An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy (White #2 PT, Black Sand SF #2E, Multicolor, Black Ground) (2020), a major new painting by Jennifer Guidi several years in the making, is one of the most complex and vibrant of her celebrated sand mandalas. It incorporates 24 colors—many more than she has used in any previous painting of this kind—against a black background, and its emanations of energy appear to be in constant motion, capturing both the subtlety and explosive intensity of natural phenomena like water, light, and flora. The painting’s palette and shimmering action are in part a response to the immersive luminosity of the installation of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. These elements also reveal connections between Guidi’s project and a variety of other modern and contemporary art historical sources.
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An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy (White #2 PT, Black Sand SF #2E, Multicolor, Black Ground), 2020
sand, acrylic, and oil on linen
76 x 58 inches
(193 x 147.3 cm)
The sand mandalas constitute Guidi’s most recognizable body of work. Sculpturally engaging and optically compelling in equal measure, they take their place, in art historical terms, among a group of hybridized works that are readily identified as paintings but that also function as objects with unique spatial and textural properties. Guidi has been producing the mandalas since 2015, when they evolved organically from a previous series known as the Field Paintings.
These earlier works featured compositions made up of a multitude small marks, loosely organized into rows, on largely monochromatic grounds. The backgrounds were materially constituted in two different ways. In some cases, Guidi proceeded according to standard oil-painting practice, inscribing the marks on a flat painted ground. But in others, she generated dimensional relief by mixing sand into the painting medium and building up a thick, variegated surface into which the marks were pressed with a small tool. The original inspiration for this move struck during a visit to the beaches of Kauai, Hawaii. The primal, innately tactile action of making a mark in sand complemented the abstraction that had already entered her vocabulary, grounding it in terms of material and place.
Viewing both types of Guidi’s Field Paintings involves the pleasurable challenge of discerning each individual mark from the totality, and prompts questions about unity and separation, foreground and background (as psychological or emotional qualities in addition to visual ones), and the relationship between hand and eye. Guidi attributes the inception of the Field Paintings to her fascination with and study of Moroccan rugs, which she describes in a 2014 interview with Bettina Korek on the occasion of a solo exhibition at LAXART, Los Angeles:
“I started out by making a small group of works on paper, from photographs I took of the backs of the rugs. At first, I was trying to imitate a stitch, but what I really connected with was the repetitive motion of making that mark. It wasn’t about the stitch anymore, or a rug, but about this new mark-making—a new way for me to make an abstract painting.”
This turn toward abstraction was not a foregone conclusion given the trajectory of Guidi’s work until that point, and it is instructive to trace the oscillation between representation and abstraction over the course of her career, especially as it pertains to the impressionist-inflected array of An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy.
Even in overtly representational paintings executed during the first phases of her career, Guidi focused her attention on small areas of color, each of which functions as a semi-independent, abstract constellation of shapes and brushwork. Untitled (Self Portrait) (1993) for instance, strikes an unlikely balance between earthiness and light. Modulations of brown, orange, and olive strain against the recognizable features of the artist’s face, hair, and clothing, enacting the dance between form and formlessness that animates all objects of sight when they are observed for extended periods of time.
Scientific and spiritual in equal degree, this way of seeing has roots in several major movements of 19th- and 20th-century painting. Each offers a mode by which artists explore the visual field in a phenomenological manner, addressing either the mechanics of visual perception or the symbolic associations that color and geometry key in the deepest recesses of the mind. As such, each school has its own view of what constitutes observable reality.
To cite one example, Untitled (Self Portrait) can be compared with a painting like Gustav Klimt’s 1912–1913 portrait of Mäda Primavesi, in which a sensitively worked purple background, punctuated with flowers that seem to hover in air, doubles as a kind of all-over abstraction. Parallels with An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy can also be discerned: impastoed passages throughout the picture plane lend Klimt's composition an immediacy that places it squarely in the same space as the viewer and balances out the ethereal, otherworldly emotionality of his subject’s gaze.
While Klimt’s symbolism and supranatural approach to color serve as one early-20th-century reference point, the impressionism of Monet—piercing observational acuity coupled with a highly sensitive feel for the presence of light in all things and all substances—is a foundational touchstone for Guidi’s newest painting. Until now, she limited her palette when producing the mandalas, utilizing reduced color schemes whose graphic clarity accentuates the textures of the sand and the sculptural aspects of her mark-making.
Experimenting with these qualities in the extreme, she produced a number of sand mandalas that are monochromes, and several in which juxtapositions of two hues, close in value, result in a quasi-monochromatic image that tests the eye’s ability to differentiate them. Monochromes were installed to prismatic effect in a 2017 solo exhibition at Villa Croce in Genoa, Italy, where they were interspersed with other mandalas characterized by their inclusion of the colors of the rainbow.
In An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy, Guidi moves in another direction, revealing the range of possibility contained within this signal typology. Reflecting upon several trips to Paris and formative visits to the Musée de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s major suite of late Water Lilies, she slowly began to develop the idea for a sand mandala that would incorporate colors found in one of the museum's eight panoramic panels. Les Nymphéas: Soleil couchant (1915–1926) depicts the eponymous lilies aglow at sunset, with a pink and yellow swath of sky reflected in a pond of water. It is the most vibrant of the paintings in the group that consumed Monet until his death in 1926. Gifted to the state of France, and installed according to his specifications in oval-shaped rooms built to house them, these works are expansive in every sense of the word, even as they elicit states of rapturous, meditative interiority in their viewers.
Guidi’s first decision was to isolate 24 colors from the shifting expanses of Monet’s painting, demonstrating the current of systematic thinking that is an integral part of her practice.
The tension between order and intuition makes her paintings intelligible to several layers of consciousness at once. Guidi's works conjure mystical and romantic notions of landscape while connecting to minimalist strains in postwar art. Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum paintings, for example, similarly represent an attempt to examine the structure of color relationships by making the objecthood of pigment a palpable experience for body and eye alike. Even as they make direct appeals to the senses, these works revel in theoretical speculation about the mystery of color and its role in the natural order.
The hypnotic effect of An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy, like that of all of Guidi’s sand mandalas, is the result of methodical planning and durational commitment to labor-intensive processes. After building up a ground by combining acrylic and oil mediums with sand and slowly making the swirling indentations, Guidi patiently applies paint to each impression. Even if she is filling these concavities with a single color throughout the entire work, this stage proceeds very slowly, as she relies on small brushes to completely cover the small, curved surfaces with paint. But An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy required additional steps: deciding where to apply the colors, figuring out how to avoid over-planning, and evoking the desired combination of liveliness and serenity.
As perhaps befits a work that grapples with the legacy of the Water Lilies, this ended up taking her several years. Guidi addressed one section at a time, distributing colors according to feel and balance, and then putting the painting away until she was ready to move onto another section. Only during recent months, when the world has felt like it is on hold, has she been able to find the space necessary to grasp the composition in its entirety and finish the painting. With all colors in place, the arcs of white oil paint that crown each indentation reveal their full effect; like a swarm of solarized shadows, they lend the picture both contrast and luminosity.
If the painting’s painstaking details are a nod to the impressionist tendency to break a scene down into its constituent units of color, each of which is handled as a miniature episode in and of itself, the overall aura of An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy is capacious, embracing, and open. In this respect Guidi channels not only the ambience of the Water Lilies as pictures, but the sweep of their presence in physical space, including the grandeur—and intimacy—of the rooms where they live, which feature bending walls and vaulted ceilings. Similarly, her painting is not merely an object one sees, but a terrain into which one moves; once in its thrall, depth becomes a function of color as well as volume. Each hue seems to signal a different kind of place, or a different time of day.
“Color in nature is what drives things for me.”
This encompassing vision can be found throughout Guidi’s work, both in individual pictures and in her approach to exhibition design. 11:11, an installation of 22 works on paper on view last year at the Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC) in Paris’s Grand Palais, also shares an important feature with the Monet rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Guidi designed a circular structure composed of 22 wall panels covered in black sand; each panel supported a single work, so that entering the space-within-a-space created a similarly panoramic effect. The drawings themselves are relatively small in scale, but they contain images of spiritual geometries, mythological symbols, and astronomical events that pose big questions about the universe and humanity’s place in it.
For Guidi, microcosm and macrocosm are connected like the surfaces of a Möbius strip. In a total environment like 11:11, the focused world of each drawing finds its larger expression in the architectural environment in which it is housed. But even in a single painting, especially one like An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy, the play of scale and metaphor is almost limitless. What is the smallest unit of information in this blossom-like apparition? Is it one of the impressed marks? One of the 24 colors borrowed from Monet? The black that embraces them all? Or is it one of the countless grains of sand, too small to discern at some distances, but responsible nonetheless for the way light plays across the surface? The answer depends on the viewer’s perspective; at any given moment, the work is simultaneously one and many, an homage to a painting from the past and the emergence of something new, too paradoxically primal to be attributed to any one maker. An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy captures the self-evident complexity of life as it appears and disappears before our eyes, embodying the changing confluences of light, color, and time that baffle and delight us as we continually awaken to the world’s unfolding.
Jennifer Guidi (b. 1972, Redondo Beach, California; lives and works in Los Angeles) has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Museo Villa Croce, Genoa, Italy (2017) and LAXART, Los Angeles (2014). Recent group exhibitions include The Bunker, West Palm Beach, Florida (2019); One Day at a Time: Manny Farber and Termite Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2018); No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C. (2016) and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2015); and The Afghan Carpet Project, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2015). Her work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; among many others.
Photography and video of An Endless Reflection of Your Beautiful Energy by Lee Thompson
In-process and studio photography © Jennifer Guidi, 2020
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