Essay: Contemplations on the Ephemeral

Rainbow Mandala Oil on canvas, 36x36 inches

by Chandra Cerrito, Chandra Cerrito Art Advisors

Give us...the inner listening that is a way in itself and the oldest thirst there is.

– Rumi

Looking at a painting by Jenn Shifflet is like being submerged in water or floating in outer space. One is immersed and buoyant. There is a sense of expansiveness devoid of solid objects and a horizon line, but full of luminous atmosphere. In some cases, the space contains liquid, gaseous or otherwise light – emitting droplets. In others, spheres coalesce and disperse within a dark vastness. One is reminded of galactic dust, microscopic cells, and sunlight seen from under or light dappled through tree leaves or the lashes of squinting eyes.

Shifflet’s paintings are spaces rather than images. They evoke natural phenomena but are not representations of nature. Through references to light, water, and atmosphere, they invoke an internal and dreamy space. Shifflet says she is interested in that which “underlies or makes up all form, which I see to be the fluidity of space, breath, and presence, rather than that which we see on the surface”. This recalls the unifying nature of things described in Buddhism and quantum physics, which theorizes that all is interconnected, comprised of the same essential elements.

In Shifflet’s work, many layers of oil paint and glazes create a lush surface and visual depth that cannot be fully apprehended in reproductions. These paintings gain dimension and animated presence in person. Their palette is generally organic – rust, sienna , blue-green, jade, and oxblood. Rich hues are built up with layers of many different colors, starting with their complements. The apparent simplicity of a reduced color range is actually the result of a complex color-development process.

Contemporary New York artist Ross Bleckner’s paintings of orbs in cosmic-looking compositions, blood cells, and partially blurred birds share with Shifflet’s work a sense of swirling gravity-less-ness, murky atmosphere, and illuminated elements. One of Shifflet’s historical influences is Color Field painting, in which expansive spaces are depicted through broad areas of color. Mark Rothko’s stacked rectangles with hazy edges hint at landscapes with horizon lines. Over time, they appear to dematerialize and the borders appear to pulse. Like Rothko’s, Shifflet’s paintings subtly reference the natural world and present ethereal atmospheres that seem to be in a constant state of flux.

The fact that her paintings are only fully experienced when seen in person relates to her interest in Light and Space artists such as Robert Irwin and James Turell. These artists explore the nature of perception and phenomenology. Like Shifflet’s paintings, their sculptures and installations are experiential. They are not interested in creating images whose meaning is comprehended with the mind, but in works that affect viewers directly through their senses, and ultimately enable them to be aware of their own act of seeing.

In addition, Shifflet is inspired by 19thCentury Romantic paintings in which sublime, atmospheric landscapes reflect the artist’s psyche. Considering this, one can see the relation of her evocative spaces to J.M.W.Turner’s light – emanating skies and tumultuous seascapes and John Constable’s moody cloudscapes. The awe-inspiring quality of nature, sometime beautiful and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful, is more the subject of their paintings than is nature itself. Poetry about the observation of nature and humanity also serves as inspiration to Shifflet. Among the writers she cites as influential are Mary Oliver, Matsuo Basho, Rainier Maria Rilkke, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Shifflet’s Buddhist practice underlies her worldview as well as her artwork. She recognizes life’s essential transience and understands the significance of fully appreciating that it is not static, but is at peace with the ever-changing nature of existence. Her paintings are contemplations on the ephemeral, the underlying oneness of things, and the inherent gratification of slowing down to consciously observe.