The Transmogrification of All That is Solid Melts into Air
“All that is solid melts into air,” in the ephemeral world of Edward Bekkerman’s “Dream” and “Spirit” paintings, abstract-looking images that are in fact as richly and minutely detailed as an illuminated manuscript penned by a Medieval monk. Rather than the common interpretation of this phrase made famous by Marx—which continues, “all that is holy is profaned” —Bekkerman’s work expresses precisely the opposite, discovering the mystical in the otherwise ordinary, transmogrifying superficial reality into a spirit world.
The lapidary layering of Bekkerman’s painting technique has been subtly refined over time. But the germ of the series began, as artistic inspiration so often does, through something completely quotidian. Viewing his own blurred image in a steamy mirror after bathing, the artist realized he had chanced upon a unique way to render visible the invisible universe he sensed so strongly during dreams and reveries.
“Everyone looks for their own language,” Bekkerman says. “I realized I had found mine. I had this incredible image that I had to try to put on canvas. Something mysterious was happening in the mirror. You could see, but not see, the images. It was like a dream, but also a window into another world, another dimension.”
Bekkerman has described his state while painting the series as trance-like. But although the artist has discovered a powerful conduit to his own subconscious, the process of getting the images he senses and imagines onto the canvas requires great skill. Blending both abstract and figurative imagery, Bekkerman weaves his dream-like images in and out of the foreground and background of the paintings, so that the narrative unfurls like a winding road through a lushly overgrown forest.
At first glance, the canvases appear to be made up of purely abstract striations, akin to a dripping candle’s tangled tallow, or the streaks of raindrops on a windowpane. But upon closer examination, an entire world of mysterious entities emerges, quite specific in its intent. It’s a little like watching an apparently random cloud formation and seeing faces or figures emerge.
The artist’s intense process can be seen in the evolution of the imagery, from the first image, “In the Shower,” a dark rectangle with a violet nimbus at its core, which becomes increasingly lyrical and figurative as the artist explores his new visual vocabulary. (Dreams/Shower.) By early 2002, Bekkerman has made a quantum leap. In “Female Chorus,” he transforms the blurred streaks into discernible female forms.
Over the next five years, Bekkerman began to stretch his imagery like the pleats of an accordion. In all of his paintings, he says, there is an unheard musical accompaniment, literally referred to in his picture “The Last Accordion.” “I hear the music,” he says. “Sounds have colors.” A trained ballet dancer (as a youth he danced with both the Bolshoi Ballet and the American School of Ballet) he likens composing his paintings to choreography, (something he says he might do in the future with three-dimensional dancers.)
Bekkerman’s “Dream” and “Spirit” paintings continue where his figurative work, striking images of angels, flowers and clowns, leaves off. While those paintings are expressionistic in both form and content, the “Dream” series is the ultimate form of what could be called abstract impressionism. Still, like his figurative pieces, the imagery of the “Dream” paintings is influenced by Bekkerman’s love of the Russian fairytales he read as a child. As a result, the canvases are full of references to mystical characters, kings, queens, jesters, goblins and dragons.
The series reaches its apotheosis in three paintings, including “The Story of Lao Tzu.” Unlike the earliest “Dream” paintings, both the palette and the composition of these story paintings is distilled down to its essence, stripped of bright colors but full of vivid imagery. “I just follow what Michelangelo said,” explains the artist. “I subtract what should not be there. It took me a long time to arrive at this palette.”
These three paintings represent the beginning of a new series called “Dream-Stories”. And although many of the “Dream” canvases deal with the eternal quest for love, the dream-story paintings focus on narrative and on the philosopher Lao Tzu’s personal journey to find both peace within himself and in the world, through understanding and accepting its manifold and interconnected nature.
“Lao Tzu lived in about 600 B.C. He was a contemporary of
Confucious. These paintings are pure Tao,” Bekkerman says. In their compositional intensity, with its attenuated, anthropomorphic balancing act between abstraction and figuration, the three canvases are somewhat reminiscent of De Kooning’s 1950 masterpiece “Excavation.”
One canvas, called “The Story of the Wild Dance,” includes half-a-dozen large figures, some with crowned heads, which dominate the background of the painting. In the foreground, a number of smaller male and female images gather and cavort, dancing, making love. “Life itself has a lot to do with nature, with everything which surrounds us,” says Bekkerman. “You can’t explain it. That’s exactly what Lao Tzu says in his philosophy. The more you try to explain it, the further you get from it.”
In the center of another canvas, “The Story of Lao Tzu” is the stately head of a queen--the narrator of his saga. Lao Tzu worked as a court archivist. But he left the Emperor’s circle, with its internecine intrigue, and rode off into the countryside on a bull, (also depicted in the painting.) During his time at court, Lao Tzu and Confucious had many philosophical discussions. Confucious found him to be an enigma, and told his disciples, “I understand what makes birds fly and fish swim, but I do not understand Lao Tzu. He is a dragon.”
And then there is “The Story of the Floating Hearts.” Here Bekkerman has reintroduced the element of color, lacing a delicate green throughout the otherwise earth-toned canvas. “These paintings are all about love,” says Bekkerman, who has shown a benign female entity or witness smiling upon the male, who is still searching, unaware that the one he seeks is standing right beside him. A host of smaller creatures populate the foreground of the picture, giving it energy, movement and life. And among them are a man and woman who recognize in each other the potentiality of love, and become a couple. The painting portrays a kind of blessing.
“The original name for these paintings was “Gatherings,” because all these souls get together, and they all find each other. What’s beautiful about it is this actual road, which appears and opens up in the middle of all this turmoil. They are going to this beautiful place somewhere together.” A place where, in the spiritual sense, all that is solid melts into air. Or, in the immortal words of Lao Tzu:
The Tao is called
the Great Mother
Empty yet inexhaustible.
It gives birth to
It is always
present within you.
You can use it
Any way you want.
The Master observes
The world but trusts
his inner vision
He allows things to
Come and go
His heart is open
As the sky.
— Phoebe Hoban