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Rieko Karrer: Zen in the Abstract

Spring Storm, Paintings 43.5 x 10

Born in 1952, Rieko Karrer grew up in a very traditional Japanese household.  She fondly remembers the fragrance of incense in a Buddhist temple and taking lessons in calligraphy that, although she may not have predicted it at the time, would later prepare her for the fluid brushwork that distinguishes her art.
    She learned something of the ephemeral nature of life when her father died while she was still quite young. This experience of loss at an early age awakened her profound interest in philosophy and Zen Buddhism in particular.
    In his seminal text, “Zen in the Art of Painting,” Helmut Brinker, a professor of East Asian Art at Zurich University and an internationally renowned authority on the art of Zen, asserts: “Characteristic of Zen –– and, in a sense, characteristic indeed of the oriental mind in general –– is the attempt to understand and experience the things of this world, whether animate or inanimate from within: to let oneself be seized and taken by them instead of trying to comprehend them, as we in the West do, from a point of view external to them. Thus, to a degree unparalleled in any other form of art, Zen art requires of the beholder tranquil and patient absorption, a pure and composed hearkening to that inaudible utterance which yet subsumes in itself all things, and which points to the absolute Nothingness lying beyond all form and colour.”
    Indeed the subtlety of Rieko Karrer’s mixed media compositions in Sumi ink and Japanese tempera on hemp paper requires deep absorption from the viewer but rewards him or her with what the artist refers to as the feeling “of part of the Cosmic Process of blessing.”
    In one such work, “Spring Storm,” long horizontal hand-scroll, semi-abstract floral forms, delineated by her graceful brushstrokes in gray tones of diluted Sumi ink, and accented here and there by delicate touches of pale green, pink, and yellow tempera, sweep as though blown by warm winds across the full length of otherwise untouched hemp paper.
    In the great tradition of Zen, Rieko Karrer also approaches the concept of Nothingness of which professor Brinker spoke with the composition she calls “Morning Mist.” Here, the faintest touches of white tempera pigments, combined with bits of darker ink and the merest touches and stains of yellow tempera evoke one of the most subtle aspects of nature. In attempting to paint what is nearly invisible, she achieves the “natural luminosity,” for which she states that she strives in all of her compositions.
    She succeeds in this goal just as evocatively in the “Tender Cloud 1” and “Tender Cloud 2,” both in the long horizontal scroll format that she favors. In the former cumulous shapes are gathered on the left side of the composition and defined by underlying shadows, with wisps flying free and tinted slightly pink, as though backlit by sunlight; while in the latter the white cloud fragments appear more dispersed, like puffs of cotton blown along the full length of the composition and beyond by a frisky breeze.
    In these and other works in this inspiring exhibition, Rieko Karrer is forever attempting to apprehend the most elusive phenomena in nature, things that are nearly unpaintable. To attempt a zen koan (paradox to provoke meditation) of one’s own, it is when she fails that she succeeds most splendidly.
–– Maureen Flynn

Rieko Karrer, Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, May 16 - June 5, 2014.
Reception: Thursday, May 22, 6 - 8pm.

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