Anne Judell by Luke Davies, 2009
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, that tenet of quantum physics, that paean to unknowability and thus wonder, rephrased one of the fundamental questions of existence: are the smallest elements waves or particles? The answer was not so much that they are either, in different circumstances (they are), but that they are in fact both. Position and velocity can be measured, but they cannot, with any accuracy, be measured simultaneously. How we measure—that is to say, how we interpret—elements is what makes them wave or particle. If we measure position, momentum becomes blurry; if we measure momentum, position is not clear. The amount of leftover uncertainty can never be reduced below the limit set by the uncertainty principle.
Art has long recognised and embraced just such a negative capability; Anne Judell’s work hovers at this edge of knowing. I’m talking not just of the very obvious border region her work inhabits between the abstract and the figurative (it is always neither until your moment of personal interpretation), but of more mysterious and amorphous matters: the border between the felt and the known, the seen and the heard (the longer one gazes at a Judell work, the more it seems one can hear the atoms humming), the physical and the emotional.
Her drawings and paintings may crackle with a kind of static electricity, or they may bring to mind something more fluid, the roar of surf at night, say. But their overarching quality is that they always, always brood into us. That is, they attain, somehow, the state of meditation. That is, they are pure meditations (or rather: meditation) while at the same time they cause, in the experience of seeing them, meditation to flower a little in us.
This is not exactly the same thing as saying they cause us to meditate. Nor is it saying that the further you gaze into a Judell work, the more a kind of trance becomes possible. They can do these things, too, and these are happy collateral effects. Art, after all, is merrymaking. But there’s more than just cause and effect going on here, and the linear intellect that will try to construct a story on a canvas is bypassed. As with Rothko, we feel far more than we read the work of art. That thump in the chest. I’m speaking of something more interactive than linear. The meditation that is the work meets the meditation that we become.
(In any case, as Pema Chodron has pointed out: “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll become more awake in our lives.”)
This is another way of saying that very little of the bright happenstance and chaos that take place in the surface world actually matters, and that Judell understands this, deeply. Her works are as far from decorations as it is possible to get. Think of them as difficult portals.
The energy produced in the nuclear reactions taking place when a star forms, and during the duration of that star’s life, creates an outward force; this is counterbalanced by the force of gravity of the star trying to compress itself. This is how stars keep their shape. (In this universe at least, form has, if not the actuality, then at least the appearance of coherent durability, of mass as a consistent specific presence of form through time and space.) It seems that Judell’s dense pastels hover in this realm of equilibrium between outward expansion and inner compression.
Judell is not an artist of the secular. Yet spiritual is such a tired word. “You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God; or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials.” (Annie Dillard, For the Time Being)
Such extraordinary discipline. Some of Judell’s pastels take four years to complete, such is the layering, the focus, the dedication to the task at hand. (Being an artist, said Rilke, means “not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap.”) What is the task at hand? To find, for the given work, its form. One thinks of the 11th century Buddhist monk who said: “At all times use whatever means expedient to preserve the power of concentration, as if you were taking care of a baby.”
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: much is uncertain, indeed. But one thing is certain: Judell is constantly “breaking open spaces.”
The poet Stanley Kunitz once spoke of “liberating my imagination from the forms in which my poems struggled to emerge.” “I wanted to make harmonies and approximations of likeness,” he said, “without resorting to rhyme.” It seems to me that Judell makes “harmonies and approximations of likeness” without ever overtly resorting to the figurative. Are we looking at landscapes, on the other hand? Are there icebergs there, transparent, chimerical, without the weight of ice? Are there horizons? If the pastels cascade, is that only a cascade of pastels, or is it a waterfall? Are there distant flares of light, suggesting home?
Another border: that between here and there. This and other. An inherent ambiguity at the heart of Judell’s work. “The present moment is a condition where there is absolutely no separation between yourself and things. That is not to say, though, that there exists such a thing as the present moment.” (Sakku Harada, The Essence of Zen)
Another border. Judell is not so much remarkable for living there, but for being such a fine draftsman of its shape: “Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. Between the two my life flows.” (Nisarjadatta Maharaj)
That is to say, perhaps, that as a draftsman, Judell is adept at capturing “the cruel radiance of what is.” (James Agee)
The transcendental extragavance of these spatial infinities. The deep leisure of slow art, its quality of dream. To enter these works is to sense not just Judell’s capacity for wonder, but the solitary determination of her patient journeying. “Whenever I compose a piece I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself.” (Erik Satie)
Uncertainty: and yet something in Judell’s work leads us always back to some personal act of interpretation. And yet what we interpret seems always to have some elemental form. Vase of air. Bronze helmet. Stone ship. “Einstein’s gravity is not so much a force as a circumstance: the very material of the cosmos has crumpled steeply around you until almost conspiratorially all of your possible paths have been narrowed to one.” (John Mooallem, Harpers)
For all the layering, such precision and clarity in Judell’s work. “In Tibetan there are several words for mind, but two that are particularly helpful to know are sem and ripka. Sem is what we experience as discursive thoughts, a stream of chatter that’s always reinforcing an image of ourselves. Ripka literally means ‘intelligence’ or ‘brightness’. Behind all the planning and worrying, behind all the wishing and wanting, picking and choosing, the unfabricated, wisdom mind of ripka is always here. Whenever we stop talking to ourselves, ripka is continually here.
“ …. Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers, with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.”
(Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)
In a novel about an artist, Amaryllis Night and Day, Russell Hoban quotes a fictional art critic who says, in a review of one of the narrator’s shows, that “there are odd empty spaces that make the viewer wonder who or what has gone and who or what is coming.” Peter Diggs, the fictional narrator, comments on this: “But that’s life, isn’t it? And those of us who think about the empty spaces tend to paint pictures, write books, or compose music. There are many talented people who will never become painters, writers or composers; the talent is in them but not the empty spaces where art happens.” Hoban seems to be making a metaphorical point; what I love about Judell is the way she seems to regularly attain the state of makingthe metaphor concrete, so that it is no longer metaphor. A given image doesn’t stand for something else. She captures that emptiness with documentary realism; it is the roaring of pure energy itself.
The years of patience, and her solitude up there in the Southern Highlands. Such attention to detail. “There is a truth only solitude reveals. An insight that action destroys, one scattered by the slightest worldly affair: the fact of our abandonment here, in a far corner of sketched space. This is the truth that enterprise would deny. How many years have you fought to hold at bay this hideous aloneness, only now discovering that it shelters the one fact of any value?
“…. You turn in the entranceway of illusion …. and you make it out. For God’s sake, call it God. That’s what we’ve called it forever, and it’s so cheap, so self-promoting, to invent new vocabulary for every goddamned thing, at this late a date. The place where you’ve been unfolds inside you. A space in your heart so large it will surely kill you, by never giving you the chance to earn it.
“But you have the chance. Here, now, for nowhere else exists. You pull your fading solitude around you, the last way left to see yourself in this glare. And how you will survive another’s company again becomes the only real problem.
“ …. [F]or a time, briefer than your captivity, you are burned pure again, by everything you look upon.”
Richard Powers, Plowing the Darkness
[extract 1 from Totem Poem]
The real issue, of course, was this: atomically, energetically,
everything was wave function. And a wave continues forever into space,
the wavelength never alters, only the intensity lessens, so
in the worst cosmic way everything is connected by vibrations.
And this, as even a dog would know, is no consolation.
Ah but the dogs will save us all in the end & even the planet.
Not the superdogs but the household friendlies, always
eager to please, hysterically fond, incessant, carrying in the very
wagging of their tales an unbounded love not even
therapists could imagine; their forgiveness unhinges us.
We were reduced to this: this day and night,
primary gold and indigo, the binary profusion
of distances guessed at, heat and cold, colours
logged in the retina and lodged in the spine;
we were dogs who knew the infinite is now,
that celandine was buttercup, that buttercup was marigold.
The dog star marked the dog days and the wild rose
was dog rose. The crow’s-foot was wild hyacinth.
By day the correspondences were clear.
I walked across the whin land. Speedwell bluer than sky.
A practised ear could hear, between two breaths,
deep space wherein the mind collects itself.
Words foundered and cracked. Nearly
never bulled the cow. A shining isomorphousness
rang out. The roussignol sang all night.
All colours were shuffled endlessly but never lost.
A practised ear could hear, between two breaths,
the secret blackness of the snow
come flooding in. On summer’s lawns
the ice-melt sprayed its figure-eights from sprinklers.
And everything stopped working, second time around,
as if it had never happened before. Fans
moved the corpses of fireflies through the rooms,
supplicant, pathetic, pleading in brittle postures.
Everything was magnified by their bug-eyed deaths.
We became solemn in that profusion
of dying. Cane toads fattened the asphalt
in the mist and the rain; our headlights caught them
tensed as if listening: they were waiting,
mute, for the imbecility of eternity.
[extract 2 from Totem Poem]
In the blue time of lilacs the last colour standing
was the mauve that jacarandas leak when all else
has gone grey: last glow before night,
the brightest that earth ever gave. Far across
the estuary the mangroves rippled in the rain.
Pelicans plumped on the tide-posts, world-in-a-belly.
There was mud for the taking. The orb spiders
clung during storms to the high-tensile webs.
Much later the fruit bats, insane with greed, tore into the fig trees
and gnashed at the edges of dreams.
Time was merely the measure of motion
with respect to before and after. Meanwhile
the universe expands. The pine trees creaked.
The pine cones cracked. On a windless day there was time
to dream of you. The pine cones snapped open the silence.
All the fields and force fields stretched away to snow caps.
Gravitational, magnetic—there were even fields undreamt of;
and the green one where we lay, where we organised to meet,
where the wildflowers parted and the gorse looked like light,
was hidden in the cleft our kisses made.
Light stretches as it moves away. The peaks and contours
we explored had taught us time was malleable. All things
have mass except ideas. A hammock was therefore a metaphor like
breathe. A diamond meant nothing but carbon-later-on.
The flight paths of the pelicans smelled . . . like luck.
We were falling and the jungle fell with us.
It rained all through the pass; at every plateau praise.
World-in-a-belly. From the photon’s point of view
the universe contracted to one point
and even as it left it had arrived.
To us the photon spread through space
in studious propagation. In an ocean the waves
had water to ride on, and sound waves fought their way
through air. But light was the medium itself.
Thousands of birds, the tiniest birds, adorned your hair.
In the driest season I drew my love from geometry.
I cried to learn a circle was a curve
of perfect equidistance from a point. In summer
wild sage grew in tufts on the slopes
where in spring the sun would melt the snows to scree.
All the while I was asking myself what was the
howling outside the hut I was mistaken I couldn’t
recognise my own voice it was so loud I was having
trouble with inside and outside. You came to me
from God-knows-where in wider arcs than birds can make.
You made me calm. I said to God God
how often do I thank you God? I had had
so many years of beauty intruding on all I did I did
not think it might intrude on others. Others
showed no signs of it. But you said laughing Taste it Taste it.
And a wet front smothered the whole south coast &
our hazard lights flashed in the cloud of unknowing &
the semis overtook us and blinded us with spray.
I said to God God I am speechless I am
contented I am very tired and I am rather in love.
[extract 3 from Totem Poemi]
Allowing for the Doppler effect it is all possibly
closer than we feel. Matter and movement were one &
the same. Even the rocks were awash with electrons.
Shadows had no colour. Objects sprang from every corner.
I wasn’t a daredevil: I was a risk technician.
I could tell the difference between a horse and a seahorse,
underwater, with my eyes closed. Finesse it was to be alive
that day. There was a falcon on my arm. There was a hood
to be removed. When he blinked he gorged himself
on the plains that stretched away. We said only Devour.
He took it all in. He dropped out of sight on the tendons
of his wingtips. His invisible ribs were a ladder of hunger.
The tiny mammals felt thunder, quivered in crevices.
To the dust mites their quivering was thunder. Everything repeats
down to scale. Falconry was the high path of the world.
He dropped from view. He scanned. The day lay still,
the century in fact, so middayed out, so void with glare
de Chirico might have stayed indoors. The falcon
was peeling back layers of time. Not even the fossils could feed him.
The air burned shrieking his flight arc to flame;
then the plain became the ocean and he dived,
the wetness was opaque, the great whales glistened,
and far below where palaces lay drowned
manta rays glided through minarets and the falcon
wept. Three atmospheres down was as far as he could get.
In each direction wingspan led to the end of all things
on the edge of the deep. He had suffered long enough. Was he dealing
with mercy or grace? Every dream was a half-stutter
towards waking, every waking a wetness wet with dream
and dream-slicked hair, and wingbeats fading distantly to flutters.
At night inside his eyelids in the heart of the maze
the Minotaur kept counsel with the void, singing Clearly clearly the deep
forces of the universe are hope and electricity. I was the only human
for dreams and dreams around. In there with him
one dream inside another. Far off the falcon wept.
The python pulled heat from stones. The world was old.
We cannot live forever but we live. The yellow-tailed black cockatoo
cawed out the sonic boom of dawn, ablaze in his own musculature.
The curtains flared like giant bells. There was a gap &
we entered it gladly. The preciseness of the world came flooding in.