March 29, 1996
Voyages Of The Spirit
At the heart of the survey of Ron Pippin's work at Palos Verdes Art Center are his kayaks and his human-sized, winged shapes that resemble crossbows. These sleek devices for traversing water and sky, with their extended struts and taut metal cables, are deceptively simple objects: they could be enjoyed solely for their craftsmanship and rich materials. In the context of the other work included here, however, they reveal a deeper meaning that proves to be far more engrossing.
In the tightly packed space where the pieces are suspended from walls and ceiling, their scale is at first physically overwhelming. With insectlike grace, they appear to leap into space and hover there weightlessly. Only after lingering inspection of the detailed construction does a viewer realize that these are earthbound gliders-somewhat reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines but certainly incapable of self-propelled flight. The cables and pulleys are carefully counterbalanced, but aren't functional; the sails are too delicate to move the vehicles. It is the obsessive, devoted construction of these ultimately functionless objects that points the viewer toward their real purpose. Stripped of their mechanical function, the objects have the character of ancient Egyptian funerary barges, fashioned for another type of journey. Just as those biers embodied the deeply held spiritual beliefs of their makers and intended occupants, uniting the spiritual and material worlds, so too do Pippin's pieces seek to relate solid matter to the world of the spirit. His structures are representative of the physical world that we experience but, by their very improbability, speak of another reality in which purpose and intent supersede cause and effect.
Pippin's effort to integrate the physical and spiritual realms has resulted in a diverse array of work that is, for all its spiritual aspirations, somewhat uneven. Though helpful in explicating the artist's involvement with Tibetan theology and symbolism, his two-dimensional collage pieces rarely have the impact of the sculptures, though they incorporate various materials and styles. Some small images made from alphabetical file cards resemble illuminated manuscripts and are emblazoned with the repeated names of Tibetan angels; triptychs painted on wood bear radiant snakes and anatomical drawings of human organs. The imagery is a curious blend that reflects the artist's fascinations with human anatomy and with Eastern religious symbols. Unfortunately, the collages come off as being illustrative of the belief structures they refer to, rather than internalizations of them, which makes them seem preachy.
The same cannot be said of the charcoal and collage Re-entry series that Pippin has been working on since 1984. This series seems entirely personal and manages to integrate the physical presence and spiritual calm of his other pieces while developing its own visual symbolism. Here the collaged fragments of black and white anatomy studies that he takes from old medical books have been carefully cut and interwoven to create partial human figures whose appearance of unified form is a sham produced by an Illogical construction.
Re-entry #3, AboveBelow is an especially powerful image, featuring an eighteen-inch-tall human torso stripped of its skin, revealing incongruously attached viscera and ligaments. The headless torso, like a slab of flayed meat, hangs from two delicate cables screwed into its shoulders and is hip deep in a swirling black muck. In succeeding images in the series, the figure transcends the torture of the initial truncated imagery. Almost complete (and anatomically more correct), it emerges from the dark nether realms into a delicately colored plain.
This figure conveys concepts as ancient as man's denial and acceptance of death and life. Together with the free-floating hulls of the surrounding ethereal vehicles, the piece makes clear that when Pippin's work is at its best, it is not only expressive of his personal belief system, but also serves as a provocative example of contemporary religious imagery.