Scholarly Essays  

"Jamali's Surface"

by Donald Kuspit (a)

JAMALI Mystical Expressionism / Paintings, Rizzoli International Publications, 1997

Jamali is a mystic, and I think the surfaces of his paintings are emblematic of merger with the divine.  That is, they represent the state of selflessness necessary to experience a sense of sacredness.  One is in effect invited to lose oneself in the painting's surface, thus replicating the ecstatic state in which it was made.  This involves what Jamali calls his Fresco Tempera technique. Ground pigments are applied to a prepared canvas, which Jamali dances on. The pigments are then chemically bonded to the canvas.  The result is a highly textured, intricate surface, simultaneously esoteric and erotic, intimate yet peculiarly forbidding and inscrutable.  It is an essentially monotonic surface -- a particularly dense all-over surface -- but also sufficiently varied and complex to suggest an embryo-like process of self-differentiation, as well as, more generally, what Alfred North Whitehead called the creative flux.  In other words, Jamali's surface is rich with implications and affinities.


Jamali's dancing is related to that of the Sufis, whom he first saw in the Rajasthan desert, where he spent five years.  Carried to an extreme, dance can induce trance, particularly the swirling, repetitive dances of the Sufi mystics.  Jamali's canvas dancing is no doubt carried out in a trance-like state, but the important point is that the residue of this state is alive on the canvas, in the form of the marks of his movement.  The pigments are in effect the desert sand, and the marks are memory traces of the trance.  Attuned to the painting's surface, one finds oneself dancing in the desert of one's mind-nimbly moving over a painterly surface.


From time immemorial the desert has been a place of vision: an abstract space of meditation and self-communion, far removed from the world.  It has always been a kind of spiritual testing ground, a place where being has to prove itself, as it were: where the fundamental existential question whether to be or not to be is experienced with great urgency.  Withdrawn into itself in the desert, with no practical concerns, the self searches for its raison d' etre, more particularly, a "higher," general principle of being to justify its own existence.  In other words, the desert experience has a double dimension: on the one hand, unworldliness, involving annihilation of the worldly self; on the other hand, otherworldliness, involving transcendence toward a different order of self (if it can still be called that), which brings with it awareness of a general principle of being.  This "higher" self, with its "higher" awareness, can be felt in Jamali's surface, as both a diffuse idea and a specific presence -- as its unbounded intention and in dwelling immediacy.


If, as D.W. Winnicott has written, the mystic disengages from the world in order to engage his or her introjects, thus recovering a sense of vital self forgotten in daily commerce with the world, then one can say that these introjects are diffused throughout the vital self that is being re-experienced, recognized.  One might say that Jamali's dancing invokes these "divine" introjects or inner powers, each one a distillate or quintessentialization of being: they spring from the canvas, as it were, which is not unlike the traditional sacred circle in which otherworldly spirits can be made to appear, with the proper method.  Jamali's surface can also be regarded as a kind of dream screen, or what Andre Breton called Leonardo's paranoid wall: but Jamali's introjects are benign, not vicious and sinister, like those Max Ernst and Salvador Dali saw in the textures of that wall.


Jamali's dancing is, then, magical in import, and the elusive visionary faces that often emerge on the surface of his paintings are sacred introjects: good internal objects that keep away the bad external objects of the world. These faces are generally schematic -- radically simplified -- as befits spiritual beings.  Sometimes they surround an overtly angelic figure, as in Butterfly of Kathmandu, 1993.  This work opens up another dimension of Jamali's paintings: their Tantrism.  The Tantric practice of sexuality, like Sufi dancing, is a mystical practice. Jamali's butterfly is a female body in an ecstatic state, and thus spiritualized.  Orgasmic nirvana is simultaneously spiritual transcendence, that is, transformation into a higher state of being, which the delicate butterfly represents.  The butterfly's flight is not unlike the Sufi dance, in that it seems to be carried out in a trance.  The visionary faces inhabit a higher, spiritual space; their presence indicates that the female butterfly has reached it-flown high indeed.  Does the butterfly represent Jamali's own female side?  Mysticism argues for the possibility of harmonious (however momentary) merger of seemingly irreconcilable beings, which necessarily involves reconciliation of all the disparate beings in the mystic's own psyche.

Many of Jamali's surfaces have leaves, twigs, even the remains of insects embedded in them.  As he acknowledges, they were made outdoors, subject to the elements -- rain and sun.  Lizards sometimes crossed them.  Clearly, a temporal process is involved, and the heavily encrusted result has the rich patina of an archeological find.  Indeed, Jamali has spent much time at such archeological sites as Harappa, Mohenjadaro, and Taxila.  One can regard his paintings as archeological sites of irreducible sensation, their surface as a field of archaic sensations exposed, as though for the first time, to the light of day and the mind.  What one might call the mysticism of time is involved: the peculiar way in which a timely sensation suddenly becomes a timeless feeling: the peculiar way in which a temporal signifier becomes, with the passage of time itself, a timeless mark, fraught with more meaning, however unspecifiable, than it had when it was a worldly index.  Thus another merger of seemingly irreconcilable opposites: the marking of time and the duration that seems eternal because it is experienced as an indivisible event, like Jamali's surface.


But what perhaps is most involved in Jamali's surface is a mystical sense of being as such, that is, a sense of the unity of the inorganic and organic.  At its most intense, his surface seems simultaneously both.  This is not simply because the leaves and twigs are in effect petrified, or because the way Jamali has danced on the pigments seems to have brought them to life.  Rather, it has to do with the overall substantiality -- the peculiar materiality -- of the paintings.


They often have the look of prehistoric cave paintings, indeed, of the stone walls on which such paintings were made.  They often have the same crude, lush energy and imploded mass and monumentality of rough, raw material, which we experience as peculiarly elegant just because it is so primitive, and for which we feel a strange affinity, even empathy.  Like the cave painters, Jamali's paintings show the same ambition to make contact with primordial being -- to experience the sheer urgency of being.  Thus they return us to perhaps the most archaic rationale for art, the rationale evident in the cave paintings, the rationale that has become explicit in modernist abstract painting: to make marks and gestures and images, not simply in order to show that we have the intelligence to do so, nor to record our presence for posterity (a dubious immortality, since anonymity comes with it), but rather out of wonder at being. Jamali makes art for the deepest of reasons: to try to grasp what it means to be by creating a new being.  Or, less grandiosely, his paintings are a demonstration of being at its most esthetically fundamental: being as rhapsodic texture and delirious color.

"Jamali Works" and "Jamali Dreams and Works"

by Donald Kuspit

JAMALI Mystical Expressionism / Dreams and Works, Rizzoli International Publications, 2004

Perhaps the single most striking feature of Jamali’s paintings is their vivid texture. It is evocative of primordial process, more so than any surface in modern painting.  “Works”, p. 17.

If dreaming is a creative activity – an indication of the creativity in all human beings – and the dream is an artistic phenomenon, then Jamali’s dreams are in effect his first artistic creations… [One of the most important themes in Jamali’s dream imagery is] the appearance of a spiritual guide and protector…The guide’s spiritual message is to be artistically creative. The form of the message [“whole poems”] is itself a work of art. Jamali buys “art materials” and makes his “first painting in the woods”.  “Dreams and Works”, p. 30.


In other words, the message of the poems is to make paintings, for Jamali was destined to be a painter. As he says in his account of Dream 5, the sage tells him that the “message in (the) poems…was to be my life’s mission.” One line, Jamali writes “struck me as the essence of the message,” as suggested by the fact that it “kept recurring throughout the poems”: ‘I combine again and again in the matrix and my result is the white dove.’ That is, he will make many different paintings in the womb of his creativity, but they will all have the same sacred spirit, and all be about the same sacred self, symbolized by the white dove, a symbol of purity and inspiration.  “Dreams and Works”, page 31.

For Jamali, dreaming is clearly a sacred experience of self-searching leading to self-knowledge and self-transformation. Dreaming is a numinous experience – an intimation of the sacred, as the presence of the mystic guides – women as well as men, and animals as well as human beings – indicates. Jamali’s dreams keep alive the sense of the sacred, not only as a personal experience, but as socially relevant: society’s choice is either oceanic experience or nuclear disaster – self destruction, in whatever form – as Dream 14 suggests. Mystical experience makes one aware that there are creative forces that stand opposed to the human tendency to self-destruction.  “Dreams and Works”, p. 36.

It is by successfully keeping alive the sense of the sacred – perhaps Jamali’s most important accomplishment – in what Erich Fromm calls “the forgotten language” of dream and myth that Jamali shows that ours is not entirely an “age of inner emptiness” or “existential vacuum,” as Viktor Frankl calls it. Or rather it can be saved from its emptiness by returning to the mystical tradition, in which the inner sacredness of every being is self-evident, and becomes especially evident in the self that has become creative with the help of that tradition.  “Dreams and Works”, page 37.

Jamali’s texture is both matter and sprite – materialized energy and energized material – making it all harder to describe and analyze, for analysis divides to describe, but what is indivisible is not easily conquered by description. Jamali’s texture must be experienced and felt rather than analytically stripped to its material bare bones, thus discarding its energy, which is what engages – fixates – us, drawing us into the matrix of its materiality.  “Works”, p. 17.

The four heads of Time I, II, III and IV are an unparalleled tour de force of self-states – dream images of the trust self as it moves through phases of self-awareness by plunging into the unconscious which it had hitherto not been aware of…The Time series is powerfully painted, conveying vigorous, inexhaustible life-energy – the kind of life-energy that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary art, and that is even more assertive, intense, and deeply evocative than the life-energy evident in Impressionistic and Expressionistic brushwork. While Jamali’s gesturalism has a family resemblance to the gesturalism of German Neo-Expressionism, his gestures have greater momentum and determination.  “Works”, p. 18.

For if abstract art is mystical in import, as Robert Motherwell argues, then Jamali’s art reconciles traditional religious mysticism with modern secular mysticism. Abstract art is in fact mystical at its very fundament, for it involves the artist’s mystical identification with his material medium, which becomes the object of religious veneration. Jamali shares this modern veneration and identification – immerses himself, with Dionysian intensity, in his material – even as he uses the figurative imagery of the religious tradition in which he was raised. His sacred figures fuse with the ground of his raw medium even as they float in its abstract space, emblematic of the infinite beyond in which the gods are founds. Traditional religious art and modern abstract art don’t look alike (however abstract traditional religious figures may be), but in showing their common mystical root Jamali has achieved what amounts to a “post-modern” solution to their alienation. His art thus becomes forward-looking by looking backward, all the more so because both religious imagery and abstract art now seem equally traditional. That is, the elater is part of what Harold Rosenberg called the tradition of the new while the former is part of an age-old tradition of art. “Dreams and Works”, pp. 29-30.

Where modernists have devalued tradition, and traditionalists have devalued modernism, Jamali has found the mystical value in both. He has brought together, indeed seamlessly merged, an art of “collective ideation” and “mystical participation” …and a hyper-individualistic art that apparently eschews all collective purpose and meaning… In short, Jamali combines a communal figurative art with an art whose abstractness reflects, however obliquely, the anomic character of the modern society in which it developed. Thus, abstract art has a subliminal psychosocial purpose – to rescue individuals who feel at odds with their society by wedding them to the universe at large in a mystical rite of art. It is a new art of transcendental enchantment, which Jamali combines with the old one to new mystical effect.  “Dreams and Works”, page 30.


by Mark Strand (b)

JAMALI Mystical Expressionism / Paintings, Rizzoli International Publications, Milan, 1997


In Jamali’s paintings it is as if the airiest substance had been rendered hard and gemlike, given weight and solidity, made earthbound.  One looks at the surface of the paintings, searching it, scanning it for a way in or out, a focal point, a distinguishing mark, but very often there is none.  We look until it becomes clear that the surface, the whole of it, has been the object of our gaze.  Those luminous sweeps of grit that before our eyes become a cosmos of masterful gestures – always there, yet always emergent – are what compel our attention. We look at his paintings, in which texture and color are collusive as perhaps they are in no one else’s work, and imagine that solids are turning to light or vice versa.  There are other changes in his work as well:  the spread of energy, the force of his paintings oscillating always between the seen and unseen, between containment and release; crusts of light turning into clouds of suggestion, blotches of possibility.  In each of Jamali’s paintings the blur of existence is lyricized, rapidly recorded in patterns of linear abandon. Each manifests a trust in the notational, in the generative instant, the spark, the vital premise of being.  Each is an inducement to reverie.  The gorgeous dirt, the glistening scum can be earth or sky – an earth of buried sunsets or a deep calcitic sky – we don’t know which.  It is all so rich, so fraught with implications, and yet is seems so offhand, so easily done.  Those figures that make periodic appearances in Jamali’s paintings only add to the mystery.  They possess a sexual character that is alternatively seductive and reclusive. They seem oddly distracted. They offer their languor to the viewer, but not their attention, which is always elsewhere. I do not know who they are, these spirits or personae, but they lead unpredictable lives in the fix and drift of Jamali’s world. Their plasticity is their genius. They seem to float in a delirium of rhythmical suggestion. They are brief formulations of energy, proposals of figuration.  They are not final, and yet their existence is inescapable, as much so as the hard color, the buried chroma shimmering like ore just under the surface. They are both made from elements least visible, so that our seeing them constitutes a kind of miracle, one that not only allows us, but urges us to experience astonishment and pleasure at the same time.

(a) Donald Kuspit (1935- ) is one of America's most distinguished art historians and critics. In 1983 he was honored with the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, from the College Art Association. In 1997 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contribution to Visual Arts from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. He is a Contributing Editor at Artforum, Sculpture, Tema Celeste, and New Art Examiner magazines Editor of Art Criticism, and is on the advisory board of Centennial Review. With Lawrence Alloway he co-founded the magazine Art Criticism. He is also the editor of a series on American Art Criticism for Cambridge University Press. Kuspit has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim Foundation, Asian Cultural Council, among others. He is the author of hundreds of essays, exhibition reviews, and over twenty books. He has also lectured at many universities and art schools, and curated numerous exhibitions. Kuspit is the editorial advisor for European Art 1900-50 and Art Criticism for the Encyclopedia Britannica (16th edition), and author of the entry on Art Criticism. Some of his most recently published books include: The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist (Cambridge U. Press, 1994); The Rebirth of Painting in the Late 20th Century (Cambridge U. Press, 2000); Psycho-strategies of Avant-Garde Art (Cambridge U. Press, 2000); and The End of Art (Cambridge U. Press, 2004). He has contributed reviews and essays on some of the most influential contemporary artists around the world, including Jamali, Hans Hartung, Karel Appel, Louise Bourgeois, Dale Chihuly, among others. He is the subject of Dialectical Conversions: Donald Kuspit’s Art Criticism, edited by David Craven and Brian Winkenweder (Liverpool University Press, 2011). Kuspit holds doctorates in Philosophy (University of Frankfurt) and Art History (University of Michigan), as well as degrees from Columbia University (B.A.), Yale University (M.A., Philosophy), and Pennsylvania State University (M.A., Art History), and has completed the course of study at the Psychoanalytic Institute of the New York University Medical Center. He also holds honorary degrees from Davidson College, San Francisco Institute of Arts, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and has served as the A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University (1991-97). Kuspit has taught at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania State University, the School of Visual Arts in New York, and is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy at Stony Brook University (formerly State University of New York at Stony Brook). He is currently Senior Critic with the New York Academy of Art.

(b) Mark Strand (1934-2014) was a poet, essayist and critic of fine art who authored a dozen books of poetry and several works of prose.  He earned a B.A. from Antioch College and studied painting under Josef Albers at Yale University where he earned a B.F.A. in 1959.  In 1962 he earned an M.A. from the University of Iowa.  He taught at numerous universities, including Johns Hopkins University (1994-1998), University of Chicago (1998-2005) and Columbia University (2005-2014).  He was appointed Poet Laureate for 1990-1991 and won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1999 for Blizzard of One.   In 2014 he won a gold medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Book Award nomination for Collected Poems.

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