Lawrence Fodor knows a strange but useful secret. It’s not a very well-hidden secret; it’s more of a wisdom that anyone can grasp from a sudden intuition or a moment of derailed thought that opens a new door. Almost like a koan.
In fact, Fodor’s secret is that there is no difference between a koan—the quirky, traditional dialogue structure of Zen practice—and a painting. The best contemporary paintings elude the rational analysis that critics and curators and the like insist on leveling. Instead, these paintings persist through intuition, through disruptions of the expected, through playfulness, through the artist’s legerdemain, just as koans have been doing for well over 1,000 years.
Fodor’s current exhibition, not so clandestinely called Koan Boxes, is on view in the small, sparse gallery of the Lannan Foundation. With its lovely proportions, dark earthen floor, perfectly plastered walls and subtle lighting, the gallery is a room in which a used diaper would look good. Therefore, it’s worth approaching anything in there with a certain amount of suspicion and attention. Because the Ko-an Boxes are so much smaller than Fodor’s more familiar, large-scale paintings; because the title and the fact of the exhibition illuminate Santa Fe’s often hypocritical “showy Buddhist” tendencies; and because globby, not necessarily thoughtful, painting is all the rage, one might well expect to be underwhelmed by the exhibition in advance of actually seeing the work.
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. So goes one of the more famous and catchy koans, attributed to Línjì Yìxuán. The idea, which we are likely in full violation of by discussing it here, is to destroy preconceptions, to be present and experiential without getting all confused by, well, thought.
Fodor’s own signature paintings are quite serious and deliberate. These smaller works are, in fact, dialogues with his larger pieces, accidental accompaniments that begin as a by-product of his studio practice. The details would only encourage preconception, and the contrapuntal nature of the work is enough to merit a few moments of meditation.
There is enough paint on the surface of each painting to build up an edge that overhangs the structure of the “box” on which it sits. The effect is of a plane being propelled out in space, hanging tentatively in the air. The manifold surfaces have been scraped, dragged, blobbed, smudged, dripped and worked. The result is more one of depth than of texture, serving to inspire the illusion that plane is also portal. The deep frames of each box are finished in gold or silver leaf and the reflection generates a radiating halo effect around each work and only magnifies the total effect of the mysterious mirage.
Through daring or dumb luck, a series of alarming color choices conspire to encourage Koan Boxes to spasm with geography. There, a desert. There, an emerald sea listing atop a coral underworld. There, the darkest moment in the forest. There, a rocky outcropping, the sound of one’s heartbeat against the wind. All these things, and none of them, are contained within Fodor’s delicate riddles.
Mostly though, in reminding us that a painting is simply a matter of ill-behaved poetry, of provocative and sudden philosophy, Fodor reinforces the validity of all responses. There is no right answer to a koan, just as there is no proper response to a painting. But just as predictability is ineffective in the manufacture of artwork, it is tiresome as a response.
A corollary to the ko-an is the catalog of responses to the question, “What is the Buddha?” One famous answer, attributed to Yúnmén Wényan: dried dung.
So what if Fodor is pulling the wool over our eyes? What if these “koan paintings” are just follies that look good in a particularly good-looking room? Well, that would be a pretty good koan, too.
But don’t think about it too much.
Through March 15
Lannan Foundation Gallery
309 Read St.
Noon-5 pm, Open on weekends only