Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective
Henry Art Gallery, 543-2280.
Through May 6.

Like many people, I had an embarrassing run-in with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance during my idealistic college phase (it was a short phase). What I took away from this brief bout with optimism was the part about paying attention to the trees as you climb up the mountain--that old saw about the journey being as important as the destination.

As cheesy as the provenance of this wisdom is, it does speak to the idea of the artistic process, an idea you'll often hear used in adjectival form, as in, "That show was so process." What it means is that artists often discover what they're doing by doing it; the act of creating art becomes the point, rather than simply the means to the product. Much of this work--often conceptual or performance art, although it is also true for painters, sculptors, photographers--is not even product per se, not buyable, ownable, or even something you can hold in your hand.

Viewing such work often becomes a process in itself, and this is something you should keep in mind when you go to Wolfgang Laib: A Retrospective at the Henry. On first glance, the exhibition looks like a low-key minimalist collection: simple brown forms balanced on a wooden trestle, a cool slab of marble, color-field paintings of brilliant yellow. But it isn't. A look at the works' exhibition labels tells you that something is not quite traditional here; Laib's materials include beeswax, pollen, rice, sealing wax, and milk. Yes, milk. The marble slab is in fact a stone with a shallow depression filled with exactly enough milk to create a smooth surface. The color-field paintings, which are on the floor, are created from pollen meticulously sifted into large squares that challenge the retinas as effectively as Mark Rothko's layers of paint. The exhibition catalogue also indicates that something else is afoot: In every image of the artist working, he is crouched on the floor in a thoughtful pose, whether he is gathering pollen or pouring milk.

Laib, who is German, has been creating such work for about 25 years. One of the oddest items in his resume is that he is fully trained as a doctor, but at the last minute had a change of heart and has never practiced. Part of this decision evolved from time spent in southern India, both absorbing the culture and studying the hygiene of the drinking water there. He returned to Germany and created his first work of art, a large black rock that he slowly carved into a perfect egg over the course of three months. Perhaps it was the meditative form of the work, the slow transformation of the rock into the ovoid, perhaps it was some other inner dissatisfaction, but he never returned to medicine. Art, it seemed, answered some need that medicine could not.

This meditative feeling is never far from any of Laib's work. To look at it, viewers have to somehow take themselves a step or two back from the object and imagine the work necessary to make it. Repetitive, slow, ritualistic work, work that must be done in that crouched position. Laib himself is often described as "monkish," perhaps because of his close-cropped hair, loose simple clothing, and shy, self-effacing manner.

Now, I love work that indicates artistic process, work that tells me something about how the artists got from here to there, what they might have been thinking, but I'm inherently wary of the spiritual or the New Agey. Reading the catalogue and looking at images of Laib's art, I felt shut out and a bit uncomfortable, the way I feel when I hear someone talk about a religion I can't sign on with. So I was unprepared for how much I would like the work in person. I was struck by how friendly it was, how easy to look at and love. Some of it is even humorous; one of his rice houses has piles of rice (basmati, of course) nestled around it, with one small pile of pollen included among them like an ugly duckling. In one of the upstairs galleries there are two ziggurat-like forms built of beeswax--an unusual choice for such large forms, which completely fill the room with their bulk and their fragrance. I could have stayed in there for hours, perhaps not meditating but thinking about the malleability of the wax, the process necessary to get it there.