Spirits Empowered presents recent works by celebrated Tibetan artist Tsherin Sherpa (b. 1968, Kathmandu). These vibrant canvases elaborate on the concept of the ‘spirit’, an expression borrowed from Tibetan Buddhist imagery. This is his fourth solo show with Rossi & Rossi.
‘Spirit’, as art historian Katharine Burnett points out in her essay “OfIcons and Elvises: ‘Tibetan Spirit’ in Tsherin Sherpa’s New Art”, is a term layered with meanings. It invokes sanctity in the Himalayan context, whilst inWestern culture, it can refer to an alcoholic drink, petrol or paraffin. The diverse array of options for what a spirit can be opens Sherpa’s image-making to multiple possibilities of engagement with and reimagination of both form and subject matter.
Growing up in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sherpa was first trained in traditionalTibetan thangkas by his father, Master Urgen Dorje Sherpa. Vehicles for contemplation, thangka paintings are meant to assist practitioners in meditation through visualising Buddhist deities and religious narratives. On the other end of the spectrum, contemporary Western art and artists came under the artist’s radar in 1998, when he first moved to California. There, visuals fromOccidental pop culture butted heads with classical Buddhist iconography, a clash that liberated Sherpa’s creative process from its constricting formal principles. As a result, he began to integrate influences from both conventions.
‘I’m curious how a unique essence can be maintained, celebrated and shared whilst also integrating the benefits found within the surroundings of a new environment’, the artist explains. Such inquiry is evident in Skippers(Bubblegum) (2019–20), which is completely free from association with any particular historical or iconographic connotation. The juxtaposition of the secular and the sacred, the past and the contemporary, all against a golden background, resembles an unworldly realm akin to that found in Byzantine icons and frescoes.
A member of the Himalayan diaspora, Sherpa closely observes the preservation and transformation of a scattered heritage. His works intentionally do not belong to any culture, instead suggesting an invitation to reflect on the ideas of flux, transition and (dis)placement. Tiger Milkweed (2019–20) borrows its name from a butterfly, which reveals Sherpa’s fascination with impermanence as well as the constant state of flux familiar to nomadic people.
What Sherpa paints is not a deity, but a spirit with Buddhist precepts. In Skywalker (2020), he transforms the orthodox rendition of a god, along with his attire and attributes, into a swirl of paint. Close inspection shows altered sates of the heads, limbs, jewellery and flames. The work’s graphic quality is a result of digital manipulation that the artist often employs in distorting the defined features of a holy being into a nebulous spirit.
‘Because I experienced Buddhist teachings when I was growing up, I know that form is not the ultimate goal’, notes Sherpa, ‘how one looks at the form is more important’.