My Space on 7th, Non-juried,
Group Exhibition, 50 Local Artists
406 7th Street NW 2nd Floor, Washington, DC
Marilyn Banner’s encaustic painting “Listening” (2008) at first appears to be ironically titled. One would expect a painting with that name to be calm and pretty, with pastel colors and an aura that would be compatible with a hospital’s waiting room. Instead, “Listening” is a very dramatic work, with thick paint, bold strokes, and text that seems cut violently into the surface in some areas, and smeared elsewhere almost to erasure.
The square painting could be interpreted as a flag or a landscape with deep-blue mountains and a body of water, but if it does depict a natural setting, a storm has already begun to overcome the landscape. What relevance could the term “listening“ have to such a loud and overbearing piece?
“Listening” 2008. Encaustic on wood, 12×12.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.
As Banner describes it, she created the work while listening to a “beautiful” tune, “In the Garden of Shechina” by songwriter Hannah Tiferet Siegel. Then, in residence at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for the eighth time, Banner wrote the text of the first two verses of Siegel’s song onto “Listening,” which is one of 24 pieces of hers that recently hung at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington. Siegel’s verses read as follows:
Born from the earth
Breathed by the air
Healed in the water
Kindled with prayer,
I walk through the fiery sword of truth
With all my heart.
I am the Tree of Life
In the Garden of Shechina
Singing a psalm of wonder and love
Ki hi m’kor habracha [because it is the source of blessing].
After examining the text, viewers can begin to approach the work with a different sort of listening – perhaps the kind the prophet Elijah came to practice.
In the Book of Kings I (Chapter 19), just after he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel when a divine fire came down to consume his sacrifice and just after he prophesized that rain would finally come to the famine-struck region, Elijah found himself fleeing for his life from Ahab and his wife Jezebel. In the desert, Elijah grew so hungry that he was ready to give up his life, much as Jonah had desired when the sun bore down too heavily on him outside Nineveh. But an angel directed Elijah to eat, and he then encountered the Divine Presence on a mountain.
Like much of the prophetic experience, Elijah’s encounter with G-d carried a strong aesthetic component. First a powerful wind struck the mountains and decimated the rocks. Then, an earthquake struck, after which a fire appeared and scorched whatever had survived the wind and the quake. But, the Torah explains, G-d was not in the wind, the rocks, or the fire. Instead, G-d’s voice came in a form that was not pretentious and dramatic: a “kol d’mamah dakah,” a thin, soft voice.
Elijah came to see that divinity and greatness were not necessarily embedded in loud noise (neither rock concerts nor construction workers’ drilling seem to have a monopoly on theology). It is possible to “listen” to Banner’s painting and hear a soft, beautiful song emerge even from the expressionistic and stormy surface.
In fact, even Banner’s materials involve a complicated process that is both bold and soft.
Encaustic paintings are very different from standard oil paintings, in which the artist simply puts brush to canvas and adds marks. Encaustic, which is an ancient technique that has often been employed in a religious context, essentially involves taking wax, often beeswax, with pigments mixed into it and layering it on the canvas.
The painter also uses damar (sometimes called dammar gum), a resin binding agent that hardens the materials and holds them together. The wax, the brushes, the paint, and the surface must remain warm throughout the process, and the layers of paint must be close to 200 degrees to “stick” to the other layers. Given the elaborate technique, Banner not only included the song text in her work, she actually wrote it into wax.
The 24-piece series at Touchstone is called “I Listen with All My Heart.” In her artist’s statement, Banner says the entire series is “based on my response to being in nature and listening to music.” The series is hung together on one wall as an installation in the far corner of the gallery.
“Serious” Encaustic on wood, 12×12.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.
Over e-mail, Banner elaborated on the series. “It is about connection to the earth and spirituality, as you can probably tell,” she said. “I may have written out the whole poem in there, but as I work kind of in a trance, I don’t really remember. Whatever came out of my hand is what’s in there, some buried, some visible. It was as if my heart was singing it and the words just went into the paint.” She added that “it’s one of those things that when a group sings together, you’re on another plane.”
Banner is not just an artist who paints music. She is also co-founder and co-director of Washington “Musica Viva,” a musical, poetic, and visual art performance series, which she began in her studio in Kensington, Maryland. She was also the regional coordinator of the national organization, No Limits for Women in the Arts, as well as a board member of the DC board of the Women’s Caucus for Art.
The pieces in “I Listen with All My Heart” relate to these other experiences through the inclusion of texts and references to Banner’s life, early music experience, and poetry. “Serious,” “Dance of Joy,” and “Blue Sound” all reference music directly. In “Serious,” a young girl playing a violin is so immersed in her music that she closes her eyes. The background is a mixture of cool blues and greens, and except for a few carefully placed black outline marks, it is difficult to tell where the girl ends and the background begins. Banner has also added a G-clef and musical notes in black, so the girl’s left side and left arm merge with the lines of music. Both performer and music have become one within the painting, just as they are literally fused together in wax.
“Blue Sound” 2005. Encaustic on panel, 11×14.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.
“Blue Sound” swaps the performer for four cellos (one in relief). Banner has “written” the words “The Sound” over two of the instruments, and about 10 scores of sheet music are visible in the background. The forms of the scores mirror the strings on the cellos, and the entire surface of the paintings seems like it could yield a sound if it were plucked or played.
In “Dance of Joy,” viewers can discern two musical scores, but the piece is much less literal than “Serious” or “Blue Sound.” The painting reads as a landscape, perhaps a jungle scene, with thick tree trunks and thick foliage. In the right side of the work, an outlined figure dances with head thrown back and arms raised. The figure wearing a dress, has a musical score vertically written across her body, and is perhaps a self-portrait or even a personification of music herself. As in “Serious” and “Blue Sound,” Banner’s composition in “Dance of Joy” defies conventional approaches to foreground and background. The figure encroaches on the setting, and the setting engulfs the figure.
“Dance of Joy” 2006. Encaustic on wood, 9×11.” Courtesy of Marilyn Banner.
Although Banner probably had neither Elijah nor the prophetic experience in mind when she created the series, the model of the soft voice emerging from the storm proves a good model for engaging her work, even her more “realistic” works like her other series on angels and messengers (including several versions of the burning bush), the “Song of Songs,” “The Presence of Spirit,” and “Soul Ladders.” Banner’s uses the medium to her advantage to not only metaphorically show connections between the physical and the spiritual, but also to literally bond the two together in hot wax.
For more information on Marilyn Banner and her work, visit her website, http://marilynbanner.com/.
MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.