Meet New York-born Pam Douglas, who began her career as an artist by absorbing the abstract expressionist art exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. “I saved my lunch money to go to the museum. In college, the art studio was a revelation to a kid who never had access to art supplies. Growing up, anything unrelated to survival or grades that would get me a scholarship was considered an indulgence we couldn’t afford,” she recalls. “But discovery after discovery lured me to spend my college years in that studio even if becoming an artist wasn’t practical.”
Today her beautiful mixed media works pay respect to Zen artists of the first millennium such as Lao Tsu, who used their instincts as much as their brush, artists for whom “paintings were poetry. I found my inspiration in ancient Asian paintings reflected through contemporary sensibilities,” Douglas says.
Now based in Los Angeles, she feels the landscape here “opened my visual ideas to horizontals, having grown up in New York City, cold and poor, in a lifestyle trapped in vertical boundaries. To me, my feeling for exploration and taking chances on creative impulses is very much a product of Los Angeles.”
Douglas’ committment to poetic exploration is firmly a part of her exhibition at TAG Gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamont Station. Rhythms was inspired by what could’ve been prosaic for many: a visit to the doctor’s. While Douglas was hooked up to an EKG, watching the lines form on scrolling paper, the rhythm of her heart inspired this new series of paintings.
She conceptualized ideas about current political and social situations, asking herself what makes the heart clench, and what makes it release? Using newspaper headlines, EKG lines, and elements from rope to string, sand to paint, she created a textural landscape that includes finely representational elements such as birds and hands as well as abstractions. Her palette consists primarily of black, white, and shades of red, a riff, perhaps on the old riddle “what’s black and white and ‘read’ all over – the newspaper.”
From the rhythms of the EKG to sound waves and the rhythms of nature, daylight, and night, Douglas has expanded her subject to something otherworldly and profound. Douglas has long been fascinated by the rhythms of the world, including the most eternal rhythm, life and death.
“Ten years ago I prepared to die. I was to have life-threatening spine fusion surgery followed by weeks in intensive care followed by three months in pain unable to walk or drive. In that time, I took my hands off the steering wheel of my career and everything others expected of me. The experience led me to contemplate the fragile line between life and what lies beyond,” she explains.
“My art saved me. On days when I could hardly stand, I propped myself at my painting table, so immersed in the painting before me that my physical disabilities became background noise. The work itself often dealt with transparencies at a time when reality itself was not solid. I also worked with circles, the symbol of universal continuity. The form is a nod to Zen painters who focus on the symbolism of the circle. In fact, I revisited my earlier studies in ancient Asian art and philosophy, and those ideas continue to influence my thinking.”
Her consideration of the circle of life and death have occupied her creative output ever since, she says. Some of that is clearly apparent in Rhythms.
Sometimes a literal interpretation of that idea is apparent as in “The Plus of Our Time,” where Douglas has cut newspaper headlines in the shapes of birds, placing them to flock across an EKG grid.
“That’s an example that veers closer to concept, though in other pieces the pure abstraction of movement or progression is more evident,” Douglas explains.
Her style is essentially conceptual abstraction, which Douglas says differs from abstract expressionism that derives from the artist’s emotional impulse at the moment of painting.
“That isn’t to say that I don’t improvise or paint from feelings, but in my work I reach for an additional layer of significance,” the artist says.
Along with her subjects, her work has evolved in terms of materials as well.
“Long ago, I explored the effects of staining on raw linen in paintings whose subtle, monochromatic palette was meditative. As time has gone on, my work has reached for bolder expressions,” Douglas asserts. “Both Rhythms and my 2014 series The Long Thread transcend two dimensions and the usual definitions of painting. Rope, twine, thread, even sand are used to draw on canvas, or transparent plastic, or raw silk. The textures that evolve from those combinations suggest depths beyond the obvious, as I hope the works themselves do.”
Thematically, the focus of all of Douglas’ art is transcendence. In Rhythms, she bridges contemporary issues with a visceral response, and an interpretation that “transcends the specifics of the moment and delivers an emotional catharsis or level of understanding that links topical concerns to a more universal consciousness.”
Douglas feels strongly that the nature of the artistic process itself invites this sort of exploration, “because every act of creation ventures into the unknown, bringing into form something that hadn’t existed before. Artists inhabit that source as they work, and the most impactful works usually arise from that artistic transcendence.”
Douglas has recently exhibited throughout the Los Angeles area, in shows at Artcore Annual Competition and Exhibition at The Brewery; Hillcrest Center for the Arts; Lampourage Gallery at The Brewery; and Arena One Gallery; as well as shows at TAG Gallery at Bergamot Station including a solo a year ago. She has also exhibited through a 6-month installation at The California African American Museum, and at LACMA.
“An artist is a vessel to manifest images, sounds, movements or stories that may not be visible to others until he or she brings them into this plane,” Douglas attests. “The clearer the artist, the more those images are recognized as true or give an insight into some aspect of truth.”
Experience Douglas’ insight at TAG through September 24th. An artist’s panel – Douglas shares the TAG space with artists Shelley Lazarus and Andrea Kichaven – will take place September 17th at 3 p.m. Don’t miss the chance to connect with Douglas and her emotional heartbeat.
TAG is located at 2525 Michigan Ave. # D3 in Santa Monica.