The Fall 2010 sumi ink workshop

Last week, VCS department chair Tom Huhn invited artist Max Gimblett in to teach a sumi ink workshop to his senior thesis class.

Tom Huhn and Max Gimblett during the sumi ink workshop.

This is the second year that Gimblett came in to instruct Tom’s students. Last December, I wrote one of the very first posts on this blog about the Fall 2009 workshop. In that entry, I described a little of the history of sumi painting, drawing attention to its roots in Asia and its importance as a bridge between ancient and contemporary art. Here are a couple partly rewritten and rearranged quotes:

Gimblett’s paintings, sculptures, and drawings are deeply influenced by a wide range of spiritual disciplines, including Eastern religion, Western esoteric traditions, world mythology, and Jungian psychology. During the workshop, Gimblett discussed the role of Zen Buddhism in shaping the aesthetics of traditional ink painting throughout East Asia. While working, Gimblett’s training as a practitioner of the Japanese form of Zen known as Rinzai became immediately apparent. At the moment the brush hit the paper, he would give the sudden shout that features prominently in so many tales of famous Rinzai monks.

The importance of spontaneity and direct expression was a major topic, and Gimblett encouraged students to try different means of working in the moment, without overanalyzing every single brushstroke. The power of this approach to painting is reflected in the serious influence it has had on the studio practice of numerous Western painters, including Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. During the hands-on part of the workshop, students got to try out some of Gimblett’s suggestions, such as drawing with eyes shut in order to harmonize body and mind and come as close as possible to a state of pure, spontaneous creativity.

(You can read the rest of the older post by clicking here. It contains a little more detail about some of the information presented above, and a few links.)

Being able to loosen up and put brush to paper without overthinking the process is crucial to the spirit of sumi painting. To get the students into the right frame of mind (or, to borrow a Zen phrase, no-mind), Gimblett had them apply ink to paper directly with their hands, in as fast and free a manner as possible. (An example of the results can be seen in one of the photos included here). The exercise seems to have worked, because a lot of the subsequent brush paintings have a beautiful looseness and flow to them.

The connection between Asian brush painting and modern art seems to have flowed in both directions. While reading Klaus Ottmann’s recent book Yves Klein by Himself, I came across a note stating that the avant-garde Japanese calligraphy group Bokujin-Kai (Ink Human Society) was partly influenced by American Abstract Expressionism. Though there’s not much in English online about Bokujin-Kai, the available information cites its search for a universal aesthetic language through gestural expression, an idea that seems consistent with the deeper principles of both traditional sumi painting and Abstract Expressionism. Klein, in turn, cited mid-century developments in Japanese calligraphy as the same sort of move toward the Absolute that he was pursuing in his own painting.

In addition to the images presented here, I will be posting a few more from the workshop on the Events page by the end of the week. Be sure to come back and check them out. [Update, 9/24/2010: the images are now posted.]

Visual & Critical Studies