Essay: Jenn Shifflet: A Meditative Approach

Spectral Arc 2018, Oil on panel, 48 inches round

by Jonathan Goodman

Jenn Shifflet, an artist living in the Bay Area of California, has been concerned with three bodies of work: paintings, glass reliefs, and photographs. In each group, there is a tension between inchoate form, seemingly incomplete but actually highly realized, and the aura the image projects. Shifflet, a practicing Buddhist, would read this tension as the bridge between possibility and realization in a spiritual sense--and although we may not always be entirely comfortable with an outlook so purely immaterial, we can take stock of this artist’s work and find it transparently communicative of a process valuing insight along with visual form.

Her art consistently mines the immaterial, but this ethereal quality is achieved through hard effort--for example, her glass relief pieces consist of myriad tiny glass beads, made from shards (called “frit” in the glass community) by the artist herself, the result of as many as ten firings for one work. The small glass spheres are laboriously placed with a tweezers, one by one, on the surface on which they rest. Part of this labor is purely technical; it is a necessary struggle to bring about a surface alive with hundreds of forms. But another part addresses the quality of light itself, so much a part of California contemporary art, as found in the Light and Space movement (think of Robert Irwin and James Turrell). The space opened up by Shifflet’s work is not a place where one can rest so much as one can experience a clearing, free of both internal and external violence, in which the specious attractions of self drop away in favor of non-boundaried mind. At the same time, the art is hardly in thrall to any particular religious discipline; it is primarily about light: the ultimate purveyor of and metaphor for transcendent mind--this is a romantic point of view that goes back to the 19th century, and has influenced Shifflet profoundly. The particularities of Buddhism do not actively enter into our experience of Shifflet’s work; instead, light subsumes religious practice into a world of radical existence, adumbrated by the visual constructions made by Shifflet herself.

The artist’s recent paintings are usually circular, sometimes offering concentric circles, sometimes establishing what might be a landscape at the bottom of the circular composition. The condition of most of the paintings is atmospheric, leaning in the direction of a mist or fog, whose formal implications are deliberately hidden. Looking at the images in sequence, Shifflet’s audience begins to understand the artist’s insistence on a realism stemming from the mind, most especially when it is quieted by meditation. But contemplative mind cannot be seen; instead, it is mediated by the forms we confront, as well as the light, actual and metaphorical, from which these forms are generated. This is not to deny the artist’s artistic achievement in any way; Shifflet’s sense of form is exquisite, and cannot be relegated to the margins. If these works seem to hover, motionless in mid-air, they are hardly passive. Instead, they actively voice the artist’s resolve in finding a mind-set that would embrace the world rather than reject it. Light, foremost in her attentions, starts to feel both like a means to an end and the end itself.

Shifflet’s paintings and glass relief works both embody a usually abstract visionary intelligence--but it must be remembered that the insight is framed by an unspoken attention to natural phenomena, supported by the ongoing experience of light. We must not put too much emphasis on spiritual matters in Shifflet’s art; doing so would distract from the visual intelligence, more cultural than religious in its presence, she offers her audience. At the same time, unlike many artists of her generation, she makes it clear that she is establishing a tie binding her (and our) perception to the works she makes so well. This writer is particularly taken with Shifflet’s glass art, whose tiny transparent embellishments catch and radiate light in ways most of us have not seen before. As I have indicated above, Shifflet’s primary concern is communicating the transcendence of light, which exists as an underpinning for most of her work--the glass works especially. Still, we cannot completely sidestep the artist’s spiritual affiliations. In America, there is a small but avid group of artists, writers, composers, and dancers who use Buddhism as a stepping stone for creativity, and Shifflet belongs to this community.

One glass piece, Absorbing Light (2018), consists of tiny glass spheres attached to a black background. The work’s dark color is unusual, but the aura of the piece stands out as a reminder that spiritual insights are hardly purely ephemeral, in art especially. They are, instead, embodied axioms of insight that are meant to be experienced without the support of words. Other examples of the same general process, often amber or gold in color, might be viewed as jewel-like versions of color field painting. Light is the theme of this body of work, as well as being the underlying ground joining the physical elements of Shifflet’s artworks together. While it is difficult to write about light, we can acknowledge its translucent importance in the artist’s work; radiance is an element sought today often in art, but hardly realized as well as Shifflet does in her oeuvre.

We have noted the atmospheric, undefined color of the paintings, mostly but not entirely painted on circular panels. The photos, an output equally interesting to the viewer in comparison with the paintings and glass reliefs, are more various--they are a mix of highly defined articles, such as beads, and forms that seem to float without boundaries. In the photos particularly, there is a genuine interplay between that which can be read with relative ease and that escapes easy consideration. Maybe the mixture of the directly perceivable and the distantly understood stands in imitation of Shifflet’s spiritual beliefs, which cultivate visionary tactics without worrying too much whether their process is understood. In this artist’s excellent work, the vision is made evident in remarkable exercises in form. Without an ongoing investigatory exploration of the way the world works, most of us would be lost to the thousands of things, emotional, intellectual, and physical, that cloud our vision. Shifflet makes sure this doesn’t happen in either her art or her thinking, so that we are thankful for her inspired means.