Entrance to the Scriptorium: Landscape of Epitomes

Local Arts Reviews

<i>Anais Nin, In the Face of Death </i>(1980)
Anais Nin, In the Face of Death (1980)

Entrance to the Scriptorium: Landscape of Epitomes

Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown,

through April 30

Entering the Austin Museum of Art's Bernard Maisner exhibition feels like being a young Jean-Michel Basquiat standing in front of Picasso's Guernica with his mother -- the wonder, the illumination, the spiritual.

Maisner once said, "The artist breathes life into otherwise dead art. Molecules of spirit float between the tip of the brush and the surface of the canvas. If just a few bits of spiritual matter can be snatched and stuck to the painting, the art will be alive for others to share and breathe in the spirit." Maisner does just this.

<i>Anais Nin, In the Face of Death </i>(1991)
Anais Nin, In the Face of Death (1991)

Having studied medieval calligraphy at Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Maisner puts his training to good use. He uses the words of such persons as poet-singer Patti Smith, pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, bop saxophonist Charlie Parker, writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and American avant-garde musician John Cage, lending a variety of media to complement select passages.

For instance, in his 1991 work Anais Nin, In the Face of Death, he writes Nin's words inside of circles for effect -- "In the face of death, one asks oneself invariably, did I ... listen attentively, did I appreciate, did I sustain the life?" -- on an arrowhead placed on a hand-lined grid. Using mulberry paper, gold leaf, oil, and ink, Maisner punctuates Nin's words with his shapes and colors, creating a new way to look at her words. He is in this way like the dedicated and devout medieval scribes, but he not only copies words, he finds a voice, a resonance that cannot exist outside handwriting, his handwriting, even with the most elaborate computer font.

Part of this exhibit's wonder is its range -- in size and subject. His 1991 version of Anais Nin, In the Face of Death spans a wall, while his 1980 rendition by the same name takes up no more room than an oversized sketchbook page. Yet they are very different portraits of the same passage. The earlier work resembles a poem, mostly white paper with a few decorative touches like flower petals, while the later piece seems like the words' strong-armed big brother.

Central to the show is The Crucifixion Diptych, by Rogier Van Der Weyden, painted in 1455. Maisner saw this painting in 1974 at the age of 20 and was "awestruck ... it hypnotized [him]. [He] tried to burn the image into [his] memory." Van Der Weyden's work is a simple two-panel depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus where the cross is mounted in front of a stone wall draped with two red curtains. More than a dozen homages to Maisner's "personal icon" keep The Crucifixion Diptych company. All constructed between 1979 and 1982, these works feature the writings of Nin, Miller, Gaston Bachelard, and Franz Kafka. Some are no bigger than your thumb, while others are mounted on bricks, most drawing attention to the buck-toothed pattern of the curtains hanging on the wall.

It becomes obvious in this exhibit that Maisner thinks aloud in his work in emblematic terms with small decorative rectangles, yin/yang-like whorls and banderoles. His use of tessellated surfaces impart the characteristic of a mosaic. But Maisner's work is more than an homage to ancient symbols and form. Ultimately, his artwork is as unique as the whorl in a human fingerprint and as detailed as a microscopic view of cell structures.

With "Entrance to the Scriptorium," AMOA leads us onto a landscape of epitomes, and it is here, among the shade of geometric spaces, the light of hazy shapes, the background of abstract symbols, and the music of a writer's words, that the wonder of art truly lives.

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