The Body Electric
‘Rhythms’ traces human experience through the pulse of a beating heart
By Kelby Vera
What makes a heart clench?
In her new Bergamot Station exhibit “Rhythms,” artist Pam Douglas — renowned for her ability to seamlessly intertwine drawing and assemblage with painting — uses heartbeats to explore the tensions and pleasures of the human experience.
During a doctor’s office visit, Douglas became fixated on how an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine translated a heartbeat into the peaks and valleys of a graph.
The lines “made me think of the stresses and strains and joys of life on our bodies, and how that looks as a rhythm. … We’re really all a heartbeat in time with each other,” Douglas said.
Using these lines as a starting point, Douglas focused on how rhythm creates a universal link between ourselves and nature. Thick lines and patterns define the narrative of each piece. The artist’s palate is neutral but sings with a warm vitality. Douglas chose the materials for the nine-painting series carefully.
“In these paintings, the raw energy of the patterns and their strength felt like they required something denser, more three dimensional, something tougher,” she says.
Rope, fabric, paint and pumice combine for this effect. The painting’s natural textures and large scale gives the work an organic depth that seems removed from the gallery.
Not all of the pieces are EKG patterns. From heartbeats, rounded waves of sound also emerge. In “Measures of Serenity” small lengths of cream-colored string form the curves of a sound wave. The pattern marks the consistent thump of a heartbeat and its ever-present push. Here, Douglas engages a variety of sensations with her imagery.
The painting “Letting Go” shows hands made of newspaper that twist and grasp atop a subtle blackness. The spikes of a red heartbeat cross the canvas, at times stabbing through hands covered in ominous headlines. As the painting progresses from left to right, however, clenched fists become open palms filled denoting optimism instead of fear.
There are pulses of life and death throughout Douglas’s imagination as well. In a piece called “The Final Cadence,” smoky strokes of mountainous charcoal fade into the background of light canvas as an EKG pattern spikes dramatically for its final heartbeat before the stark white line falls flat. The painting provokes a sense of acceptance and calm in its simplicity.
While creating the series, Douglas found great joy in experimenting with new materials. The process allowed her take chances and work instinctually.
“When you’re working, if you really just hang loose spiritually, mentally, psychologically and artistically, you allow ideas that you didn’t know were possible to happen right in front of you. I am thrilled when a painting is not what I told it to be and it decides on its own.”
In a piece called “Mandala,” Douglas combines paint and pulverized pumice to striking effect. Radiating from the center, lines forming heartbeats are carved deeply into the sand. Quietly, primary colors glow beneath the thick layers of sediment. Both the material and the title are a nod to Buddhist mandalas and the ephemeral art of Tibetan sand paintings. Douglas invokes the sands of time to underscore the sameness of human experience.
“Rhythms” ultimately speaks to the unavoidable beats and rests of life, drawing ideas from the spiritual, technical and physical to keep its visual energy in step with time. Each piece moves with a different emotional cadence, but the result is as steady as a beating heart.
Pam Douglas’ “Rhythms” is on view through Sept. 24 at TAG Gallery in Bergamot Station Art Center, 2525 Michigan Ave. #D3, Santa Monica. A reception for the artist happens Sept. 10. Call (310) 829-9556 or visit taggallery.net and PamDouglasArt.com for more information.