Melanie Pankau Exhibition Brochure

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MELANIE PANKAU


“The way of the artist is an entirely different way. It is the way of surrender.” -Agnes Martin

Breath. It is the long sigh of the universe contained in even the smallest of living things. A generative, fertile space exists between each cycle of inhalation and exhalation—a cosmic gap of infinite possibility and states of being. There, the strident angles of time melt away, surrendering to new form and meaning. Inside the wet-dark of our bodies (that alien landscape within ourselves) breathing propels the labyrinthine system of cells, tissue, and vasculature. Painter Melanie Pankau’s process begins with breath. Through meditation, the colors, images, patterns, and sensations she experiences while practicing become the source material of much of her work. Her paintings are positive contemplative explorations of her interiority, embodiment, consciousness (and its limits), and all that she is connected to in the world beyond herself.


Form. There’s a monk’s calm in Pankau’s spartan corner studio. Its windows face out into a latticework of branches from trees dotted along the street. Natural light dapples the room in soft shadow and dancing lines. She starts and ends her day observing this light, how it shifts and morphs at dawn and dusk. Her palette of colors usually derives from this daily ritual. In the final work, colors are contained in their geometric bodies, while the precision of their form belies a certain freedom and wilderness within. The paintings are small in scale yet lush, intricate. They pulse with an intrinsic psychic energy all their own. Pankau’s process is a series of experiments, excavations of form, and quests for color. She begins with preliminary drawings, graphite lines on white paper that will inevitably transform into something else. In the margins of one set of sketches she writes, I don’t know what you want to look like, what presence you want to hold. Each step is a vital approximation getting closer to a feeling and sensation waiting to be fully expressed. Viewed more closely, the harmony of the paintings gives way to movement and shifting tone, texture, and perspective. Measuring 29 x 30 inches, the panels are not quite balanced or perfectly square. Descriptors like “non-representational,” “non-objective,” and “abstract” do little to reflect the mystique and intimacy of the work. They strike an elegant balance—at once restrained and unbound, embodied and transcendent. They ask us to lean in, to consider our relationship to what we are seeing and how we are seeing it. The paintings contain worlds, cosmos even. By turns, each piece links body, mind, spirit, emotion, consciousness, space, and time. Time. In a world that has forgotten to breathe, Pankau’s paintings ask us to slow down. Time in various iterations shows up in her work and process. Her meticulous technique is laborious, producing only six to eight paintings each year. The pace resists a market-driven digital culture that values dizzying speed and overconsumption. The artist is a disciplined archivist of her process, keeping records of color palettes and sketches. Each painting has a unique corresponding palette record consisting of colors she has mixed and remixed in her search.


Small paper cutouts overlap to create new shapes and shadows as she mines for the right composition. Debris, pickings, and byproducts like the masking tape used to create lines are sometimes part of the archive—their messiness a stark contrast to the refined final work. There is a root system beneath the surface of the panel, a genealogy of the artist’s process charted through each layer. The paintings index a spatialized chronology that the viewer sees only fragments of. Relief and gossamer-thin lines appear on the surface of the panel from earlier processes. Pankau decides which layers of the underpainting she wants to render visible. This residual texture reminds the viewer of the compression and collapse of time and labor contained within a single finished painting. The meditative ethos of the work requires the viewer to take the time to see the unseen. Spirit. Our earliest ancestors believed that it was breath which made us alive, separating us from that which we deemed otherwise “dead,” without breath. Throughout human cultures and civilizations understanding about this basic bodily function of “life” was always tied to notions of the spirit, soul, and the passage of time. The scientific term for inhalation is “inspiration”—a word we most commonly associate with the arts, conjuring often trite images of muses and divine sparks. In its etymological roots, inspiration means to breathe into, to take the spirit in. Similarly, among the various meanings of the Sanskrit term “pranayama,” core breathing practice in yoga, we find the same theme: to breathe, spirit, life force, soul. Talking about the spiritual in contemporary art is rare, if not altogether taboo. Yet Pankau’s work is unapologetic about the spiritual practice that informs it. Meditation and yoga have granted her a rich visual language. In key ways, Pankau serves as a medium and conduit for the spiritual in her work. The idea of artist as medium is not a new one. Nineteenth century, abstract artist Hilma af Klint wrote that her hands were guided by a spirit, “a great force.” Her vast and complex work shaped by other-worldly encounters the artist had during seances.


Agnes Martin’s powerfully quiet and mystic paintings were informed by Zen Buddhism and other spiritual practices and philosophies. Pankau’s connection to the spiritual can be seen as a way through states of being and becoming. The seemingly ethereal nature of Pankau’s work, however, should not be taken as an eschewal of the worldly, the physical, or even the political. There are quiet politics and sociocultural valences present as she navigates her lived and embodied experiences and sensations, the relationship between herself and others, and her reactions to political and social upheavals. Her insistence on creating positive images is not simply about making something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing (though this pursuit too has critical value and purpose). In a world supersaturated with image, Pankau’s reflective paintings offer a visual pause, an open invitation inward—a much-needed breath. Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara




A heartfelt thank you to Nicole Nfonoyim-Hara for her thoughtfulness, talent, and time in writing the essay, to Nicole M. Watson, director of the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery, for giving me the opportunity to exhibit my work, and to family, friends, and colleagues for their unconditional support. The work in this exhibition, Thresholds, was created (in part) during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). Images: Empathy, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 18 x 19 inches (front cover) Within, 2017, Acrylic on panel, 30 x 29 inches (interior left) A Message, 2017, Acrylic on panel, 30 x 29 inches (interior right) Threshold, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 20 x 22 inches (back left) Beacon, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 22 x 20 inches (back center) Re/beginnings, 2018, Acrylic on panel, 22 x 20 inches (back cover) Photo credit: Rik Sferra Š 2018 Melanie Pankau, All Rights Reserved. www.melaniepankau.com Melanie Pankau is a fiscal year 2018 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.


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