Beams of light converge on perfectly geometrical planes in Bernadette Jiyong Frank's new paintings, producing the kind of atmospheric vision that makes people want to believe in a higher power. But Frank's paintings — on display at San Francisco's Dolby Chadwick Gallery — aren't religious. They're grounded in mathematical precepts and the Japanese concept of ma, which is the interlude or space that happens between words, sounds, objects — anything.
Frank's unique vision affirms what Luca Pacioli, a friar and contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, once said: "Without mathematics there is no art." The patterns, proportions, and calculations that solidified da Vinci's paintings were entrenched but subtle in The Last Supper (which happens to be a religious work) and the Mona Lisa. With Frank, the geometry is directly evident. It invites you in — spatial unfoldings of translucent rays that are buttressed by minimal but mysterious color schemes.
Each of the hundreds of white beams that Frank painted for "Spaces in Between" required the utmost patience. They initially flummoxed Frank. "I can only do one layer a day (because) I have to let the paint dry at least a day overnight, so each painting at the fastest takes three or four months, and in the beginning I was getting really frustrated because the process is so slow, and you don't see anything happening," says Frank, a San Francisco painter of Korean descent who was raised in Japan. "Eventually, I start to see something happening as I add composition to it, and also the color gets deeper and deeper. The color starts to interact with the light, and the painting starts to live. It's meditative, because I've learned to accept this very slow process. It becomes a ritual."
And in ritual there is repetition. Frank's repetition of translucent light, as in Spaces in Between (Deep Purple), becomes artistically hypnotic, turning the canvases themselves into meditative works of art.
Frank's new exhibit coincides with two other San Francisco art shows that spotlight the sublimity of abstract painting. At Haines Gallery, Mike Henderson continues to astonish with his cascade of colliding paint strokes. Each work in "Traces of Places" is controlled chaos — as if Henderson were channeling Jackson Pollock, though instead of dripping his way to a finished work, Henderson moves paint into jagged lines, ridges, quadrants and circles. The resulting patterns, as in My Kind of Blue and West to East, are alive with intense colors. They're a joy to be around.
At Caldwell Snyder, Nicholas Wilton "Off to Sea" reveals a series of hide-and-seek puzzles. There's a figure-eight loop in the giant work called Atlas, but wait — there's smears of blue that fade in and out of the scene, and onion domes, and eye holes and squiggles that add up to a bigger whole.
Wilton and Henderson are longtime Bay Area artists at the top of their profession. Frank, at age 49, has also reached a critical mass, where pretty much anything she does is worth noting. She's also a photographer, and earlier this year, Sacramento's Crocker Art Museum acquired two images she took of the Hunters Point Shipyard that, through a rainy lens, distort everyday street scenes. Normal veers into abnormal. Representational veers into abstraction. That's what Frank has done with her paintings for "Spaces in Between," which are themselves "in between" classifications.
"I consider my work abstract as well as conceptual because of the nature of my process," Frank says. "Applying each layer is an act of creating a space, which eventually multiplies over time and creates a dimensionality."
That dimensionality comes from an artist who has always identified with "in between-ness." In Japan, Frank was a third-generation Japanese — her grandfather emigrated from Korea in the early 1900s — but Koreans face cultural discrimination in Japan, and Frank's grandfather changed his Korean last name to a Japanese one. Frank's grandparents spoke Korean at home but never to her, and Frank's family didn't tell her she was ethnically Korean until she was 10 years old. At age 13, Frank moved with her family to the United States, and as an adult, she married a German man and lived in Germany for many years. "I've always been in between cultures," she says. "I don't fit into any one culture completely."
That feeling of being on the edge, of being both an insider and an outsider, helps give Frank's art its complexity. Her paintings don't advertise Frank's personal history, but it's there in the work, as much a part of the canvas as the beams of light that crowd and crisscross their way from one direction to another.