Tom Fellner’s exhibition of paintings at White Columns was part of a continuing curatorial series of solo shows of relatively unknown artists that are held in the White Room, a modest-sized room off the central exhibition space. In the few years since its assumption of this role, the White Room has served as a suitably proportioned gallery to view an at once sizable but not overly ambitious quantity of work by an emerging artist. Fellner, an artist still in the academic throes of development, was carefully articulate in exhibiting only six paintings from a single series, not straying with a retrospective inclusion of less mature work or erupting in a bravura performance of hit-or-miss experimentation.
Fellner’s highly repetitive and intentionally limited “Malkos” series (1985) is based upon the Indian raga “milks.” Ragas, the traditional music of India, are meditational pieces that are composed to correspond to a particular time of day, mood, and action. “Malkos” is a raga for midnight prayer, the humble abandon of the soul in the sublimity of night. This transcendental, meditative calm and its aura of spiritual nocturnalism is resonant of the Romantic’s scrutiny of an evasive and ethereal natural order. Fellner’s reach toward an understanding and organic representation of a sacred void is perhaps just the enlightened mood active in such different oeuvres as those of Futura 2000, Tony Pinotti, and Peter Schuyff—an ecstacy of the unknown that surfaces as melancholic nostalgia.
Fellner excavates form from a nocturnal void of dark pigment; the slick oil surface murmurs only a hint of the oversaturated color. He pushes the paint aside, rendering the void to reveal an innate cosmic anatomy, which appears as an absence of nothingness etched into the tinted surface of the underlying fabric. The different support materials that were used—canvas, linen, and burlap—lend to these apparitions a sensual corporeality The spiral, a universal constant, is the sort of generic sign that is applicable to the earth as well as to the infinite; it may denote a leaf, a brain, a galaxy, or the pattern of all growth and movement. In this sense, Fellner’s spiritual geometry is figurative and abstract; it is the shorthand sign of a spiritual reality—a symbol—like the Indian mandala or the cryptic language of the American Indian pictograph.
The sincerity and intensity of Fellner’s esthetic concentration cannot be questiond; but as compelling as the “malkos” may be, it lies at the end of a remote journey not easily distanced in a lifetime of oil paintings. The contemplative stillness of this installation may have been in harmony with this classical Indian musical form, but to effectively evoke its essence would have been to invent some mystic harmonic substitute to simulate a religion, music, and sensibility perhaps too out of tune with the Western mind. Grand voyages of the soul such as this are surely not without merit, but they require a mad conceptual leap that few, save brave Don Quixotes like Yves Klein, can ever make.