After collapsing in the hospital following heart surgery, longtime Buddhist teacher Sam Bercholz felt himself being pulled violently down into a realm beyond life, where he witnessed dramatic suffering. Bercholz recounted the nightmarish imagery and intense sensations of this near-death experience to Tibetan American artist Pema Namdol Thaye. The artist drew on his training in traditional Tibetan arts as well as his childhood obsession with graphic novels to translate these descriptions into a series of vibrant acrylic paintings; more than 20 of these works are on view in this exhibition.
Thaye’s paintings forcefully depict the karmic suffering of hell-beings in fantastical landscapes, both fiery and crystalline. These characters — among them a suicide bomber, a murderous warlord, a self-absorbed socialite, a scientist who invents a doomsday bomb — each represent a negative habit of mind: envy, hate, greed, disdain, materialism.
The artworks encourage us to contemplate suffering in order to inspire us toward greater good in life. To this end, the final painting in the series, Samsara, reminds us that hell is only one of six possible destinations on the karmic wheel of life.