Saying Light, Saying Dark: the Art of Lisa Espenmiller

an essay by Dr. Mark Levy
Professor Emeritus of Art History, California State University, East Bay

Undoubtedly, the word fuck has been overused in everyday discourse yet it remains one of the few English curse words to retain its resonance if used judiciously. In the literary world, writers have dramatically punctuated their work with this word, but this is not the case among visual artists who include words in their art. Lisa Espenmiller’s most recent series, entitled knowing light staying dark is a brilliant exception.

In this series Espenmiller writes various permutations of fuck in black, white, and shades of gray ink using different cursive styles across wood panels of variable sizes. While there are similarities between this series and the preceding chant series in which Espenmiller writes lines from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (6th Century B.C.) both horizontally and vertically across paper, knowing light staying dark takes a darker turn. Yet the fuck series is not a radical reversal of the profound philosophy of the Tao Te Ching present in chant but a continuation. Indeed, the title of the fuck series, knowing light staying dark is taken from chapter 28 of Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of this Chinese Taoist text.

Lao Tzu, who is usually credited with the authorship of the Tao Te Ching, understood that dark and light are not simply opposites but complementaries. There can be no light without darkness and no darkness without light. Each only has meaning in relationship.  We would not know what light is without the comparison to darkness. Nor is it possible to separate light from darkness in everyday life. Espenmiller is well aware that the New Age philosophical focus on sweetness and light proves to be perilous when it ignores the dark side of the human psyche, which likely manifests in unpleasant ways among the champions of a light-only existence.

It could be said that prior to the knowing light staying dark series, Espenmiller took the approach of Knowing Dark, Staying Light in the ensō, subtle bodies, the groundless ground, The Way, and chant series, each of which she still continues. To understand the importance of this reversal in Espenmiller’s oeuvre, I think it important to briefly discuss the other series and then I will return to a discussion of knowing light staying dark.

For a decade Espenmiller has been a meditator in the Soto Zen tradition, a serious student of Taoist and Buddhist texts, as well as Chinese calligraphy and Chinese and Japanese painting.  All of these interests have influenced her work.

Espenmiller’s traditional ensō series, for example, follows the standard Chinese and Japanese model of ink circles enclosing empty space. Practitioners of Zen meditation favor the ensō as a record of their psychic and spiritual journeys. These circles indicate both the Zen meditator’s equilibrium or disequilibrium in the moment of creation as well as the ability to understand and embrace emptiness. This is the ultimate ground of being in both Taoism and Buddhism, which is symbolized in both the ensō and Chinese and Japanese landscape painting as empty space. For those unfamiliar with the genre these aspects of content in Espenmiller’s ensō series may be difficult to discern, but at least the viewer can appreciate the painterly effects of her “flying white” brush stroke. This standard technique of ensō-making entails using a brush unevenly laden with ink so that white spaces appear between the marks of the bristles and the tonal black ink itself evokes the illusion of color.

It is traditional in China and Japan to create non-traditional ensō so it is not surprising that this genre emerged in Espenmiller’s work when she experimented with making a drawing a day for 100 days. Espenmiller’s non-traditional ensō ink circles often double as the shape of an apple, fig or grapefruit and she adds a short quick brushstroke to indicate a stem.  

In meditation practice with the eyes open, it often happens that objects lose their solidity and gradually dissolve in successive stages of translucency and transparency.  “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” we read or hear in Heart Sutra (4th C. E.), probably the most seminal of the Buddhist texts.  The Chinese Zen painter Mu Ch'i (13th Century) presents a simulacrum of this process in his famous, Six Persimmons. Not only do the persimmons gradually disappear into the white space of the paper but they also appear to hover in the void. Indeed, the notion of groundlessness, based on the primordial emptiness and evanescence of the material world, is another important concept in Buddhism.

Ideas similar to those in the Six Persimmons are present in Espenmiller’s non-traditional ensō and more fully in the series subtle bodies.  In subtle bodies, for example, fruit objects or stones drawn in a complex overlapping composition slowly become translucent and then transparent before evaporating into the empty white space of the paper.  The objects also hover groundlessly in this space. It is important to mention that in Mu Ch'i‘s Six Persimmons and Espenmiller’s non-traditional ensō and subtle bodies, the Western idea of a still life object, of nature morte, (dead nature) as the French call it, is not operative. For Mu Ch'i and Espenmiller, it is not exact appearances that are important but the embodiment of the subtle energy body or chi of the object.  This is actually a Taoist concept that influenced Zen Buddhists such as Mu Ch'i in China.

In the Taoist inspired Mustard Seed Manual of Chinese Painting (17th Century), chi is translated by Arthur Waley, the great twentieth century translator of Chinese prose and poetry, as “animation through spirit consonance.” After clearing his or her mind and emotions, the artist merges with the essential chi of the object to be painted. If the technique is adequate, the painter can then give life to the object. Yet the viewer must also slow down sufficiently to recognize the chi in a Chinese painting. This requirement is important in an appreciation of Espenmiller’s works.

In meditation the ground may appear to the Taoist or Buddhist adept as an objectless pulsating energy field or even quivering lines of energy. These are more profound levels of chi. The noted scholar of Chinese Taoist philosophy and poetry David Hinton calls this ground the “existence tissue.” Espenmiller’s the groundless ground series and The Way series both embody this existence tissue. In the groundless ground Espenmiller’s quick and spontaneous application of colored inks to heavy, wet Fabriano paper produces horizontal lines punctuated by mini-bursts of color as the ink is unevenly absorbed into the paper. The quality of the absorption is partly the result of weather conditions and Espenmiller intended to relinquish some of her usual control here. Indeed, this series was an antidote to the more laborious and premeditated The Way series in which lines are drawn or applied deliberately in evanescent ink washes or pen markings. Yet the result in The Way series is still a horizontal pattern of kinetic lines.

For me, The Way and the groundless ground series also bring to mind string theory in contemporary physics in which the material world is reduced to a pattern of quivering lines, mathematically at least. Of course the viewer may want to bring his or her meanings to these series; they are that sufficiently open-ended to engender multiple interpretations. Or the viewer may just enjoy the considerable visual effects. Each overall color scheme in the groundless ground and The Way series affords its own sensual delights, moods and associations. Even the simple pencil lines of the most minimalist pieces of The Way in combination with the horizontal ‘negative’ spaces of the white page or canvas produce an exquisite visual oscillation replete with chi.

Chi is also an important element of Chinese calligraphy, which was not originally an abstract system of signifiers but a pictograph of a thing or rather the essential chi of a thing.  Before a master calligrapher would draw the character for mountain, for example, he or she had to merge with the chi of the mountain. The handwritten words in both the chant and the knowing light staying dark series are also infused with chi, albeit in a somewhat different way than Chinese calligraphy. Espenmiller wanted to see how the non-pictographic language of English could embody chi. The English words primarily move horizontally and vertically across the panel or paper.  Espenmiller says they are “woven” into the drawing, which makes sense because Espenmiller wishes to incorporate both the content and the actual energy of words from the Tao Te Ching in her life. It is a time-honored practice in Buddhism and Taoism to use mantra and sutra, the repetition of sound syllables, as a way of using the energy of the word for self-empowerment and healing. The meaning of the word is less important than its actual vibratory quality.

In the chant series, the horizontal and vertical directions of the lines also create an infrastructure of square grids that recall mandalas in Buddhist arts. Recently, Espenmiller was astonished to discover an alternate definition for sutra in Buddhist philosophy. According to Zen master Katagiri Roshi, “…there is another meaning for sutra: interwoven vertical and horizontal strands or strings. This is human life - the universe is a huge network of interwoven time and space,” (Each Moment is the Universe, p. 225). It is remarkable that the horizontal and vertical orientation of lines woven into the foundation of Espenmiller’s work embodies this alternate meaning. As in Buddhist mandala and sutra, the chant pieces are another therapeutic device for the maker and the viewer to orient and balance oneself in time and space in difficult times.

Although knowing light staying dark obviously manifests a different point of departure than chant this series is still informed, like all the others for that matter, by Espenmiller’s desire for self-healing and the healing of others. The repetition of the word fuck in such works as “what the fuck,” “unfuckingbelievable,” “fucking ridiculous,” “are you fucking kidding me,“ and so forth, are linked with powerful emotions that need to be released in the right context so they do not harm the speaker or the listener. They also are valid expressions of shock, anger, and astonishment that are fully commensurate with life in the United States in the first part of the 21st century.

Not only does Espenmiller embrace the zeitgeist, as dark as it may be, but also Espenmiller helps herself and us to distance from it. Writing a variation of fuck 100 or more times makes it difficult at some point to hold the energy of the word and still take it seriously. Unlike in the chant series, the energy of the words in the fuck series is not to be assimilated in one’s system but extracted from it.

When Espenmiller began the knowing light staying dark series, she still retained the nexus of horizontal and vertical lines of chant that established internal grids, but then moved away from this format by using fewer words in a bolder and looser cursive style. In “fuck” and “unfuckingbelievable” the letters are much larger to the point that there are lines of just one word written across the panel in “unfuckingbelievable” in both dark and light ink. Bold and loose, these words carry much emotional heat. 

"unfuckingbelievable" especially is an authentic and unfettered expression of what we all feel at times. In this body of work Espenmiller is facing her demons head on, recognizing, and making a space for them so that they are neutralized. In fact, the process of paying attention to inner demons so that they don't cause a hemorrhage of energy is the key element in Tibetan Chöd, a practice that Espenmiller has employed effectively as part of her own spiritual work. 

Notwithstanding the important ritual components of knowing light staying dark, the push-pull effects of dark and light ink and the near abstraction of the letters brings to mind some of Cy Twombly's abstract crayon works of the early Seventies or even the drippy approximations of Chinese calligraphy in Brice Marden's work.

Although Espenmiller argues that knowing light staying dark came about when she "could no longer make beautiful lines," the drawings that comprise the series are still works of art. Of course they are now ones that transform elements of darkness up front, as it were. To use a phrase from Frederick Nietzche's Birth of Tragedy (1872), which I think characterizes all of the series mentioned in this essay, "It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence is bearable."