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Non-dual CORE

Tonya D. Lee and Lily Kuonen present a unified field of engaging work in two-person exhibit

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Contemplating Nonduality is a cognitive bomb. In Western philosophy, the intellectual understanding of dualities (subject/object, cause/effect, etc.) can be seen as philosophically necessary. It’s an intellectual tension explored for release. Yet in the Eastern wisdom tradition of Advaita Vedanta—Advaita in Sanskrit, literally “not two”—Nonduality is its own kind of release, where the self/object is one and the same; the highest metaphysical reality. This theory of Oneness in visual art becomes even slippier.

Process artists explore outright this shared or distant relationship between artist and the actual art; the result isn’t necessarily the goal, but rather the experience of its creation. Conceptual art is arguably the same as the artist it’s born from; the idea sovereign over all aesthetic, process, materials—even expression. Abstract and non-representational art also arguably toe the Nonduality line. While much abstract art departs from reality in its depiction of all being, it can also be viewed as unique, unifying with absolute reality, albeit through an inventive, and highly subjective, perspective.

The final position of Nonduality in visual art is the actual experience of viewing any art. When a certain piece or visual experience “draws the viewer in” to the point of being mesmerized and humbled, isn’t that ephemeral moment based on Nonduality—art and audience now as one?

In their upcoming exhibit, Indirect Constructs, artists Tonya D. Lee and Lily Kuonen present new works that address this nondualism of visual art, yet with distinct visions. Lee works in 2D, creating multimedia abstract works. In her pieces, mists of languid color meet crackling energy. Grid-like motifs and tourniquets of paint both restraining and directing the composition on the plane, creating a “burst” effect of several images in one, quickly frozen. “I make nonobjective work deeply rooted in the historical painting aesthetics of Les Nabis and Post-Impressionism,” says Lee. “I’m concerned with form and color existing as object and subject, while exploring the aesthetic oppositions of rigidity and gesture.”

Kuonen creates 2D and 3D pieces, a hybrid of painting, sculptural and installation-fueled work she calls PLAYNTINGS. Repurposed items ranging from highway road cones, adhesive tape, cinder blocks and sawdust are elements in Kuonen’s savvy arrangement of what may seem incongruent materials into wholly engaging visual art. “PLAYNTINGS is a self-prescribed moniker that describes my studio practice and philosophy for making (PLAY + PAINTING). I combine painting with additional forms, materials, surfaces and actions to create hybrid works that are part painting, drawing and constructed elements,” offers Kuonen. “These works rely on an optical interplay of media that often moves easily in between abstraction and nonobjective qualities.”

The title of the show was the brainchild of Mark Creegan who, with fellow artist-educator Dustin Harewood, curates the campus gallery. Lee and Kuonen offer their definitions of the enigmatically named exhibit. “I believe we were selected because many aspects of our practice resonate,” says Kuonen. “For example, we both typically utilize layered fields within our drawings and paintings.” Lee says her invitation may be based on her “themes that run throughout” her work.

“My compositions are derived from a convoluted process which includes onsite nonobjective sketches, digital collaging and traditional painting,” Lee says. “So the path to creating a finished composition can be rather indirect.”

Whether the work has narrative may depend on whether it’s representational, nonrepresentational or a blurry hybrid. As Kuonen’s work is dictated by materials, one could argue the media is the story. “In recent shows, I’ve found myself in a process of making some big leaps visually in my work, and then finding ways to make more work that … ‘connects’ in between those bigger jumps,” says Kuonen, citing a recent show at South Carolina’s McMaster Gallery, featuring 40-plus pieces covering ceilings, walls and floors. “I really appreciated seeing the connections between works I make do exist, and can be identified when all grouped together. Especially when what I make can ‘look’ very different, depending on the material choice and form.”

Also void of any overt narrative or representational imagery, Lee’s work mines the gap between subject/object; at times filling that space. “There are references to the visual world. However, they’re presented out of context,” she says. “The references range from specific, like the shape of an awning from a Fairfield Porter painting, to general patterning of tile work. I like to think these references give the viewer a sense of kinship. I think that can give the sense the work is representing something specific in the visual world.”

Process, chronology and place also come into play with both artists.

“I’ve known for some time that the significance of ‘place’ has a big effect on how I develop visual relationships and forms,” says Kuonen, of her PLAYNTINGS, which are in an ever-evolving state. “Lately, though, especially after January 2017, I’ve come to consider place to not represent just physically or geographically where I am, but also signify the temporal time I’m in … what is happening right now in this place/time I live in, and how that affects what I make.”

Lee explains being compelled to work in abstraction has its own aesthetic revelations. “I spent many years making quick instinctual nonobjective paintings that dealt with intangible qualities of the sublime in nature. The physicality of that body of work became repetitive and predictable. In shifting my work so it straddles the fence between abstract and nonobjective, I’ve embraced slower processes that restrict impulse and embrace boredom. It’s the slowing down I find compelling—I wouldn’t necessarily say my work is abstract. It is probably closer to nonobjective.”

Both artists orbit, then intersect the proverbial Venn diagram of representational and non-representational, objective and nonobjective, process and result. At the very least, Indirect Constructs offers local art lovers a chance to see works by two astute, inventive artists—paired where their art is shown at the gallery where they may first meet—a blind date to join forces, representing two methods of art to celebrate a shared goal of expanding our view of what was once nonrepresentational.

In their respective examination of nonrepresentational/representational art, there’s a shared cohesion in Lee’s and Kuonen’s confidence in using recognizable materials to draw out new work. Pushing and luring materials in alien directions and nonnarrative ideas and acknowledging the pulses of place and time. Yet for each element—artist, media and process are intrinsically linked—all is mirrored to the deliberate, accidental, even reluctant, unity and Oneness of art.

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