Walking into Arcadia University Art Gallery, one can almost feel a magnetic pull from the 34 contemporary Shiva linga paintings that line the gallery's three inner walls. And no wonder: The lovely, peculiar little painting with the ovoid - some might say lozenge - shape at its center has the centuries-old distinction of being the supreme meditation tool, capable of capturing a viewer's attention so completely that all other thoughts are temporarily banished from the mind. (Later, the viewer will be able to visualize the image at will.)
Seen in succession, as is possible here, the repetition of similarly sized paintings of ovoid shapes makes their individual painterly nuances stand out - as you move your eyes around the room, the effect is of a procession of variously colored and patterned shapes in a slow-motion film.
One of the three styles of Hindu Tantric paintings, Shiva linga paintings are found in northern India, especially in Rajasthan and Gujurat, and their makers remain anonymous. All the works in this show, which date from 1970 to 2000, were collected in Rajasthan by the French poet Franck André Jamme, who took them back to France. (In 1989, other works from Jamme's collection of tantric schemes were included in the exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre" - Magicians of the Earth - at the Pompidou Center). This year, Shiva linga paintings graced the 2013 Venice Biennale.
As used for meditation by the Tantrikas who paint them in a state of mental rapture, the paintings are usually pinned to a wall. At Arcadia, framed in wood and behind glass, they aren't likely to put you in a trance (unless seeing a reflection of your own face has that effect), but they do invite close study. Oddly, the worn found pieces of paper they are painted on look especially contemporary. Comparison with modern and contemporary mainstream abstract paintings is unavoidable. But, clearly, the egg came first.
Wait . . . I'm suddenly visualizing something. A Rothko in an egg!
Serra writ small
Seeing Peter Beasecker's sinuous, steely gray stoneware "carriers" for the first time, in his show at Swarthmore College's List Gallery, I found myself immediately drawn to the small, colorful porcelain cups arranged together inside them, and wondered if he anticipated that reaction from gallery visitors. Apparently, he did - the nimble-fingered are invited to lift the cups out for examination. Still, permission to do so aside, it felt transgressive to be invading artworks that have such a formal, even ancient, presence.
I was also curious why his "carriers" were so large and sculptural in comparison with their cups until I read his statement about this body of work. I learned he been inspired by two series of Richard Serra sculptures - Torqued Ellipses and Spirals - and by "the quiet power of an expansive flat plane met with a very defined, articulated barrier" at Monte Alban, the pre-Columbian architectural site in Oaxaca, Mexico.
It explains why Beasecker displays these works on tables just below waist level, so the typical viewer looks down on the cups and might logically interpret the "carrier" interior of colored circles as an archaeological excavation. Looking down into the cups, you could also imagine them as the tops of Serra's Torqued Ellipses.
Each of two double vases at the back of the front gallery constitutes two vases joined together. They are handsome pieces, beautifully glazed, but they seem unrelated to the two larger series in this show.
In the back gallery, Beasecker is showing a group of porcelain works that resemble ancient tablets and that mark his political awakening in 1968. Each tablet's surface is divided in half - on the left side a monochromatic glaze, on the right a blue line drawing on white. The drawings look vaguely like political cartoons and it turns out they are, or rather, were, something like that. Beasecker made lifelike portraits of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Walter Cronkite, and others on the tablets with string; during the final firing, the "drawings" became collapsed, abstracted versions of their original subjects. Accidental, maybe, but what an apt metaphor for memory.