Brian Batista’s first solo exhibition, Sacred Images, is full of peculiarities. The first is that his body of work features paintings despite the fact that he is trained in media arts and sculpture.
The second is his seemingly arbitrary fascination with Buddhist spirituality and Tibetan thangka (scroll paintings), which inspire his paintings. Expecting a profound explanation for this unusual curiosity, Batista half-jokingly says, “My mom thinks I must be a reincarnated Japanese man because I am interested in all things Asian.”
Upon searching Tibetan thangka images on the Internet, however, it becomes easy to see why he’s so enamoured by them. The use of bold colours, rich iconographic symbols and motifs, complex narratives and fascinating technique could easily serve as muse for any artist, regardless of their stance towards Buddhist philosophy.
But it is one thing to be inspired and quite another to set out to re-create these painstakingly laborious and elaborate images that demand tremendous attention to detail and a careful study of Buddhist scriptures. Due to the explicit nature in which they must depict Buddhist deities or famous religious scenes, an artist must display a certain reverence for their sacredness and adhere to strict standards and guidelines laid out by ancient texts. To bring the issue home, each painting is so loaded with meaning that it requires a one-page explanation.
Admittedly, they also serve as cheat sheets for the artist.
“Even I can’t keep track of what all the symbols mean,” Batista confesses.
Faithfulness to tradition is somewhat arbitrary, Batista says. He is careful to follow traditional measurements and render the narratives as accurately as possible, but once the drawing is laid out, tradition goes out the window.
His departure in that regard can be seen in his blatant decision to “westernize”the works. By painting on stretched canvas rather than on brocade (a decorative woven fabric), and adding frames, he is stripping them of their original purpose: namely to spread the teachings associated with important lamas or historical myths.
For Batista, it is not the religion that sparked his interest, but rather the metaphysical qualities associated with the art and its ability to reveal universal truths about the human condition.
One particular diptych shows heaven and hell in a more neutral way than most of us are used to seeing it. The “hell” painting shows a bull crushing a man. The bull in Tibetan mythology is a symbol of ignorance, thus the man is rendered paralyzed by his own ignorance. Conversely, the “heaven” painting shows a man on top of a bull surrounded by deities of wisdom and compassion, virtues highly revered by Buddhists.
Counter to the Christian tradition, this suggests that heaven and hell are right here on Earth and we have the ability to change the one we fall under by merely altering our thoughts. But whereas our society’s tendency is to attribute “bad” to “hell” and “good” to “heaven,” Buddhists do not assign such labels.
“There is no good or bad. They worship violent deities and peaceful ones equally — there’s no judgment,” Batista says.
In fact, Batista says people are assigned a deity just as we are assigned zodiac signs, but just because a deity has bad attributes doesn’t mean the person is bad. The ultimate desire for them is self-awareness and an acknowledgement that these opposing psychological traits are equally part of the journey of life.
The final peculiarity is his process. Claiming he paints more like a printmaker than a painter, Batista’s process is methodical and highly unconventional. He works from light to dark and then dark to light again, at times reversing the foreground and background and playing with the idea of making a flat, cartoon-like work that still has a hierarchy of perspective. Dismissing the easel altogether, all of his paintings are hung on the wall in his studio, and he works on them simultaneously, continuously altering the layers. On any given day, he will select one colour and move from painting to painting using only that hue.
“My paintings are never finished until someone buys them,” he says. “And if you were to decide to buy one, my response would be, ‘OK, now I’m going to finish it.’”
As a thoughtful gesture, he will think of the person who is buying it for the rest of the painting and add a personal touch.
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