Guy Chase – 2007

Guy Chase9th STREET ENTRY GALLERY | St. Paul, MN
GUY CHASE | “Disappearing Blac]t”: Guy Chase’s Paintings of Sudoku Puzzle Pages
September 7 – October 20, 2007

Centered, the clear grid of the Sudoku puzzle, each one solved, all squares filled in with numbers that do not count neatly in numerical order but nevertheless satisfy the need for order. The same problem posed nine different ways per page. The same problem resolved nine times, each different yet all the same. All nine together constituting some larger puzzle and solution. A balance of the nine primary digits (no zero, no void) plotted in the pure geometry of the grid. Things add up. A kind of perfection reigns. Mystery solved.

This neat, satisfied grid of resolution floats on the page without moorings in the open field of blank white margins, hovering there. But the margins are real too. They are the zero, the emptiness, the utter openness. The ordered grid could not exist without them. There is no counting without a void to count against. And it remains unclear whether the mathematical order at the center or the unbounded field of white at the margins is the larger reality. Both realms and what happens in each (and what happens between them) has to do with what Guy Chase paints.

In the margins—in the purity of uncharted open white light—are scattered jumbles of child-like doodles, arithmetic figuring, cryptic personal notes, musings like diary entries, terse and enigmatic phrases of disorder, of trouble about love, anger, loneliness, forgiveness, prayers, hope, grace, recriminations. “Don’t hate.” “Forgive.” “Pray for her.” Sometimes the marginalia of the back of the previous page bleeds through onto this one, as if the musings about feelings and relationships has a deep history full of memories that are submerged but still powerful. These random scribblings play against the ordered rows of numbers, just as the pure white field of the margins plays against the black field of the squares. An array of opposites and paradoxes vie together: order and disorder, dark and light, mathematics and emotions, hope and despair, love and hate, grace and guilt.

Weaving between these pairs are the words of the Sudoku book’s pages, now serving double duty in meaning. Literally they indicate the difficulty of each puzzle. “Sudoku for Dummies,” “Easy,” “Tough,” “Tricky,” “Diabolical.” Metaphorically they imply the difficulty of life’s relationships. Puzzles centered at the core of the human need for order, stability, and resolution; puzzles floating in the open field of the human yearning for mystery and freedom.

Anyone who has worked Sudoku puzzles knows the tension between obsessiveness and contemplation that they induce. How perfect and delightful, then, is the other word on these pages: “Puzzlemania.” It is said that exercising the mind by doing Sudoku staves off dementia. We fear that inevitable breakdown from rationality into irrationality. One meaning of “dementia” is “disorder of the mental processes, madness, mania.” Keep working the numbers and you will keep your mind. But dementia is not the only breakdown we fear. Love breaks down, people hurt each other, life dissolves into scrawlings in the margins. Another meaning of “dementia” is “derangement caused by injury, marked by personality change and impaired reasoning.” And so “to puzzle” is to contemplate, to sort out, make sense of, decipher.” “Puzzlemania,” all the numbers in their right place at the center while the margin swims with discord.

But there is more. In several of the paintings small figures are attached to the corner of the Sudoku grid. These are excerpts lifted from Illuminated Bibles and Prayer Books. The figure is the Gospel writer, Luke. He is secured to the rational border of the Sudoku grid at his feet, but the rest of him hangs out into the open white space of the margin’s abyss. In illuminated manuscripts the gospel writer’s image means “divine revelation,” God’s wisdom brought into the troubles of this world. Here his location (upside down or sideways) mediates between the clarity of the mathematical puzzle and the unbounded enigma of the white margin. He writes his gospel exactly at that intersection between order (indeed, between the seemingly predetermined order of numbers) and the anarchic utter freedom of the white field, between pure rationality and the stream of consciousness as fragments of language and emotion. This is where faith and hope and love have always existed. It is noteworthy that in some of these paintings a new geometric shape, a field of gold, appears bordering the grid but moving out into the margin. The gold ground of icons, the spiritual presence of the ineffable divine intercedes.

Even so, all of this is still not full enough. These are paintings and they bear the beauty of the painter’s dilemmas. Ever since Mondrian fully absorbed Cubism’s discoveries, the grid has stood a fundamental structure for painting. The Minimalists reduced painting to the purest of formalist concept in their monochromatic grids. Ad Reinhardt claimed that no painting was possible beyond his black square paintings, which were, interestingly enough, nine smaller squares gridded into a larger square hovering on the white wall of the modernist gallery. Eventually it came out that these were not “merely formalist” reductions. Reinhardt’s friendship with the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, his interest in Buddhism, and especially in the Upanishads, suggests why these simple paintings bear such rich presence and mystery.

Guy Chase’s works bear a relationship to this tradition of Minimalism and richer spiritual connection. Each Sudoku grid is painted with a subtle nuance of blacks. The variegated play of tones soothes and intrigues. There is a logic to the blacks. In fact, with only a few exceptions, there is no literal “black” here, but rather an infinite variation of colors mixed to approximate black. The particular black mixed was meant to suit the color of the ink of the puzzle. But when that “black” was laid down, the shades used to mix it played against the black of the ink, making it seem green or blue or red. Thus the next black was mixed to match that tonality, which in turn made it seem to be yet a different tone. And so on. Just as the determining of the right sequence of numbers has its own variations obeying an internal mathematical logic, so too the internal logic of getting the right black has a color logic related to resolving the eye.

In the histories of art, symbolism, poetic image, and religious insight, black is the color of mystery. It is about darkness, death, despair; but it is equally about the “dark night of the soul” that gives ultimate illumination. It is about a particular experience of beauty and mystery gained only by passing through the dark. And that passing through the darkness happens only by confessional contemplation of life’s puzzle. Whether or not we can stave off the dementia of aging, there is another kind of “dementia” that heals. In Ancient Greece, Socrates linked inspiration to the temporary madness of the Daemon. (A word whose root is not far from “dementia.”) In Zen Buddhism, Enlightenment is linked to the disruption of linear rationality through the apparent absurdity of the koan. In Christianity we must abandon the wisdom of this world and become fools for Christ. Hatred is overcome by love. Grace triumphs over guilt. Guy Chase’s painting are not only intelligent. They are courageous in their searching yet playful investigation of “puzzle.” And in this, they are beautiful, both as objects and as healing.

Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.
Art Historian, Bethel College