping overboard,” “Sinking fast” — suggest what it’s like to be that personality.
Still, for Laffoley, the shaping of thought systems takes priority over empirical experience. Many of his works come with literal bibliographies. “Utopia: Time Cast as a Voyage-History” (1974), to name just one, pays homage to 16 figures ranging from Plato to Bronson Alcott to Timothy Leary.
Laffoley’s paintings each take two or three years to complete, and they’re meticulous in their execution. (“Utopia” is a spiral-happy, elaborately patterned and painted affair that uses layerings of canvas on canvas to heighten its effects.)
The canvases’ conscious intent is enlightenment, but their obsessiveness suggests something more anxious happening off-canvas. Laffoley clearly yearns for tidy systems of classification capable of corralling every last stray hair in life.
In some paintings, hectic human figures do crop up, and they add a welcome wild-card factor. They take the form of Indian gods Shiva and Shakti, in “The Kali-Yuga: The End of the Universe at 424826 A.D.” (1965), and Roman gods Venus and Mars, deep in carnal play in “De Rerum Natura” (1985).
But most of the paintings are abstract treatments of odorless concepts. In “Mind-Body Alpha,” a gorgeous nesting of complexly ribbed orbs within one another, Laffoley has a definite aim in mind.
“I have represented,” he writes, “the Mind-Body Alpha as a cross section of a hypersphere, or a fifth-dimensional sphere, to show a single alpha containing the hyperspheres of mind/consciousness and body/mass.”
Good to know. But the main reaction from most viewers is going to be: “Wow, that’s pretty.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org