Editor's note: The following essay is reprinted with permission of Carolyn Eyler and The University of Southern Maine Art Gallery. The essay is featured in the catalogue for the exhibition "Yvonne Jacquette: Maine Aerials" which appeared at The University of Southern Maine Art Gallery from October 1 through November 14, 1998. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or catalogue, please contact The University of Southern Maine Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

The Brush of Acceptance

by Carolyn Eyler

 

It was a clear, cool summer night and I had the highway to myself while driving south from Skowhegan on Route 201. My thoughts drifted to Yvonne Jacquette's painting, Paper Company, Somerset, Maine II, and this essay so it took a moment for my brain to register what my eyes were witnessing - a huge cloud of smoke billowing over the lush foliage. When I rounded the bend, the grove of trees suddenly opened to reveal a huge plant: a monstrous bastion of metal towers, cylindrical buildings, and long tunnels garnished with lights that burned bright against the dark starry sky. In a flash it was gone and the rows of trees closed back as if ending a yawn.

I knew that the Sappi Fine Paper North America paper mill in Jacquette's painting was located on this road, but visiting it was not the purpose of my trip and I was startled by its sudden appearance. Continuing down the road, I mused that my contemplation of Jacquette's painted image had evoked the plant's actual presence. After all, that would hardly be a more magical act of visualization than creating a painted image imbued with power. Certainly world religions like Buddhism have long believed in such magic; their highly developed art forms depicting deities are intended to catalyze spiritual growth in the viewer. In fact, Jacquette, a practising Buddhist for the past 15 years, has laden her western style painting with transformative metaphors in the manner of a Tibetan thangka, or scroll painting.

All of Jacquette's paintings, on view in the exhibition "Yvonne Jacquette: Maine Aerials" began with pastel sketches that juxtapose multiple views from an airplane, a method she has been honing since the early seventies. The finished paintings, usually nocturnal landscapes, retain the impressionistic strokes of the pastels in a technique that enables her to closely register the effects of light on the landscape - and the electric light sources radiating from it. Paper Company, Somerset, Maine II is unusual in that Jacquette leaves exposed the foundation drawing, white sketch lines of sand pits and water treatment areas on a chalkboard-like background. The skeletal drawing at the top and bottom of the picture emphasizes the plane both as an entity unto itself and of the artist's construct.

This is in contrast to other paintings like Dragon Cement Company, where the plant, squeezed into the upper third of the picture plane, is integrated into a landscape containing other focal points such as car headlights. The cool blues and greens of the rather deadpan painting also differ from the palette of Paper Company, Somerset, Maine II. Here the compound is composed from a rich, painterly patchwork of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns. Two smokestacks emerge from the compound; at their tops two white lights like almond-shaped eyes spew red flames and gray smoke into the night sky.

Jacquette said that the decision to leave the sketch lines surrounding the painting of the paper plant was inspired by her study of thangkas, in which the central image of a painted deity is sometimes flanked by linear graphics indicating other dieties.[1] In fact, the poster image of a multi-limbed bestial deity and a corresponding meticulous sketch was pinned to the wall of Jacquette's studio on my visit. I asked her about the difference between how a Buddhist and a Christian demon in art are viewed. Jacquette replied, "In the Christian religion, the devil presents an image of what you should stay away from, what is evil, the result of sin. The Buddhists don't really come from that angle at all. They certainly feel that one should try to get beyond certain negativities, but you have to do it through yourself, so you internally visualize a ferocious deity to strengthen yourself, to try to work through that side of yourself that is having difficulty. Say you have too much pride, so you think about how you are obscuring your view of reality by this pride. This visual protective being is a great aid, for the minute you feel yourself to have pride, you call summon up this visual image, this deity, accept it within yourself, then let it go, release that thought, that visual image, let it float up and away and then maybe you won't be consumed by the suffering it will inevitably bring."

Scholars Marylin Rhie and Robert A.E Thurman reinforce this statement by explaining that archetype and protector deities can have outer, inner, secret, and sometimes ultimate forms:

The Outer Yamaraja, with his buffalo
head....confronts outer obstacles and seeks
to protect practitioners and monasteries from
droughts, bandits, and other misfortunes. There
is also an Inner Yamaraja, a similar form usually
represented with a human type terrific face.
The true obstacles in one's life are not outer
circumstances, but inner defilements such as
fear, hate, pride, and jealousy; so the Inner
Yamaraja is invoked to destroy them. He is a
protector on an emotional and spiritual plane. [2]

Just as a Buddhist image contains meanings on different levels, Paper Company, Somerset, Maine II embodies metaphors on a personal, societal and global scale. Just what those metaphors might mean, however, is open to interpretation as Jacquette does not have a spiritual or political agenda but is first and foremost a formalist painter. That viewers can enjoy this beautiful and masterful work without the reference of Buddhist art is testimony to her success (the difficulty of assimilating ancient eastern religious art by contemporary western artists is often all too evident). Here one can become lost in how the earth-toned strokes melt into the dark background or how the lushly painted dots and dashes coalesce into a field of buildings.

But why, during her nightly arabesques, does this Ariel of Maine cast her lyrical on manufacturing plants? While what she paints dispels the myth of Maine as an idyllic playground of wilderness and seascape, her approach continues some of the romantic tradition of famous Maine landscape paintings (used in a myraid of reproductions to promote the state's primary industry of tourism). This disparity of content and style makes for ambiguous readings. For example, while Jacquette gave photos of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant painting for use by a committee of activists (which she was on), a collector hung the painting as an object of beauty in his bedroom.

Jacquette strives for equanimity according to the Buddhist ideal, where her personal opinions don't obscure the beauty, or at least visually intriguing aspects of a site that might strike her cultivated eye. While she speaks of her summers painting in Maine as affecting her painting in New York City, it is clear that her experience in that visceral, seething organism equally informs her response to the vitality of industrial sites in Maine. After all, artists have long been fascinated by urban life, although their attitudes in how they portray it have changed. For example, the gleaming smokestacks of futurist paintings were meant to signal a new technological utopia for man. Referring to this early display of technological pride, Jacquette stated, "Now we certainly can't see that way and yet we have to be compassionate with ourselves knowing that we had to go through that stage to come out and see what the drawbacks are and find the ways to work with what is good about those things and what we want to discard. The Maine Yankee plant is now closed and it took 20 years of activism for it to actually happen."

Regarding her experience of painting the controversial Maine Yankee plant while being on a committee concerned about its safety, Jacquette remarked, "I had to play with a number of different attitudes and different pictures to find a way to deal with my first political engagement and something that I had a great deal of difficulty about and yet which visually there was something very complex happening." Whatever the political uses the committee might have used the photos of that painting for, that would be beyond the aesthetic enjoyment, introspective or societal reverie it inspires. When one has a cause, one takes a stand against something, makes an argument where there is a right and wrong side. And one, of course, is right; separate from those who are responsible for doing the wrong, And one may be morally right, and eventually effect legislation that does good. But whether looking at it from the viewpoint of an ancient Buddhist or contemporary physicist, nothing is really separate, the planet just is, it is us and we are doing things to it/ourselves both beautiful and beastly. For Jacquette, the beast is tamed with a brush of acceptance.

 

Notes

1. Yvonne Jacquette, videotaped interview with artist, July 9, 1998. All subsequent quotes are from this interview.

2. Marylin Rhie and Robert A.E Thurman, Wisdom and Compassion: The Secret Art of Tibet (New York: Tibet House in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1991), 290.

About the author

Carolyn Eyler was, at the time of authoring the above essay, Director of Exhibitions and Programs for the USM Art Galleries of the Art Department of the University of Southern Maine.

12/21/01; rev 10/25/05

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