The Underworld of Psyche. Initiations
The Underworld of Psyche. Initiations Sabina Woźnica
Sabina Woźnica’s art is intertwined in the context of words. Sometimes, she draws inspiration from literary or philosophical texts. The next stage of her work consists of her comments, often on the very essence of creation. Series of paintings and individual works are accompanied by full texts, sometimes with quite elaborate titles. This is the case in the most recent series, titled The Underworld of the Psyche – Initiations, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When Sabina first told me about it, I felt a slight unease. But what I saw in Sabina’s workshop was a strong autonomous painting style, rooted in the tradition of expressive abstraction, material painting and Art Informel. The large format paintings radiated a considerable energy from broad painting gestures – spontaneous, and yet firmly indicating a distribution of compositional elements in a clearly defined pictorial space. The paint texture – light (sometimes „Richteresque”) impasto and fuzzy spots – is enriched by the coarseness of “foreign” materials: ash, charred wood or wood chips. The textures to not dominate over the colours, however; in contrast, they are paramount here, often based on the juxtaposition of subdued and sonorous colours.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar-do Thos-grol in the original) interests Sabina Woźnica above all – to use the phrase of her Polish translator Ireneusz Kania – as an initiatory script. One of the most important in world culture. It was introduced to the West mainly by Carl Jung, who placed the Book on his list of archetypal texts. In the Book, the initiation is associated with a descent into the underworld, but – in contrast to the literal understanding of this theme (catabasis, descensus ad inferos) in the classic texts of Western culture such as the Odyssey, Aeneid and The Divine Comedy – here the underworld is to be understood metaphorically. The Bar-do is in fact an intermediate zone between death and recurrent birth or achievement of the Enlightenment (Nirvana). The practical aim of the Book is the guidance of the deceased (by reciting the appropriate incantations) towards the achievement of Nirvana, which means liberation from the cycle of anguish of becoming and changing forms of existence (samsara). This is achieved by identifying all kinds of spirits – bright and muted – emerging after death as well as the forms of peaceful and wrathful tantric deities as products of our own selves. As Ireneusz Kania writes, all of these spirits are “projections of her concerns, fears, inclinations, passions, aspirations, complexes, desires and neuroses – in short, everything that constitutes the contents of different layers, including the deepest, our subconscious. So we are dealing with the sui generis guide to our mind, which is itself a matrix evoking a deceptive being taunting with fears and passions, and therefore drives one to be free of them.” This is what makes the meaning of the Tibetan Book of the Dead go far beyond the function of a guide for the dead followers of Buddhism, and that its message converges in such an intriguing way with important currents of Western philosophy and psychology.
Sabina Woźnica also aims for this universal semantic layer. As she writes, the initiating descent into the underworld is understood by her as “the experience of limiting situations in our life,” causing us “to begin to penetrate our subconscious”. For her, the artistic exploration of the Bar-do is also fascinating because of the incredible visionariness of this text, stretching between the “figuration” (spirits of deities) and “abstraction” of the evocative descriptions of bright and subdued spirits of beauty supersaturated in symbolism. A comparison to an image of the bright yellow glow of Balancing Wisdom and the opposing dull dark blue light from the human sphere (a proper choice leading to Liberation is always a brightness that’s hard to bear) from the third day of trials of the Bar-do may attest to the extraordinary potential translatability of these visions for the Western reader, with reference to Goethe’s Farbenlehre, contained in the concept of opposing primary colours – yellow representing light and blue as a colour exponent of darkness.
For Sabina, a key moment of the Book’s visionariness is the alignment of the vision “with a mental or metaphysical state”, corresponding to the very essence of its own creation. “In the process of creating a painting,” she writes, “I always enter into such a state. Visualisation occurs simultaneously with a state of feeling.” Was the artistic language of expressive abstraction not created for such purposes? Hans Hoffmann, a pioneer of this trend on American soil, he explained to his disciples that “creative expression is born in the process of transposition of the spirit to a clean, unrecognisable form”. It’s enough to recall, moreover, the identity of the spirit (and in fact the whole of the self) with a creative gesture in the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Sabina Woźnica accomplished the transition from figurative painting to abstraction in her previous series, entitled Man and Nature. The concrete landscape themes were progressively replaced by transparent, freely placed blots, and the subject became the space itself and the elements that filled it. In the series The Underworld of the Psyche, inner space has replaced outer space. The images took on weight; they became grounded, though they retained the clarity of construction. They also seem to be more strongly saturated with symbolic content. The inspiration of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is more or less direct. Sometimes the titles of paintings refer to their content directly (The Closing of the Gate of Samsara), and sometimes the content will be filtered through the conceptual apparatus of analytical psychology (Entering into the Womb of the Wild Self). There are also references to great works of literature (The Glass Bead Game), but primarily to the private symbolism of the artist. Her sources are large (archetypal) dreams, in which nightmarish (death, killing) or positive (a bright light in a tunnel) Bar-do-related themes appear.
Combined with “non-painting” paint, the materials are often a direct measure – metonymic, through a substantial relationship, to use Roman Jacobson’s well-known distinction – of imaging, such as in The Transition from One State to Another, where pieces of wood and wood chips relate directly to the topic of felled trees, on which a layered symbolism of initiation, transformation, as well as unity divided into an infinite multiplicity is built up. However, for example, in Passage into the Abyss of the Earth, the use of ash as a background for the saturated red and orange blots, represents, as we read in the artist’s comments, “the dull colours of the earth and smoke”. We have, therefore, a metaphorical axis of formal similarity, referring to the colour field in the hellish visions of the Bar-do.
Where representative elements occur, we’re dealing with more concrete similarities. In the case of Sabina Woźnica, the transition to abstraction was not in fact a trip in one direction. In her painting, the border between these areas is not sharp, and the transition from one to another is seamless. One could say that this is one of the inherent features of contemporary painting. But this case also brings up a fragment of Jung’s commentary to the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “The foundation of this extraordinary text is not a strict ‘this or that’, but a generous, affirmative ‘this and that’”. It is significant that this passage can also refer to the artistic means of expression used by Sabina Woźnica.