If postmodernism’s embrace of the sociopolitical realm restored relevance to art — remember Philip Guston scoffing at “adjusting a red to a blue” during Vietnam? — it also delivered a psychological whammy. Proclaiming the Death of the Author and the impossibility of meaning, creativity, and individuality, it negated with its authoritarian right hand the freedoms granted by its libertarian left: What ever you do does not matter. The result of this schizophrenia was a hall-of-mirrors aesthetic that supposedly assailed godless “late capitalism” but could still yield marketable, collectible status commodities.
Not all artists take the art-simulacra bait, however: Like Dr. Johnson kicking the stone to prove its existence, they find meaning in materials, imbuing matter with life; some even see art-making as a spiritual practice. Claudia Marseille, Jenn Shifflet, and Ellen Vogel, three graduates of John F. Kennedy University’s Arts and Consciousness program, make the case for their alma mater’s new-age/old-school values in Odyssey of Transformation: A Quest for the Genuine.Marseille paints “an interior terrain” populated by memory and perception. In “The Journey Home,” “Foreign Lands,” “I Can’t Return,” and “A Bit of Pink,” she creates richly textured abstractions in translucent encaustic that invoke geology, archaeology, and anthropology — apt allusions for an artist who went on digs in her youth and sees culture as embodied psychology. The works also contain hints of her travels to “the souks, the spice markets, old peeling stucco walls, fabrics, ruins of past civilizations, and the multicolored reflections found in ponds and lakes” in Mexico, India, and Morocco.
Shifflet similarly explores “time, fleeting moments of perception, and reflections of the natural world.” Her labor-intensive, layered oils like “A Handful of Stardust for You,” “Sky Dream Reverie,” “In the Midst,” “Waves of Spring,” “A Cluster of Moments,” and “Lightly Adrift” present watery landscapes afloat with stylized clouds and flowers, sparkling ripples, and “bubbles” of optical flare that could be located on the water, above or below it, or in the viewer’s mind-eye complex. While Marseille suggests the passage of time, Shifflet hints at some eternal landscape attainable only through poetic reflection.Vogel, a sculptor, returned to painting for this show with an experimental spirit, pouring and spraying paint onto tissue paper laid on the floor, adding salt and wax, and layering the “textural monochromatic fields” that resulted with additional stitching, peeling, and gluing. Her tall, tent-like installation, perhaps a benign version of Richard Serra’s threatening “House of Cards,” refers to the natural world of yellow soil, blue sky, and green life. Odyssey runs through May 22 at John F. Kennedy University Arts and Consciousness Gallery (2956 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley). 510-649-0499 or JFKU.edu