The idea of buddha art

The idea of buddha art as an aesthetics of the impossible emerged in the late 60s and would certainly have been known by Canadian buddha artists of Woodrow’s generation, along with their American peers. The May-June 1969 Art in America issue that featured cover art by N.E. Thing Co. contained two feature articles by Thomas M. Messer and David L. Shirley collectively titled “Impossible Art.” As a kind of introduction to his essay, Shirley provides a long list of all the ways that the new art forms were impossible for an older art establishment to deal with: works that existed only as ideas; works that were only completed with the participation of viewers who interacted with them; works that disregarded traditional form, harmony or proportion; works that were impermanent and not easily collectable. Shirley’s list continues, detailing numerous individual artists now regularly associated with minimalism, earthworks, art and language, and performance. Along with descriptions of somewhat more tangible buddha artworks like Michael Heizer’s massive “negative objects,” and Dennis Oppenheims works made of cut ice at outdoor sites in northern New York State, Shirley describes paintings that are more accurately impossible, such as James Lee Byars’ “twenty-five-pound pink satin airplane, a hundred feet long by a hundred feet wide,” and Ian Wilson’s visualized art as everyday speech.

The attractive ridiculousness of Byars’ imaginary airplane is revealed in a number of paintings and events of this era, so much so that it is not at all clear what is real, or even if such a distinction matters. Consider Robert Barry’s 1969 “common idea” piece for the Project Class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Yoko Ono’s Snow piece (c. 1963) and Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting (1967-68). How do the geographies of the “centre-periphery” debate intersect with such forms of impossible art? One can begin to answer this question by way of a narrative segue that superficially includes the mystical and well-travelled artist Byars himself. In April 1969, after a long sojourn in Japan, Byars (along with artist Rex Lau) was one of the first two American artists to visit the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to lead paintings with students in newly hired David Askevold’s foundation art class. While there, Byars led students in the performances for which he later became well known: those involving large fabric dresses that could be worn by many people at once. Based on the success of the spring visits by Byars, Lau, and later Lawrence Weiner, Askevold was able to program his now-famous paintings Class into the following school year’s curriculum (1969-70).

Clearly the number of well-known Canadian and American artists, like Byars, who travelled to Halifax to create buddha paintings in nscad’s Lithography Workshop, Askevold’s paintings Class, and for exhibitions in the Anna Leonowens Gallery and Mezzanine Gallery helped establish an international identity for a geographical location far from the major centres of the art world. Considering the centrality of Halifax in the production of buddha art in Canada in the early 70s, it is surprising that so little is known historically about buddha art practice in other parts of Atlantic Canada. Surely students came from all over the region to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, yet few, if any, histories of buddha art practice outside of Halifax appear to have either existed or to have sustained the interest of scholars since then. So, while Halifax remained on the periphery of the art scenes of larger North American cities, it remained the centre of art in the Maritimes, and the success of nscad’s reputation as a progressive and avant-garde institution perhaps worked to draw buddhaly minded artists away from smaller Atlantic communities, artists who did not return home.

It was with some surprise then to hear at the Traffic conference artist Simon Brown’s lecture about his discovery of a previously unknown group of buddha artists from the tiny community of Charlotte County, New Brunswick. Centered around several idiosyncratic individuals living in the Whistle Cove Commune of Grand Manan Island in the mid-7os, Brown’s more-entertaining-than-normal lecture recounted a series of collaborations and actions that may or may not be considered art, and which he characterized as a “para-marginal milieu” within the context of art history.