Whitehot Magazine

Five Elements: Bill Pangburn’s Rivers

(Left to right): 7 Drawings #1, 2009 , watercolor and gouache, 80 x 40 inches. 7 Drawings #5, 2009, watercolor and gouache, 80 x 40 inches. Large Red River, 2010, Watercolor, 78 x 59 inches.

By ROBERT C. MORGAN March 30, 2024

Artists are willing to take risks and keen observation, utilizing their creative intuition to strike the right chord at precisely the right moment. Bill Pangburn is a highly regarded artist who meticulously approaches his work, especially within the confines of his studio. Pangburn's unique perspective serves as the axis around which his art revolves, leading his work to embody a distinct sensibility that operates on his own terms. Over the years, the artist Bill Pangburn has opened his doors to a consummate number of paintings. Throughout his career, Pangburn has explored a multitude of mediums ranging from Asian-style ink painting to oil and watercolor compositions, as well as the intricate craft of woodblock prints.  

The seriousness and diversity of what goes on at Bill's studio still resonates with me, as I was even more fascinated when I experienced his solo exhibition at the Artego Gallery. Curated by Soojung Hyun, the exhibition titled "Five Elements: Bill Pangburn’s Rivers" synthesizes an exquisite exploration at Pangburn's assorted artistic world. The exhibition presents stunning black-and-white woodblock prints, paintings that vividly capture the serene and dynamic nature, and a variety of small works throughout his color-ridden world of artistry. The works can be perceived in many dimensions, contingent on how the artist is able to maneuver his construction. 

Through his commitment, Pangburn visualizes the essence of nature, focusing on water as a potent embodiment of substance and ready-made symbols. The water courses are connected to Pangburn's experiences from various geographical locations, such as the Canadian River from his hometown in Texas, the Hudson River in New York as his neighbor, and the shores of Crete in Greece.

Hudson Beiseite Night and Day, 2018, reduction woodcut, 120 x 86 x 20 inches. Paper Size: 120 x 38 inches.

Pangburn's artwork captures images of water waves and course. The true dynamism of his creations comes to life within these empty spaces wherein water and earth intersect. This is a profound exploration of the delicate balance between opposing forces, where the fluidity of water blurs the lines that separate land and water. Through this remarkable interplay of coexistence, the elements in this work suggest what Pangburn's aspects consider significant properties.

While PangburnI's work engages visually and conceptually, it also entirely holds its tactile sensation—'tactile' in the sense that a kind of physical presence sustains his works. The work of Pangburn in the creation of woodblock prints offers a depth of art beyond the mere contrast between black and white surfaces. The art form is a testament to the intricacies and complexities of traditional printmaking, communicated through the artist's attention to detail and their mastery of the medium. The nuanced interplay between black and white creates a sophisticated narrative.

A marvelous and exceptional achievement of Hudson Beiseite Night and Day (2018) conveys a sense of balance between materials and the concept of Pangburn's art. The diptych prints were made on a single wood block and printed on a large vertical paper measuring 120 x 86 inches; the day image presents the bright sun’s reflection on the water by Charbonnel silver etching ink on intense black ink, whereupon his opposite composition makes the night image. The diptych fits on a vertical wall of the Artego Gallery, which presents itself perfectly.  In Pangburn's precise work, in which he persistently carves images into woodblocks over a long period, the river is an image from nature. Still, it is reconstructed according to the artist's creative intention and the simplified lines of the woodcut knife, rather than having a singular figurative aspect, also showing myriad elements of abstract art. 

Jaguars Love to Swim, 2024, woodcut, 67 x 32 inches. Paper Size: 96 x 38.25 inches.

Jaguars Love to Swim (2024) is the most recently completed work in this exhibition, and the woodblock print is rich in free lines and shapes. Although Jaguars are not depicted directly in this work, their movements and patterns suggest the Jaguars are swimming in the river. While Hudson Beiseite Night and Day depicts static movement, Jaguars Love to Swim conveys the vitality of nature through dynamic lines.

The 7 Drawings series is a collection of watercolor and gouache paintings on handmade Chinese paper. Although he had never studied Eastern calligraphy professionally, the work I saw in his studio suggested an approach that linked calligraphy and ink-and-wash painting, transforming calligraphy into painting. The three works in this exhibition are painted in a blue and red color reminiscent of water on thick hand-grained paper resembling the color of the ground. It is said that this work was inspired by the Cadadian River, which he saw from an airplane. His reduction of form came into existence through the subtle movements of the brush without any external dependence on any causal relationship. I was fascinated by his incredible insight and humility.

I was interested in how his philosophy related to his art, Pangburn’s work is based on western mediums, but he has indeed found a way to transcend from Asian medium and aesthetics to his point of view. The analysis of the curator Soojung Hyun about Pangburn’s work with East Asian cosmology, which can be comprehended through the principles of the Five Elements, which composes wood, fire, earth, metal, and water as symbolic elements rooted in "Wu Xing," a Chinese philosophy. The curator emphasizes the metaphysical understanding of Pangburn's work. The theme of the exhibition was the interconnection of different materials, and in particular, the energy of fusion that crossed the boundaries between the artist and the work. So, then, Pangburn’s paintings are intelligent and sensitive abstract and figurative paintings. On view March 1 through March 30, 2024. WM

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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