Alchemy

Reconsidering Beauty (First Aid Flowers) by Chris Hall

First Aid Flowers IV, 30 x 40, acrylic and collage on canvas, 2016

One year ago I wrote a blog post where I considered boycotting beauty in my art and wondered what would happen if all artists followed suit.  It wasn't the best of times and the post, while smart, was full of venom and the snarls of a wolf backed into a corner.  A few days later I followed up with a post where I concluded that in order for a boycott of beauty to work (to make people think about their complicity, either directly or through apathy, regarding hypocrisy and injustices) that they would have to be truly awful, nasty works of art.  The art would have to be brutish, cruel, cold, violent, and depraved.  They would have to be hateful, spiteful works.  They would have no redeeming value whatsoever . . ."  After some thought I decided that "I just don't think I have it in me to make that kind of art . . . I have too much heart in me."  My worst fault has always been the volatile mix of impatience with anger (though I have have gotten better over the years), and while impatience/anger has the positive of providing a motivation for accomplishing great things, the process can be destructive.  Fortunately this is not my preferred or even my natural state of mind.  I've always preferred grace and beauty and my natural state is much more sanguine (humor, cheer, idealism).  I wrote the boycott beauty posts one year ago, and when I look back and see how far I have come, I see now that these new paintings, this return to beauty, was inevitable.  2016 found me with a good work, the first in quite a long time (teaching at Kennesaw State University and publishing the occasional article for Burnaway), an upcoming exhibition in Poland, enjoying the mild comforts of spring amidst a flowering landscape,  and the company of good friends to whom I am very grateful (the richest of all these new developments). 

The new series is comprised of seven paintings, six of which are finished (the seventh will be completed in Poland).  They are flower paintings.  The last time I painted flowers to this degree was in 2001.  The circumstances were similar (new job, an exhibition, spring beauty, and a new relationship - all following a dark period).  It is as if the stars are aligned in the sky in the same configuration as before, as I have found myself in love with life again (imperfect as it may be, still).  These flowers, as before in 2001, are about healing, resurgence, and in the end, celebration.  

What does one do with flowers?  Of course we keep them around solely for the sake of beauty, but there is more to it than that.  Flowers (like all things beautiful) heal the spirit.  We give flowers to sick people in hospitals for this reason, and at funerals.  We keep flowers about us in our life to help ease life's troubles.  In the end beauty and grace are triumphant, conquering the ugliness in the world, which is why we also keep flowers around for celebratory scenes, such as holidays, weddings, parties, etc.

The healing power of flowers was what got me motivated to start this series.  After a rough night I woke to find a texted photograph of flowers on my phone, from a friend, with only one word attached to it:  happiness.  I knew what I had to do after that.  One month later I finished six new works . . .

I started each canvas by pasting a layer of collaged pain assessment charts that one would get in an emergency room.  I didn't like how the faces (read from left to right) transitioned from happiness to pain, so I reversed them.  These were to be healing flowers.  However after the first canvas was laid out I saw that the final face on the far right returned to pain.  It was at this time that I decided to embrace the new works as a kind of narrative, from one painting to the next.  This is also evident in how the red and yellow bands on the top of each canvas alternate and how the black band on the bottom parts of the canvases seem to meet if the six paintings are read as two triptychs.  Other elements that demonstrate that these are healing flowers are, of course, the repeated first aid symbol and the collaged ink drawings referencing pain and healing.  Finally, each canvas has a series of alchemy symbols as part of the composition.  Jung long ago made the connection between alchemical processes and healing.  Keeping this in mind I used only the symbols of alchemical processes, and not the symbols referencing any physical material, the suggested material being the human spirit.  The process of healing as described by these alchemy symbols furthers my concept of these paintings being a narrative.  Finally, we see that even in the sixth painting, the right side of the painting returns with the painful face (the emergency room pain assessment chart).  For the seventh and final painting I intend to make sure that the far right of the painting ends with happiness and that the cycle of recurring pain (the human condition) will end.  The concept of eternal recurrence symbolized in the form of the ouroboros (the snake swallowing its tail) will be shown as broken apart, grace and beauty triumphant.

I cannot predict the future and I do not know how this all will end, but despite my sometimes dark nature, my natural tendency is toward light.  I am an idealist.  These works have been helpful to me and I hope they may be helpful to others as well, and I suspect they will be.  Even if they do not grasp the levels of meaning within the works, there are always the flowers, and by themselves they have enough magic within them to carry the day and do what they do best:  happiness.

Creating Monsters by Chris Hall

Son of Frankenstein, 1939.

Recently, in conversation with another artist, it was brought to my attention that I use a Postmodernist aesthetic in my artwork, most notably in my use of text in art, which did not really start to happen until the 1960's.  I was, admittedly, taken aback, but I had to agree with the facts.  It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Modernist and Postmodernist aesthetic.  Postmodernism does not believe in originality; instead it champions pastiche and cultural sampling . . . and Postmodernism has actively mined Modernist art for inspiration.  Using Post-modern pastiche techniques can make for interesting results, but I stand firm in my belief, the Modernist belief, that originality is possible.  In this regard, and in many others, I mostly subscribe to the Modernist philosophy.  But I wonder, am I making a mistake?  

Often, I am too much of a dinosaur, philosophically, to be accepted by Postmodernists, but too Postmodern in my aesthetic to be accepted by certain Re-modernists.  Just like many other aspects of my life, I find myself without a home, left roaming the swamps like a monster on the outskirts of civilization.  In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, we learn that Dr. Victor Frankenstein created his monster by merging the rational Enlightenment science of his day with the ancient, more mystical based science of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and others.  His creation was deemed to be a monster and he was doomed to live a life of lonely exile, unloved by all.  But Dr. Victor Frankenstein's monster (abandoned at birth, he was never given a name) was not born a monster, he was made out to be a monster the society that shunned him.  The monster tried hard to be accepted by others, but after repeated rebuttals, ended up embracing his role as a scourge to mankind.  I wonder, is this to be the fate of my work?  When I attempt to make an artwork combining Modernist philosophy with Postmodern aesthetics, am I producing monsters?  Because I love my work, what I do, does this make me a monster, too?  Am I doomed to be forever an outcast?  While I might revel in the thought of making monstrous artwork that might become a holy terror among the polite circles of the bourgeois and intelligentsia, I do not revel in the lonely existence it has thus far given me.

Some Notes on the History of Paint by Chris Hall

Paint is composed of two elements, a pigment and a binder.  The pigment, a ground up granular like powder, gives the paint its color, while the binder acts as a glue to bind the pigment to a surface, whether that be a cave wall, a canvas, or a piece of paper.  

In 2011, the earliest example of paint was found in South Africa.  It dates back 100,000 years.  The first paints were composed of pigments derived from the earth, such as clays and sand, and animal derivatives, such as charred animal bones.  The first artists used spit and animal fat as a binder.  Later, as our ancestors developed a taste for honey, eggs, and milk, egg white, egg yolk, bee’s wax, and milk was used as a binder.  

In search of a more permanent and harder solution, binders derived from plants developed, such as linseed oil (used in oil painting) and gum Arabic (used in watercolor).  When linseed oil became a scarce commodity during the Second World War, synthetic binders made from artificial resins emerged and Acrylic paint was born.

The history of pigment development is one of a search for new colors, permanence (fade resistance), affordability, and less toxicity.  In this regard, the general trend has been to move away from organic and earth derived pigments, and toward synthetic pigments.  

Some interesting examples of obsolete pigments include:

Indian Yellow

Indian Yellow 2.jpg

Indian Yellow was made from the urine collected from cows that were force feed a diet of mango leaves.  The urine was collected and dried, producing small foul-smelling balls of raw pigment called “purree.”  Cows do not digest mango leaves very efficiently as the leaves contain a toxin similar to poison ivy.  Consequently, the cows were often thin and malnourished.  Apparently, even though the cow was/is considered sacred by many in India, they did not think anything about profiting from the starvation of cows.  The practice of producing Indian Yellow was declared inhumane and outlawed in 1908.

Mummy Brown

The use of Mummy Brown as a pigment dates from the 16th century to the early 20th century.  Like the name implies, it was derived from the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies.  The pigment, falling between burnt umber and raw umber in color, was good for producing transparent effects in glazing, shadows, and flesh tones, and was a favorite color in the palette of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.  The pigment quickly lost its popularity once the secret to its composition became generally known to artists.  The Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was reported to have ceremonially buried his tube of Mummy Brown in his garden when he discovered its true origins.  By this time, however, the supply of available mummies had become exhausted, and with the birth of modern Egyptology, new mummies were no longer forthcoming.  Sometimes this pigment was alternatively named Caput Mortuum (latin for “Dead Head” or “Worthless Remains”).  Caput Mortuum is also an Alchemical term for the useless residue left over from processes such as Sublimation and is symbolic of decay and decline.  Alchemists represented Caput Mortuum in their art and texts by using a stylized Death's Head  symbol.


Ultramarine Blue

Ultramarine 4.jpg

The name Ultramarine is from Latin meaning “beyond the sea,” referring to the distance one had to travel in order to obtain it.  Ultramarine Blue is an expensive pigment sourced from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in Afghanistan.  Lapis Lazuli was also extremely difficult to grind-down, filter, and refine into a high quality pigment.  In Renaissance times, wealthy patrons would commission works using Ultramarine Blue as a status symbol (stipulating its use in their contracts), as the pigment was worth its weight in gold.  Its brilliance was also desired by painters.  The 15th century artist Cennino Cennini wrote in his handbook for painters: "Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass."  Synthesized in 1826, Ultramarine went from being one of the most expensive pigments produce to now being one of the most cheapest.  Real Ultramarine is still manufactured (it is both non-toxic and permanent), but remains extremely cost prohibitive.  During the darkest days in the recent wars in Afghanistan, a tiny tube of paint could cost $500.

Tyrian Purple  

Tyrian Purple is technically a dye (smaller colored particles diluted in liquid rather than suspended) and not a pigment, but it's history is also worth discussing.  Tyrian Purple (also known as Imperial Purple) had a reddish purple tint and was extremely light-fast (rare among the early colors).  It was also expensive to produce, as it was derived from the collected mucus of the Muricidae family of predatory sea snails.  Discovered by the Phoenicians as early as 1570 BCE, the pigment was used almost exclusively by royalty because of its cost, which was reported to be worth its weight in silver.  In fact, in some places, sumptuary laws were put into place restricting its use those of “noble birth.”  In Byzantium, where such sumptuary laws were practiced, a child born of a reigning Emperor was said to be “born into the purple.”  Byzantine production of Tyrian Purple came to abrupt stop after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade.  Soon the color fell out of favor (replaced by Vermillion and Crimson) as no one in the West could gather the financial resources to restart production.  Incidently, Tyrian Purple was also produced in Pre-Columbian Mexico, from the same sea snails, where it was valued more than gold and also used denote those of “noble birth.”  For all its Royal implications, cloth dyed in Tyrian Purple tended to retain its fishy odor.  So pervasive was this stench that the Talmud actually granted women the right to divorce their husband if they became a dyer after marrying.

Sepia

The word Sepia comes from the Greek, meaning “cuttlefish,” and that is exactly from where the red-brown pigment comes from, more specifically, the cuttlefish ink sac.  Sepia ink was first commonly used in the Greco-Roman world, as a writing ink.  Artists used it as a drawing medium starting in the Renaissance, with the practice continuing up through the 19th century.  In the late 18th century, Jacob Seydelmann found a way to concentrate Sepia so that it could be used as a watercolor and oil paint.  Because Sepia is not very light-fast, it is difficult today to find real Sepia pigment.  Fortunately, however, Sepia has now been successfully synthesized and a hue is available.

Carmine

A New World pigment derived from crushed shells of the female Cochineal insect.  Replaced Crimson in Europe, which was derived from the Kermes insect.  Although comparable in color quality and intensity, it required 12 times as much Kermes insects to produce the same amount of color from the Cochineal insect.  Consequently, Carmine pigment became one of the first export goods from the New World after Hernando Cortez's conquest of Mexico, the second most valuable, after silver.  Such was its value as a raw product, that its price was regularly quoted in the London and Amsterdam Commodities Exchanges.  The Mexican monopoly on Carmine came to an end during the Mexican War of Independence (1810- 1821), with production centers starting in Guatemala, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and Spain, though as an artist pigment, Carmine was soon replaced by its synthesized version, Alizarin Crimson.  Carmine survives today as a pigment used to color food products and cosmetics.

Dragon's Blood

From the time of the Romans up through the Medieval times, Dragon's Blood pigment was literally thought to have derived from the congealed blood of Dragons and Elephants, mixed together as they fought in mortal combat.  The truth to its production was kept secret for over a thousand years.  Dragon's Blood pigment was produced from the sapped gum of a South East Asian tree and the story was most likely invented as a marketing device.  Dragon's Blood was used in the famous Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.  The pigment is known to be extremely fugitive (it fades rapidly).  Inhis handbook for painters, the 15th century artist Cennino Cennini writes concerning Dragon's Blood, “leave it alone and do not have much respect for it..."


Indigo

Indigo is a dye extracted from plants of the genus Indigofera, native to the tropic regions of the world.  Indigo is dark blue in color.  Indigo dye is one of the world's oldest and best known colors, being produced in the ancient times in India, China, Japan, and South East Asia, as well as in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Britain, Mesoamerica, Peru, Iran, and Africa.  Because blue pigment is rare in nature and is difficult to produce, trade in Indigo dye became very lucrative.  In some circles, Indigo dye was referred to as “Blue Gold.”  Indigo was a major export crop supported by plantation slavery in colonial South Carolina in the 18th century, second only to rice production (cotton was not profitable until after the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793).  Later, peasants in Bengal revolted against unfair treatment by the East India Company traders/planters in what became known as the Indigo Revolt in 1859, during the British Raj  government of India.  

Maya Blue

The secret to Maya Blue production has long been lost to history, but scientists in recent years are finally putting an end to the mystery.  Unlike Indigo, Maya Blue is extremely permanent and light-fast.  Scientists have now discovered that Maya Blue is a combination of Indigo dyes and palygorskite, a clay found in the state of Georgia, in the Southeastern United States.  Besides being used in their art (murals, sculpture, textiles, and illuminated codices) Mayan Blue also held a particular religious significance in Mesoamerican culture, as Human sacrificial victims were frequently daubed with the blue pigmentation.  

Prussian Blue

In 1704, Johann Conrad Dippel discovered the world's first modern synthetic pigment, by accident.  He was trying to produce a red pigment, but instead invented Prussian Blue (also known as Berlin Blue), known for its deep, blue-black color.  Dippel was a controversial figure, a mad scientist type who dabbled in alchemy and illegal anatomy studies in his laboratory in Castle Frankenstein.  In the course of one of his experiments, Dippel is said to have accidentally blown up one of the castle's towers.  It is also said that he tried to re-animate the dead, worked at transferring the soul of one cadaver to another, and boiled and distilled human body parts while seeking to create the Elixir of Life.  It should come as no surprise that Dippel was the inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s character Dr. Victor Frankenstein in her novel Frankenstein.  Prussian Blue is highly toxic, being derived from Cyanide.  Despite being toxic, Prussian Blue pigment was also used as an orally administered medicine, an antidote to heavy metal poisoning.  Dippel himself was reported to have regularly taken doses of the pigment, which, ironically, may have slowly poisoned him.  The skin of his body was said to have been the color of Prussian Blue when he died.  Prussian Blue would go on to have an even more grisly history.  The poisonous gas Zyklon B, used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, was also derived from Cyanide.  Consequently, the walls of the Gas Chambers are stained Prussian Blue.  It is still possible to obtain Prussian Blue today, but for the most part, the color has been replaced on artist's palettes by the less toxic Phthalo Blue.

In case you thought the history of Prussian Blue pigment is all grissly, allow me a chance to redeem it.  A good many beautiful works of art were created with Prussian Blue pigment, including Hokusai's The Great Wave (1832) and Van Gogh's The Starry Night (1889).  There is a potentially interesting connection between the two works.  Prussian Blue did not became popular in the European pallet until sometime in the mid to late 1800's.  Meanwhile, when the color was first imported in 1829 to Japan, works created with Prussian Blue were in great demand.  When Japanese prints made with Prussian Blue pigment found their way back to Europe, they named the exotic color “Hiroshige Blue,” after the Japanese printmaker who used the color extensively.  It seems the people in the West had forgotten that the source of the pigment was actually Germany!  Van Gogh, who collected Japanese prints and who was inspired by their beauty, color, and other formal qualities, perhaps began using Prussian Blue as a result.  

Flake White

Developed in Ancient Greek times, Flake White pigment is derived from White Lead Carbonate.  For centuries, Flake White was considered the perfect pigment, being permanent, fast to  dry, and producing flexible oil films.  There was only one problem:  Flake White is extremely poisonous.  It is thought that it may have contributed to bad physical and mental health, and even death of many artists over the years, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, Michelangelo Caravaggio, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari, and possibly Vincent Van Gogh.  Nevertheless, Flake White was still used by many artists up until after World War II, when it started to lose ground to Titanium White.  By the 1990's only a few manufacturers were offering the color, and it is still possible to buy the pigment today.

Emerald Green

Green pigment (along with blue) has always been the rarest and hardest to produce of the pigment colors, a bit ironic when you consider we live on planet dominated by the colors green and blue.  One of the most beautiful green pigments to have ever been produced is Emerald Green (also known as Scheele's Green), but it is also the most poisonous. It is so poisonous it was sold under the trade name Paris Green as an insecticide and was used to kill the rats in the Parisian sewer system.  Emerald Green was also popular as a wallpaper pigment and would degrade, with moisture and molds, to arsine, a poisonous gas related to arsenic.  The pigment was also used in wax candles, textiles, and children's toys.  Aside from being toxic and exuding toxic gas, Emerald Green was also highly carcinogenic.  It is impossible to figure how many people may have died as a result of the use of the Emerald Green pigment, but we know it may have contributed to the death of Napoleon, who surrounded himself with the color (his favorite) in the damp climate of his exile home on St. Helena.  Analysis of hair samples taken after his death reveal there was a significant amount of arsenic in his body.  Emerald Green was an extremely fugitive color, as it could both fade in sunlight and darken as it tended to chemically react with other colors.  Today there is a safer, synthetic version of the color available.

Woad

The use of Woad as a dye dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used it to color the cloth wrappings of mummies.  It is blue in color dye derived from a flowering plant of the same name.  Woad is most popularly known, thanks to the movie Braveheart, as the dark blue face paint used by the Scots when preparing for battle.  The tradition of using Woad as a body paint dates back to ancient Britain, to the northern Picts (from the Latin Picti, meaning “Painted Ones”), who were recorded by Julius Caesar as having extensively tattooed bodies and covered in designs applied with blue Woad paint.  Woad was in direct competition with Indigo and Logwood, a dye derived from a South American tree, exported by Spain to Europe.  In England, laws were passed preventing the importation of both Indigo and Logwood in order to protect the local Woad industry, and sea battles were fought with Spain over the trade.  As it became clear that Indigo and Logwood were superior pigments, producing stronger dyes with more permanence, the ban was lifted in 1661.  The Woad industry slowly died out, with the last large scale commercial harvest happening in 1932.

Alchemy and Art by Chris Hall

Painting is not about the product, but about the process – the philosophy that drives my life. Elin Pendleton


I’ve always thought there to be a lot of parallels between Alchemy and Art, particularly painting.  Art starts as an idea, an intangible thing, pulled from the air.  It is struck with the electricity of the mind and forged in the fire of the heart.  The idea flows hot from the body, down the arms to the hands, charging the paintbrush with its task.  This is the catalyst, meeting the plastic medium, oil paint in liquid form.  Ideas are mutable, and so is wet paint.  As the mind cools, so does the paint and it begins to dry, transforming itself into a solid, idea incarnate.   This is how art is made.  This is the painting process.  

Art also has parallels to Alchemy in that the Alchemist’s true goal was spiritual enlightenment (the Philosopher’s Stone) through a process of self discovery.  Transmuting gold from lead was a byproduct of the process.  Similarly, the Artist can use the art making process to obtain spiritual growth and enlightenment, with the byproduct being a work of art.  The Alchemist’s and Artist’s true work, then, is “Transmuting the lead of matter / Into bullets of spiritual gold.”   (From Alex Grey’s poem “The Seer”).

The word alchemy is from Arabic, originally ‘Al-khemet’ which means “from Egypt,” where Alchemy was originally practiced.  Egypt was once known as “Khemet” in ancient times, which means “Black Land,” due to the fertile soil found along the banks of the Nile River.  This is also where Alchemy got labeled as a “Black Art.”  Alchemy is traditionally thought to have been invented by the Egyptian god Thoth, the founder of science, religion, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, medicine, and magic.  We know that Cleopatra was a practicing Alchemist; among her personal affects were manuscripts pertaining to the transformation of base metal to gold.  Over the millennia Alchemy would adopt aspects of Greek philosophy, Christian mysticism, the Jewish Cabbala, Arabic science, numerology, and astrology.  Famous alchemists have included the likes of; Pythagoras, Galileo, Da-vinci, Issac Newton, and Napoleon.  From its ancient occult origins, Alchemy would become the basis of modern day Chemistry and Jungian Psychoanalysis.

Besides the promise of gold, alchemy also promised the possibility of creating a healing substance called the Elixir of Life, able to cure all diseases, and, if pure enough, the possibility of immortality.  The famous alchemist St. Germaine is reputed to have found the Elixir of Life and to have benefited from its use, living over three hundred years.  Gold and immortality, however, are only a byproduct.  The Philosopher’s Stone is the real goal of the spiritually minded alchemist.  The Philosopher’s Stone brought with it spiritual purification and perfection of the soul.  Gold, being considered the purest of all elements, was valued more for what it represented symbolically than what it represented as monetary value. When gold is successfully manufactured, it is only the incidental byproduct of a much more successful experiment, the manufacture of the Philosopher’s Stone, and purification of the soul.   Success in the physical realm of existence meant success in the spiritual realm as well.  Gold becomes the physical proof that the Alchemist’s quest was successful.  

To prevent the abuse of Alchemy for selfish means and to also protect themselves against persecution from the Church, Alchemical manuscripts were often encoded or written in riddles.  In some cases these Alchemical manuscripts are not even written out, but drawn as a series of symbolic illustrations.  An example of the later would the legendary “Book with No Words,” reputed to be so complex in its symbolism, that it would take two lifetimes to master, one to decipher, and one to understand.  

To obtain the Philosopher’s Stone, one had to use the seven basic Alchemical processes, in three different stages. Each process has its own symbolic, psychological, spiritual, and physical manifestations. The original Alchemists believed that all matter was divisible into the pure elements of fire, air, water, and earth.  The process of manipulating matter through these four elements mirrored the process spiritual purification, which would lead to the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone and enlightenment.

Nigredo is the first stage on the Alchemical path, and encompasses the first two processes of Calcinatio and Solutio.  Nigredo means ‘blackening.’  Characterized by breaking down matter, the Alchemist is compelled to look deep within themselves and destroy the parts of the ego that would be in the way of inner growth.  Nigredo begins as we truly and sincerely begin to walk the path of transformation. The first step faced by all who desire to know themselves is to face the ego, and in particular, its means sacrifice, of sabotaging our desire for immediate worldly success.  Psychologically, Nigredo is a process of suffering.  Depression is a common occurrence.

Calcinatio- Symbolic of fire, it is literally the process of heating or burning.  A solid can be subjected to intense heat in order to drive off water and any other parts that may volatize, producing a fine, dry powder.  Another example would be to add water to quicklime (plaster of paris).  The water starts a chemical reaction that produces heat. Alchemists believed that quicklime contained hidden fire that was only activated by water.  Alchemists could also use sulfuric acid to burn into matter in the Calcinatio process.  Calcinatio is used in encaustic painting, when the solid encaustic wax is heated into a liquid and then mixed with pigment in order to paint.  The infusing of fire can be seen symbolically as a life force, the divine spark. Burning can also be seen as a purification rite, ridding a substance of impurities.  Calcinatio occurs naturally in life as a process where our egos are gradually worn down by the inevitable challenges in life.  Ideally, in the spiritual path, one hastens the Calcinatio process, rather than letting it be drawn out over the course of a whole life.  Through Calcinatio, stubbornness, pride, and arrogance are worn down.  Psychologically, the process relates to the cleansing of the body and the destruction of the ego, as well as burning away all the excesses gained from over-indulgence.  In Alchemical symbolism this process is sometimes represented by bringing down a tyrannical king. 

Solutio- Dealing with processes pertaining to water or any physical process producing a liquid, Solutio can transform a solid to liquid form, a solution or a suspension.  Solutio is used by painters when they mix raw pigment into a solution or when they cut thick paint with a medium.  Water is thought of physically as prima materia, the first matter.  Symbolically it is shown as the womb, and the process of Solutio as returning matter to the womb for rebirth.  In many myths water is the original matter from which the world is created.  Taken further, science shows today that all living life came from the sea and the human body is composed primarily of water.  In Solutio, the Alchemist symbolically drowns.  Psychologically this stage represents a deep encounter with our subconscious mind.  Carl Jung would use Alchemical symbolism to develop his ideas of the collective unconscious.  Through Solutio, the Alchemist lets go of control and allows the surfacing of buried material.  This stage is often characterized by emotions of grief, as the Alchemist allow themselves to relive painful incidents from the past.

Albedo means ‘whitening’. Albedo is the second stage on the Alchemist’s path.  If Nigredo is destruction of the ego and death by drowning, then Albedo prepares the Alchemist for rebirth.  Albedo involves the creation of division, necessary for the further unification of opposites.  Albedo also refers to the inner light that arises in the face of genuine suffering brought about through Nigredo.  The white dove is a common symbol for this stage.  Albedo corresponds to the processes of Separatio, Conjunctio, Mortificatio, and Sublimatio.  In Albedo the Alchemist creates coherence and clarity via division into opposites, and then, by re-unifying these opposites, becomes reborn.  

Separatio- Separatio is a purging process, literally the separation of composite matter into its more useful and pure parts.  An example of this would be the separation of gasoline from crude oil or metals from its crude ore either by heating, pulverizing, or any other chemical process.  Filtration, evaporation, and operations using a centrifuge are also classic examples of this process.  In many myths of creation, order is pulled out from a chaos of mismatched elements.  Separatio is also seen as the purging of unwanted bad habits.  Psychologically, Separatio refers to the need to make our thoughts and emotions more distinct by isolating them from other thoughts and emotions.  This stage represents the need to focus on what has been revealed in us after Nigredo, so we can get clear on what precisely needs to be given attention, and what needs to be purged.  The process of Separatio is entirely concerned with the need to both see and take responsibility for the darker aspects within ourselves.  A common symbol for this process is the black crow, which in its color denotes the dying away of the false through Nigredo, as well as the positive possibilities for the future symbolized by the crow’s capacity to fly.  

Conjunctio- This is both the process of joining two unlike and opposite substances and the resulting product of a third substance of altogether different properties.  It is mainly through this process that the groundwork was laid for modern chemistry, nuclear physics, and modern psychoanalysis of unconscious imagery.  Conjunctio occurs when the Artist mixes their paint.  Like Aristotle, the alchemists believed that there must be a balance in all things. They concerned themselves with the fine lines between such things as courage and foolhardiness, prudence and miserliness, passion and fanaticism. By recognizing these lines both internally and chemically, perfection (the Philosopher's Stone) could be found. In the end, it is the balance of unlike things and a union of opposites that the alchemists sought.  The symbol most often used to express this ideal was the hermaphrodite. When consulting an old manuscript and the symbol of the hermaphrodite appeared, then it was shown that a union of opposites was required, either in process or chemical.  For example, fire (Calcinatio) and water (Solutio), or sulphur (fire) and mercury (water).   Conjunctio is also symbolized by the sexual union of male and female.  Just as when a man and woman copulate, a new being is born completely different from its parents.  Indeed, the eastern Alchemists of India went so far as to lose the external chemical quest and to pursue an internal quest for spiritual purity with the use of ritualized sex.  But to most Alchemists, the masculine and the feminine are not principles determined by sex or gender. It is mainly meant as a guide to find a complimenting essence.  Alchemical symbolism sometimes refers to this as the marriage of the Sun (spirit, masculine) and the Moon (soul, feminine).  The Alchemists referred to this union as the “Marriage of the King and Queen,” and they referred to the result of the Conjunctio as the "Philosopher's Child" or "Lesser Stone." 

Mortificatio (or Putreficatio) - Perhaps the strangest of the alchemical processes, it pertains to death and rotting.  In Mortificatio the matter in question is symbolically seem as tortured and killed by various alchemical operations.  It is also symbolic of penance or just punishment. It was not at all seen as cruel and mean spirited.  Saint Augustine would say, ''Punishment, when deserved, is Love.”  Mortificatio is the next logical step.  Literally it is the process of rotting.  Organic elements would be left to decompose in a controlled environment.  Chemically the process is similar to fermentation.  Another example of this would be a compost heap.  Symbolically the process is associated with psychological darkness, mutilation, and defeat.  It is symbolized in St. John of the Cross's poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”  Spiritually, this refers to a kind of inner death process in which old, discarded elements of the personality are allowed to rot and decompose.  This process can involve difficult mental states such as depression.  Mortificatio is followed by a stage of rebirth in a process called Sublimatio.  

Sublimatio (or Distillation) - Sublimatio is a process pertaining to air and the separation of substances.  It is derived by the physical process of heating matter and having it pass directly into a gas state. When this is done the gas ascends to the top of the vessel where it reconstitutes in an upper cooling region.  It has a long history, being used for the production of such things as alcohol and gasoline.  Sublimatio is an elevating process, symbolic of giving up the ghost and the shedding of impurities.  It is a process of purification and an internal quest for spiritual perfection.  Here, the Alchemist undergoes a type of rebirth resulting from the deep willingness to let go of all elements that no longer serve spiritual evolution.  Sublimatio can be achieved through many activities such as intense prayer, break down of the personality, and deep meditation.  The process is symbolized in illustration with ladders, stairs, flying, and mountains, anything that suggests ascending.  Psychologically, Sublimatio does not result in escapism, but rather in being able to deal with seemingly mundane things with integrity.  A common Alchemical symbol for the result of Sublimatio is the Green Lion eating the Sun.  It suggests a healthy triumph and an embracing of a limitless source of energy.  Sublimatio is necessary to ensure no impurities from the inflated ego are incorporated into the next and final stage.  

Rubedo, meaning ‘reddening’, is the final stage. Whereas Nigredo and Albedo were concerned with the chaotic void and division, Rubedo is entirely concerned with unity, with the result of this unity being the Philosopher’s Stone.   However, this wholeness is not a mere return to the Primal state.  Rather, we re-capture the primal unity of the child-like state, while at the same time achieving something much more, the mature wisdom of a sage.  The cycle of death and rebirth is finally broken.

Coagulatio (or Greater Conjunctio) - Belonging to the symbolic process of Earth, Coagulatio results from the combination of Fire, Water, and Air.  Physically, it is the process of converting other matter into a solid.  Cooling a liquid can produce a solid, hence water to ice.  A solid that has been dissolved into a solvent will reappear when the liquid part has evaporated, hence salt from salt water.  Heat can also produce a solid, such as the coagulation of the egg in a pan when fried.  Coagulatio occurs in the drying of paint.  On a symbolic level to produce a solid is to fix an ego, to localize and make concrete an identity, and manifest in the flesh.  Several creation myths describe how dry land and creatures sprung from the waters of an endless sea.  Coagulatio is the ultimate marriage of Heaven and Hell and is the pinnacle point in the Alchemist’s career.  The end result is the Philosopher’s Stone, and is often symbolized by the Phoenix, the bird that has arisen from the ashes.   Coagulatio, when properly performed, is a return to the Garden of Eden; it means existence on a higher level and being in tune with the divine mind.  In other traditions it is referred to as Enlightenment, or Nirvana.  

In closing, I hope that I have adequately explained the many physical and psychological parallels between Alchemy and Art.  I find the process of making Art to be spiritually rewarding.  It is a path of self discovery that I hope will continue to pay dividends into the future.  Halfway down my Alchemical – Spiritual journey in life, I believe I am, appropriately, somewhere in the middle stages, around Conjunctio.  It is a journey that can be spiritually taxing at times, which is a challenge for me, as I am apparently a tough study; I have gone through the painful Nigredo stage at least half a dozen times or more.  Still, I have every reason to be optimistic that I might just someday be lucky enough to find the Artistic equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, if I continue to create and make Art.

Finished on my 39th birthday, 5:56 AM, December 16th 2014.

Bill Viola by Chris Hall

Bill Viola, stills from  Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) , 2014

Bill Viola, stills from Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014

As a young boy on vacation in the mountains with his family, Bill Viola nearly drowned in a lake.  He describes the experience as “… the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life” and “without fear,” and “peaceful.”  Perhaps this experience colors his work, which focuses on themes such birth, death, love, emotion, humanism, and spirituality.  Water and allusions to drowning often appear in his work as well.

Viola’s work draws meaning and inspiration from several mystical traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, and Islamic Sufism, giving his work a kind of religious transcendental quality.  Viola also explores notions of duality, the idea that you can’t understand what you’re looking at unless you also know it’s opposite.  Often Viola’s videos contain themes such as life and death, light and dark, stressed and calm, loud and quiet, etc.

Viola’s work often exhibits a painterly quality.  Like painting, Viola’s work requires patience in order to fully appreciate it.  To achieve this painterly quality in his work, Viola uses an ultra-slow motion video recording technique, which encourages the viewer to sink into the image to better connect with the meanings contained within it.  Grandiosity, ambitiousness, and a striving toward meaning characterize Viola’s work as he attempts to ponder the deeper, bigger themes of human existence.  

Anselm Kiefer by Chris Hall

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Anselm Kiefer, The Starry Heavens Above Us, The Moral Law Within, 1969/2010

Art is difficult, it’s not entertainment.  Anselm Kiefer  

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.  Theodor Adorno


Born just a few months before the end of World War II in 1945, Kiefer grew up among the ash and ruins of postwar Germany.  Kiefer’s work directly addresses Adorno’s statement, that “writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and questions how beauty and culture can continue to have any meaning.  Kiefer also wants to understand how the Nazis leveraged art and culture into killing.  In this respect, Kiefer’s body of work is primarily reflective of the new German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  Invented in the late 1950’s, Vergangenheitsbewältigung translates roughly as “struggle to come to terms with the past.”  Kiefer believes that one can not progress into the future until the past has been properly dealt with.  Although much of his early work addresses issues specific to Germany, his output in more recent years has expanded into more universal concerns.

Anselm Kiefer began making work in 1969 and would become a student of Joseph Beuys.  Kiefer’s first opus, his Occupations, had him traveling around to different sites in Europe, sometimes in his father’s Army uniform, and then having himself photographed giving the Nazi salute.  It may seem a bit shocking, but there is a moral heart to Kiefer’s work.  Kiefer wants to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust remain fresh in collective memory.

Some of Kiefer's Occupations. Click to enlarge the images.

In his paintings and sculpture, Kiefer reexamines German history, mythology, and culture, everything from Wagner operas, German Romanticism, the poetry of Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, the architecture of Albert Speer, and the Third Reich, but he also references theology, occult symbolism, alchemy, mysticism, and the Kabbalah.   The weighty subject matter is often mirrored in the physicality of the works itself, which are often large scale and monumental.  Epic in size and scope, Kiefer’s work become visions of the apocalyptic sublime.  His paintings are mixed media endeavors, dense and heavy with impasto paint mixed with straw, dried flowers and plants, lead, sand, broken glass, ash, clay, shellac, gold leaf, copper wire, rusted metal, broken ceramics, woodcuts, charred photographs, and wood.  Kiefer uses a variety of application and reduction techniques, including a blowtorch.  

Some of Kiefer's early work.  Click to enlarge the image.

In the 1990’s Kiefer’s focus grew from focusing on Germany’s role in civilization to the fate of art and culture in general.  He began to explore universal myths of existence about the trauma experienced by all societies, from inevitable destruction to continued renewal and rebirth.  By examining the past, Kiefer seeks personal, national, and universal healing and absolution of collective guilt.  In 1999 the Japan Art Association awarded Kiefer the Praemium Imperiale for this lifetime achievements.  The explanatory statement reads:  

Kiefer worked with the conviction that art could heal a traumatized nation and a vexed, divided world . . . Only a few contemporary artists have such a pronounced sense of art's duty to engage the past and the ethical questions of the present, and are in the position to express the possibility of the absolution of guilt through human effort.

Some of Kiefer's later work.  Click to enlarge the image.

Kiefer is known for keeping giant studio complexes which he turns into site specific monuments with his painting and sculpture.  Most recently Kiefer purchased the decommissioned Mulheim-Karlich nuclear reactor plant.  In 2010 Kiefer’s studio in Barjac, France was the subject of a documentary called Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.  The 35 hectare studio complex was built in the ruins of an abandoned silk factory.  You can watch the documentary on Youtube.  Here is a trailer for the film.

I first saw Anselm Kiefer's work sometime during the early or mid 1990's, either at the Cincinnati Art Museum or Atlanta's High Museum of Art.  I have always been attracted to his willingness to tackle the big subjects, life, death, and the possibility of re-birth as well as his use of mixed media and his painterly technique.  I also agree with Kiefer's stance on anti-art, that is he bemoans it, but acknowledges it's right to exist.  For these reasons I am happy to call Anselm Kiefer both an influence and an ally.

The Artist as Seer Shaman Healer Seeker Voyager Pioneer Visionary by Chris Hall

Many artists and art critics today have abandoned the notion that artists are somehow special.  Perhaps they are not special.  Instead, with art in the expanded field, we have artists taking on pedestrian pursuits – artist as scientist, artist as data collector, artist as food service, etc.  These artists do not soar . . . not like the old art heroes of old, anyways.  

What made these old artists special?  They were professional Shaman, Seers, Healers, and Seekers of ecstatic truths.  They were Voyagers, Pioneers, and Visionaries . . . Artists with a capital “A,” in service to the mystery.  The notion of the artist as Seer, in modern Western Art, dates back to the early German Romantics.  Before that it was championed by the Greeks who would use poetry, song, and art for magical and prophetic purposes.  Yes, artists are different from most people, at least that is the way it use to be.

Gordon Onslow-Ford:

The Unknown manifests itself through the open mind.

The closed mind is personal.
The open mind is impersonal.

When the mind opens, something original can come
In.  The open mind is not something that can be
Learned or switched on at will.  It happens naturally.

The Visionary Artist can access what some shamans call the Dreamtime, that is they can access realities where the past, present, and future co-exist simultaneously.   I often see this kind of vision manifested in work of the abstract expressionists.  Many lay people ridicule abstract expressionist work, claiming they can do the work themselves.  This is definitely not so.  It requires a certain type of vision that can not be taught, nor can the artist force the vision onto their work.  It is a gift and it happens, or doesn’t happen, naturally.  

“I say that the true artist seer, the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own human conscience.” J.D. Salinger

If there is a problem with abstract expressionist work, it is that it doesn't always translate to the audience.  Some people are just more sensitive than others.  Painting abstract expressionist work is the recording of an event, of a vision, more than it is a final product.  The modern artist uses the art making process to heal themselves, and if the end result, the finished painting, also heals an audience, so much the better.  The shaman, however, must use their art to heal their community.  Their work must translate their vision to a lay audience.  

The Seer by Alex Grey

From the caves of Altimira
To a New York studio,
The Seer has inspired the artist
With Vision’s unceasing flow.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Magus through ages untold,
Transmuting the lead of matter
Into bullets of spiritual gold.

The ego picks up the weapon of art,
Childlike, it plays with the trigger.
Blowing the head off it’s contracted self,
Awareness is suddenly bigger.
By slaying the ego and stunning
The chatter of thoughts as they rise,
Great art shuts out distractions
Delighting the heart through the eyes.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Revealing the Mystery as form,
Advancing our civilization
By inventing and destroying the norm.
The redemptive Sorceress, Art
Can heal the nausea of being,
Opening vistas of hope and beauty,
Revealing deep patterns of meaning.

The function of art is to stop us
And take us out of our skin,
Unveiling the spirit’s pure nakedness
Without beginning or end.

The Seer is the soul of the artist,
Gaze fixed on primordial perfection.
Radiance emerges from emptiness,
Each point of light etched with affection.

The boundless Void, open and formless
Is the basis of all creation.
Visions appear and then dissolve
Reinforcing this realization.

From beyond the vision descends
From within the vision arises
Coalescing in the divine imagination,
Source of continual surprises.

The Seer is the soul of the artist
The Maker is the artist’s hand
In the studio their conversations
Translate a timeless command.

These dialogues of Maker and Seer
Weave together matter with soul,
Consecrating the practice of art
As speech of the ineffable.

Art making transforms the artist,
And to any hearts truly under
Creation’s intoxicating spell
The Seer transmits holy wonder.

Zen Art: Contemplating the Eternal by Chris Hall

A moment seems to be an extremely small segment of a long span of time.  Yet past is remembered as past in the present moment and future is expected as future in the present moment.  Each moment carries all of time. Thus a moment has an aspect of timelessness.  In this respect “now” is eternal.  Kazuaki Tanahashi, 13th century Zen master.  

A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places. Paul Gardner


Enso is a Japanese word meaning circle and is a word strongly associated with Zen.  The enso symbolizes enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void and is meant to be an expression of the moment.  It is widely believed that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how one paints the enso and that only a mentally and spiritually whole artist can paint a true enso.  Many artists practice making the enso daily as a kind of spiritual diary.  Some artists choose to close the circle, while others choose to leave it open.  Both variations symbolize different things.  A closed enso might symbolize completion, unity, or strength.  An open enso may suggest that it part of and not separate from the universe or maybe that imperfection is an essential and inherent aspect of existence.  Imperfection is an aesthetic I often cultivate in my own art, not just with notions of Zen wabi-sabi, but also as a symbol of human frailties and flaws.  

I think of the enso whenever I see one of Adolph Gottleib’s “Burst” paintings.  While Gottlieb is not referencing the enso directly, they are superficially similar, and, I believe the spirit behind the work is still the same.  Gottlieb’s work is about searching for the timeless moment in the sublime, about the universal void, and about searching for spiritual truths.  

It is also worth noting that both the enso and Gottlieb’s work might be related to the alchemical symbol of the ouroboros, the serpent devouring its own tail.  Among other things, the ouroboros was meant to symbolize the concept of eternal return and the endlessness of time.

An ouroboros by Theodoros Pelecanos 1478.  It is a copy of a lost alchemical tract by Synesius.