In my work I explore themes related to the literary genre of Magical Realism, blending magical or imaginary elements with rational elements to create a realistic atmosphere that accesses a broader understanding of reality, as a vehicle to reveal the divine presence in life. Most of the wisdom traditions speak of multiple levels of awareness, or worlds beyond the physical world, such as the subtle and causal realms cited in Buddhist and Hindu texts. These worlds are the domain of night dreams, perceptions and our understanding of and connection to our personal sense of the ineffable or the sacred. While the physical world is experienced through the bodily senses, the rest of these levels of awareness are accessed through one’s attention to inner experience. My oil paintings explore this atmosphere of interior space, imagining these worlds as types of landscapes that one might move through with one’s conscious intent. The paintings are their own worlds. Forms found in ordinary life such as leaves inhabit a landscape unseen in the physical world yet connected to what we see, hear and touch in life. The layering of paint references the layers of the multiple worlds we inhabit.
The work is seeking to evoke the experience of the space one feels when the mind is in a resting state, as well as the sense of space that is described as the nature of reality according to principles of quantum physics. Electrons and quarks, two of the fundamental particles that make up matter, are characterized more as clouds than as substance. Form then, may be categorized more as information than stuff. Matter is, itself, mostly space. My research on the teachings of various wisdom traditions has been concurrent with studies of aspects of quantum physics, thus the exploration of multiple states of being and the relationship to the divine has been for me imbued with these principles of quantum physics.
In the midst of this exploration of the behavior and nature of particles is a curiosity about the tendency of electrons to blink in and out of existence. Here the paintings seek to reveal what one might find beyond thing-ness, beyond the constructs of the physical world. Where do the electrons go when they have blinked out of existence? It is a question that invites a transrational approach, and summons the atmosphere of Magical Realism to the here and now. It is a meeting place of the scientist and the mystic. Throughout the last 400 years of history rational thought has been pointed to as the ultimate tier of the mind’s capability. This romanticizing of the rational has meant the deconstruction of the enchantment of everyday life. Yet there are, as is now being discovered, levels of thinking and knowing that transcend rational thought. What happens when one accesses these new paradigms of thought that allow mystery and the inexplicable to exist in our day to day lives? What happens when one is invited to cultivate enchantment, the expanding of what is possible and even miraculous, in life? The paintings become an invitation to develop one’s awareness of what transpires behind what appears, and to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
TAMARA ENGLISH: A CONVERSATION WITH LIGHT
Essay by Richard Speer
Within the parameters of her highly recognizable style, Tamara English’s paintings continue an impressive formal and thematic evolution. Her aesthetic universe is an Edenic landscape/mindscape/soulscape pulsing with diffused light, lush vegetation, and motifs evoking scientific, religious, and art-historical symbology. Increasingly she depicts light and space not simply as visual experiences, but as metaphorical states of being. What she is painting, as she explained during a studio visit with the author, is “the light behind the light.”
One of the signature elements of English’s visual vocabulary is a vertical motif that resembles a calligraphic scroll or a fountain of water or energy. She is careful not to over-explain the nature of this motif; she knows that to define is to delimit. But it seems clear the motif stands in for some manner of being, process, or consciousness that can elicit transformation within the viewer. In the vein of modernists such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Gottlieb, English believes that painting may function as a vehicle toward the sublime. Her vertical motif suggests a ladder or stairway that leads from “down here” to “up there,” from the mundanities of daily life into the realm of peak experience or divine presence—and that these realms are not hierarchic, but integrated. It is a vision not simply of the transcendent, but of what the artist calls “the extraordinary ordinary,” a way of life in which seemingly ordinary activities and thoughts come alive with heightened possibilities.
English is engaged in an ongoing inquiry into the nature of beauty as a tool of communication: communication between people; people and artwork; people and the divine. The vertical motif is not always depicted in its entirety; sometimes we glimpse parts of it in the corners of a composition—reminding us that beauty itself, if allowed entrance, can infiltrate and infuse all corners of our lives. There is a sumptuous diversity to her paint application. In some pieces, vines and leaves are sheathed in thick, golden outlines, evoking stained glass, accentuating the reverence the forms command. The piece Truly I am Near is a marvel of textural richness, luxuriantly built up in passages, excavated down to the warp and woof of the canvas in others—pivoting, dream-like, between worlds of surface. The vegetation in Every Leaf That Grows Will Tell You reveals its strata of color as skin reveals its many pigments; there is a surprising, deeply human corporeality to the treatment of hue and form.
The motifs English deploys—vegetal, tile- and textile-based, subatomic, allegorical—are not treated as discrete, segregated elements; they flow into and out of one another with a kind of musical rapture. The shifting, pearlescent lustrousness of works such as Revealing point to the artist’s overarching concern: She is having a conversation with light and inviting viewers to partake of the nourishment that conversation affords.
The idea of art as a transformational power of art shares more with the lineages of mysticism and modernism than with the nihilism of the postmodern/ deconstructionist present. “What do we want to give attention to?” English poses. “We create our inner worlds. What do we want to create?” She, for her part, wants to create a psychic or spiritual space in which beauty and goodness form a bridge between the physical world and the world of dreams, aspirations, and that deep inner space beyond emotions, where we connect with the divine and are freed from all limitations. In her thoughtful and evocative semi-abstract tableaux, the cellular and the macrocosmic commingle in dancing energy fields, inner landscapes, and unfurling light in dialogue with the divine. It is evident that the beauty Tamara English has absorbed during the course of her life’s journey, she has distilled and magnified through the prism of her singular artistic vision.
—Richard Speer is visual arts critic at Willamette Week, the Pulitzer Prize-winning alternative weekly in Portland, Oregon. He is also a correspondent for ARTnews, Art, Ltd., and Visual Art Source. He is the author of the biography of Outsider artist Matt Lamb, “Matt Lamb: The Art of Success,” published in 2005 by John Wiley & Sons, with an expanded edition in 2013.