It’s an uncanny coincidence that Al Quaeda’s 2001 attack on the World Trade Center should figure in two TULA exhibitions that opened within days of the death of its mastermind, Osama bin Laden.
Or is it? Notions of alternative realities and unseen patterns underlie both Xie Caomin’s “Samsara,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia through August 13, and Maurice Clifford’s “Beyond Words,” through May 25.
Tenets of Tantric Buddhism fuel “The Ruins of Mandala,” the series of gigantic paintings that command MOCA GA’s central gallery. As Xie explains it, life is a wheel — an endless cycle of creation, decay and destruction. He uses the mandala, a symmetrical design intended as a meditational tool, as a metaphor for that cycle.
“When we are confronting the stupendous creative and destructive powers of today’s technology, for me, mandala is the best visual metaphor of our world,” the Shanghai native says.
The process of painting the mandalas suggests the creative aspect. This body of work, made during the year of Xie’s Working Artists Project grant, marks a move from tight brushstrokes to softer, much more gestural ones. Their effect, he feels, is more revealing of the process of making the painting.
The fall of the Twin Towers represents the destructive phase. Embedded in these apparently abstract paintings are images taken from photos of Ground Zero, which he fractured, in the computer studies he made for each piece. The kaleidoscopic compositions, which retain a glimmer of those sources, are thus a fusion of creation and destruction.
There’s a similar tension between the painterly marks and the rigid structure. The paintings work individually, but, as with the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the experience of feeling engulfed by the group is more memorable than any single piece.
Even more compelling, to my mind, is Xie’s hallucinatory video ”Samsara.” Translucent images from the paintings and abstracted fragments of tsunamis and other disasters emerge and submerge at a languid pace, creating a mesmerizing mandala for the digital age.
In contrast to the calm remove in Xie’s work, Clifford’s paintings, limned in vivid and varied hues, are dynamos that generate a furious energy. A seeming havoc of lines and shapes — some as thick as toothpaste or peaked like whipped egg whites, others dimmed through layers of plexiglass — can barely contain themselves within the canvas.
Sometimes they don’t. Several of the paintings, hung in corners, feature mirrored shapes on the adjacent walls, which not only double the image in their reflection but also change one’s perception of the painting depending on where one stands. In his early 20s Clifford had a visionary experience, during which he painted a design that he learned only later was a mandala, and he has since studied Eastern religion. The doubled images at the corners suggest mandalas, a recurring motif, as are series of circles.
Paradoxically, while paintings are assertions of materiality, Clifford sees the act of making them as a means to get around, past or through the solid veil that we call the real world. He expresses this most clearly in works in which realistically painted images are disrupted by flurries of marks. A painting of a Mayan ruin, for instance, bursts into a flurry of abstract marks, like spontaneous generation. The lyrical representational landscape “Okefenokee” takes a similar turn when one side of the scene dissolves into flame-like lines, like a disturbance in the force field.
Again paradoxically, the paintings inspired by the destruction of the Twin Towers are the least affected. Clifford mans the gallery, so you can ask him about that. Fair warning: His paintings can be unsettling, which, unless you require your world securely nailed down, is the best kind of creative destruction.