Catalog essay for an exhibition of paintings by Rebecca Purdum

Curated by Steven Alexander

Published by Contemporary Gallery, Marywood University, 1997


"It is not in the premise that reality

Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses

A dust, a force that traverses a shade."

Wallace Stevens

In his most famous essay, McLuhan wrote eloquently of the contrast between the Eastern conception of reality as a "total inclusive field of resonance", and the "uniform, continuous and sequential" pattern of Western rational thought. Inherent in this comparison is the notion that human consciousness is a mutable substance, in a perpetual state of metamorphosis, as our perceptions continually reconfigure our reality. Sensory input has a profound and often subliminal effect on this constant transfiguration. Through the bare components of language in its various forms we are able to differentiate the nuances of our reality, to impose an element of selection on sensation. The true content of language lies not in its narrative or sequential aspect, but in its total resonance, its ultimate effect upon the responses of the senses.

The poet and the painter, among other artists, explore the effects which result from interrelations of various resonances; an endeavor that requires total involvement in the entire sphere of language and sensibility. For somewhere beyond basic rational expression, far outside our illusion of certainty, may be discovered a realm of relations which, by virtue of their non-conformity, access an extraordinarily rich and vital area of sensation. The stuff of this realm, once recognized, enlarged and applied, may become what Valery calls "poetry in its artistic effect".

In the paintings of Rebecca Purdum we see reality poetically transfigured, dynamic life dramatically objectified. We sense a mobility of consciousness based upon, or filtered through the catalytic properties of color and color relations. Her paintings embody a fundamental link between process and perception, an enveloping atmosphere of unified substance.

Purdum, much like Pollock before her, has arrived at a unique and highly effective painting process that allows her to make a direct connection between physical impulse and painting surface, between internal sensibility and external sensuality. But, whereas Pollock's dance around the arena of the canvas eliminated direct contact with the surface, Purdum paints with her hands directly on the canvas. The painted surface, like the honeybee's instinctive comb, becomes a cumulative organic construct, corporeal and luscious; a product of body, mind and material fully engaged in essential fabrication. Recalling Rothko, though much less bound by motif, Purdum employs dusty luminous color, a delicate weaving and layering of color nuances and relations, to make the most intangible aspect of imagination part of the intrinsic drama of her visual domain.

The Western root of Purdum's painterly idiom may dwell in 16th century Venetian painting, and with Giorgione in particular. It was Giorgione's mysticism, his approach to painting as ritual observance that allowed him to make unprecedented works that embodied states of being rather than specific narratives, messages or symbols. In his work, as in Purdum's, we recognize a complete saturation in the sensuousness of life, a conception of reality as a "total inclusive field of resonance".

In the East, the Zen painter strives to achieve a most intimate relationship with life and spirit, and through that intimacy to affect a non-conformity and directness of expression in painting. By shunning conventional technique and finish, the Zen master, with a spirit that is above egotism, uses the simplest of means to embrace the whole of the world. Each work becomes not a suggestion or reflection of reality, but a reality in itself.

A Rebecca Purdum painting is at once a separate reality, and an isolated moment in an ongoing ritual of transfiguration. Operating in the realm of incantation, like a Gregorian chant, it opens a literal unspecified space in the clutter of the world for the viewer's consciousness to enter. Like a shaman's effigy, it is a poetic object, made in the language of its own process, inviting our participation in its teeming presence. Its lustrous resonances offer not a narrative, not a meaning; but something much more intimate, more vital, more inclusive.

Steven Alexander 1997