For Colorado Painter Peggy Zehring, Spiritual Art
is Supported By a Strong Formal Armature
Although their styles are in no way similar, it was not surprising to learn that Peggy Zehring had once been a postgraduate student of Elaine de Kooning. Both are strong-willed, independent artists. If Elaine could resist her hugely famous husband's influence and go her own way artistically, it makes sense that Peggy could resist Elaine's stylistic influence (even while absorbing some of her indomitable character) and do the same.
And she certainly has, evolving a distinctive abstract style over the years that suggests a kind of "Zen heraldry."
While the use of such detritus could suggest the kind of “funk assemblage" practiced by Bruce Connor and William T. Wiley, there is nothing random or arbitrary about Zehring's process. Rather, she employs found materials and objects within precise geometric formats to explore what she refers to as "universal, visual Truths from which to formulate a global unity of forms and symbols."

Zehring is best known in the Northwest and the Southwest, where she has exhibited most widely, lectured extensively, taught in numerous colleges and co-founded The La Veta School of the Arts.

In the work titled "Harnessing Chi," for example, she chooses a perfectly square format, something that conventional art teachers traditionally warn students never to do because perfectly symmetrical canvases or panels are thought to be monotonous. When Zehring employs them, however, they become infinite spaces that playoff splendidly against the circular shapes that are often the dominant motifs of her compositions.

Here, a semi-circular gestural shape, superimposed over rectangular fragments
of some ruggedly textured found material that the artist has tinted indigo, is centered within a more fully rounded and smoothly painted red orb that touches all four edges of the square support.

Peggy Zehring's Art Works
For while Zehring's use of universal symbols -- particularly the circle -- harks back to the Zen literati painters of ancient China and Japan, those artists worked in ink monochromes, and Zehring is a dynamic colorist. Her heightened hues radiate with a vibrant clarity and her compositions possess an emblematic quality akin to the California artist Deborah Remington.
However, while Remington's paint surfaces are meticulously flat and hard edged, Zehring's combine brilliant color fields with gestural elements built up to bas-relief thickness with vinyl spackle paint and acrylic mediums to which she adds wood, Ieather straps, buttons, aged, weathered tent canvas, and other found materials salvaged from her “favorite Colorado junkyard."
But she has also become a prominent presence in the New York art scene in recent years through her exhibitions at Montserrat Gallery of Contemporary Art, 547 West 27th Street, in Chelsea, where her new solo show is on view from September 23 through October 11. (Reception: Thursday, September 25, from 6 to 8pm.)

Employing ratios of irrational numbers such as the Golden Mean Proportion as an underlying architecture to her compositions, Zehring layers this formal armature with tactile and chromatic contrasts that could appear contradictory in the hands of a less accomplished painter. She achieves a harmonious balance between these opposing elements by virtue of her instinctive painterly panache.

his semi-circular form has the splashy, spontaneous appearance of the circles that Zen masters lay down on rice paper in a single swift stroke of a broad brush laden with black Sumi ink. However, Zehring's semicircle, built up in thick impasto with green pigment and acrylic modeling materials, actually has the weighty 3- D physicality of a sculptural form suspended within a composition as coloristically intense as an Indian miniature blown up to Abstract Expressionist scale. In keeping with its title, which refers to the universal life force on which all things are said to depend for health and life, the entire composition radiates a sense of pulsing vital energy that is held in check -- "harnessed" -- by Zehring's casual mastery of geometric form.
The title of a larger composition by Zehring, "Harnessing the Kundalini," refers to the psychospiritual energy consciousness which is said to reside sleeping within the: body, only to be awakened by either spiritual discipline or spontaneous mystical illumination, In Sanskrit, "kulndalini" means snake or “serpent power” because it is believed to lie coiled like a serpent in the root chakra at the base of the spine in the body like a serpent, and Zehring conveys with a sinuous serpentine shape. Delineated in thick electric blue impasto, it swells and swirls like a good-sized cobra against a roughly hourglass-shaped area of red that could seem to symbolize the female form, since in Tantra Yoga kundalini is also believed to be an aspect of Shakti, the divine feminine energy and consort of the Lord Shiva.

Although Kundalini is depicted in various ways in tantric illuminated manuscripts (some of the most striking from 18th century Rajasthan and Kashmir), these are largely diagrammatic. Only this contemporary interpretation by Zehring conveys the experience of the transcendental bliss and superlucidity that supposedly results from freeing the kundalini with a forcefulness that verges on the psychedelic.

While the esoteric ideas that Peggy Zehring embodies in her compositions are of considerable interest and certainly enhance the enjoyment of her work, she demonstrates that the formal element in her paintings alone can sustain the viewer's interest in her "Circling the 9 Squares Series 1."

"Harnessing The Kundalini
In this grid of nine foot-square panels, she explores an interplay of superimposed circles and squares, their geometrics variously deconstructed by thick gestural strokes and swirls slathered like pastelcolored cake frosting, The overall effect once sumptuous and rigorous, a visual/tactile feast as abundant and over-the-top as Frank Stella's maximalist painted steel assemblages, bridging the painting and sculpture. In a review of one of her previous exhibitions in the same venue in this publication in 2003, Peter Wiley noted that Peggy Zehring’s paintings possess “the power and presence of unique contemporary mandalas.” In the short time since that astute observation, it would appear that the Eastern element in Zehring’s work has become even more pronounced, reminding us that abstract art has its roots in the esoteric interests of Wassily Kandinsky and his circle, who, a little over a hundred years ago, sought to create new avenues through which art might apprehend the unknown. After Kandinsky became associated with the Bauhaus (the curriculum of which initially offered non-Western philosophies and mystical religions), his abiding spiritual aspirations, spurred by Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, were downplayed by critics and art historians more concerned with formalist values. Both as a teacher and an artist, however, Peggy Zehring refuses to sever formal values from their spiritual source. For her, the Bauhaus tradition, passed on to her by her own teachers at the University of Illinois, will always represent “truth, purity, and integrity.” And that in no way contradicts her core belief that, “When we come from our souls rather than from our eyes, and when we regain our childhood innocence, we're the best we can be as artists and as people."
(Peggy Zehring's work can also be seen in Monserrat's year-round salon exhibition.)
   
----J. Sanders Eaton


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