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Review: Endless Line and Self-Portrait

D. Eric Bookhardt on a site-specific installation at Newcomb Art Gallery by Pat Steir


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Big time celebrities in cities like New York sometimes get big heads. It is a common human trait to try to find meaning in fame and fortune, but wisdom is a very different experience. Longtime New York art star Pat Steir turns the fame game on its head in her Self Portrait expo. Self-portraiture is nothing new, but Steir's version comprises eyes, ears, noses and features that bear no resemblance to her actual appearance. Drawn directly on the gallery walls like precise Renaissance sketches, they seem to be trying to tell us something, but what? Steir adheres to the Buddhist view that what we think of as our "self," or ego, is a concept that is a fundamentally illusory mind game. In this view, our sense of self is a product of our common DNA filtered through differing circumstances and degrees of awareness — so identifying with fellow humans is not only compassionate but can facilitate a saner, happier and more meaningful life in a conflicted world where all things are impermanent except for the ongoing present moment and, ultimately, the universe itself.

  Asian sages discovered the time-space continuum eons before Albert Einstein, and in Steir's Endless Line (pictured) it appears as a continuous drippy tracery meandering around the room like a river. Painted white, it glows blue in the gallery's cobalt light and recalls Steir's "waterfall" canvases of drips orchestrated into magical cascades with overtones of Zen and Jackson Pollock. Endless Line is painted directly on the walls and will be painted over when the show closes. This parallels the meticulous sand mandalas created by the Tibetan Buddhist monks who appeared with the Dalai Lama last week. After days of work, the sand mandala was swept up and thrown into the river. In this view, the act of creation is an ongoing exercise in the art of life, and all that really matters is the — hopefully enlightened — awareness we bring to it. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT


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