The Painting in the Rafters

Bernice Bing in her studio, ©late 1950s,  photograph by Charles Snyder

What is the mystery?
The mystery is the work in process.
Visually, I sense a great order of things and attempt to transpose this mystery into a picture. I used to look for meaningful order in life, now I am accepting things as IS. That nothing is certain, and in my imagery is ever-changing. We are at an epoch of a brave new world, and my hope is that our views will change about how we see our world, not to stay with the things familiar, but to reach out for the unknown.
-Bernice Bing, 10/18/92

The Painting in the Rafters: Re-Figuring Abstract Expressionist Bernice Bing*

by Jennifer Banta ©2009

My tiny office with the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, perched above the SomArts Gallery, is a site for exchange, community, politics, laughter, and ambitious cultural production. SomArts, one of six city-owned cultural centers, has history in every crevice. The ineffable presence of those who came before pervades this space. Stored beneath the rafters above my desk, for example, was a 1980 painting by the first Executive Director of SomArts–painter Bernice Bing. Burney Falls was one of several canvases that she painted of this location in Northern California, sometimes called the eighth wonder of the natural world.

Bing, Bernice. Burney Falls. 1980. Oil on Canvas, 96 x 77 3/4″. Collection of the Artist.

I was told that Bing’s painting had been haphazardly propped up in the hallway until it was recognized and rescued to higher ground. The fact that Bing’s painting was stored in such a manner would seem to be at worst a high art crime, at best sheer neglect.  I could not reconcile this lack of respect, yet it seemed oddly emblematic of the treasure trove that is SomArts, where high and low art commingle.

The specter of invisibility has become the conduit for considering how a desire to create a visual archive of Bernice Bing’s life, art, and legacy has as much to do with excavating and preserving the material of her artwork as with her lived experience. I needed to understand the importance of the spiritual path Bing followed and the meditation practice that gave her focus and confidence as well as her search for her diasporic community in order to begin to navigate this in-between space. By approaching this task experientially, through listening to stories, looking at her paintings, and reading her journals, I too have found myself in the mystery of constant discovery. I am drawn to this state of absence, and I find that presence is returned by how I negotiate this space. I believe that art provides a medium for accessing this space of forgotten stories– making visible the invisible.  As if the catalyst for my intent had been far closer than I could have realized, with Burney Falls hanging above my head every day, Bernice Bing’s oeuvre needed to be, in effect, dusted off and brought to light.

To read the essay in its entirety, please click here.
*excerpt from a previously published essay ©2009.

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