myth

A Great Mystery by Chris Hall

Cy Twombly, Bacchanalia - Fall, (1977)

When I create an artwork, especially when I create an artwork without a safety net, that is working without a plan, working through intuition, it is often only after the work is finished that I can discover any real meaning.  My discovered meaning, then, holds about as much weight as any meaning discovered by my audience.  This, to me, is the difference between creating an art object and a work of art that lives, breathes, and has a life of its own, beyond my intentions.  This, perhaps, is where the possibility of creating something that might be greater than one's self may lay.  How strange it is to look at these works, works that you yourself have created, with a sense of wonder.  It is a mystery.  What is the origin? Where does such work come from?  What does it mean?

Technicians of Ecstasy - Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Chris Hall

I recently finished reading Technicians of Ecstasy – Shamanism and the Modern Artist, by Mark Levy.  In it he profiles 27 artists in three different categories, Seeing, Dreaming, and Performing, and gives details about various Shamanic techniques that contemporary artists can use to advance their own work.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and my copy is now marked up with underlined passages, asterisks, margin notes, and tea stains (I spilled tea on it on the day I finished reading it and had to dry out the pages).  I can not recommend this book enough to anyone who might be interested in the areas where spirituality, psychology, and fine art intersect.  In the final pages of the book, Levy advocates a return to spiritual values in art, and gives us a kind of call to arms.  The following quotes are culled from the Conclusion of Mark Levy's book.  I thought they might bear repeating here. 

“In the beginning, in prehistoric times, the roles of artist and shaman were not separated.  Shamans were, in fact, the most gifted artists in their community.”  

“Currently, in post-modern art where, in the words of Nietzsche “nothing is true and everything is permitted,” the task of re-valuing the world with spiritual meaning becomes especially urgent.”  

“I believe the role of the artist as shaman will become increasingly attractive for artists who are seeking to go beyond the idiosyncratic selfishness, commodity fetishism, adherence to fashion, and sterile appropriation that informs much of contemporary art.  Many contemporary artists simply borrow spiritual contents by appropriating images and styles from a wide range of cultures, including tribal art.  The result is a simulacrum of meaning which lacks depth.  Art that uncovers authentic truth requires difficult and sometimes dangerous journeys.”

“Shamanic techniques, when used properly, offer essentially non-destructive means for artists to invite visions and gain knowledge about themselves.  Works of art evolving from these visions continue to nourish their audiences.  The opportunity for artists to make positive contributions to their communities also eliminates their own feelings of alienation and exclusion.”

“In shifting attention from common sense or “consensus reality,” artists as shamans succeed in expanding their consciousness and the consciousness of their communities and offer blueprints for spiritual development.”  

The Case for the Artist as Pharmakos by Chris Hall

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Colors available to the Ancient Greeks.

Pharmakon:  Ancient Greek word meaning drug (both poison and cure), remedy, medicine, charm, spell, artificial color, and paint.  

It is interesting to me that painted color can be equated with drugs and losing control, with spells, charms, and magic.  It is an extended analogy, but one I can definitely get into, and one I think the Greeks might have have recognized as well.  The Greeks loved color.  Their temples and statues were painted in all sorts of garish colors, but all of it has washed away and faded with time, and we are only left with the white marble work underneath.  Today, when we look at a good painting, we can be intoxicated by its color and become lost in it, mesmerized, as if in a spell.  Despite our attempts at color theory and chemical analysis (we can codify color relationships and understand pigment composition), the effects of color remains something of a mystery, an irrational science.  Like a drug, colors can stimulate and they can arouse.  Colors can also be a healing tool and good medicine. Color can even be poisonous and used as a weapon.  I've heard of a library in Seattle that purposefully painted their restrooms a nasty pharmaceutical green to discourage vagrants from loitering.  

Derived from the same etymological root, the Ancient Greek word Pharmakos (later Pharmakeus) translates as druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer.  The Ancient Greeks had no proper word for “artist” and some have suggested that the closest word to approximate the concept of “art” might be the word “techne,” meaning “mastery of any art or craft.”  (By the way, it is from the Latin word “tecnicus” that we derive English words like technique, technology, and technical).  I do not think this does the concept of “art” and “artist” justice, as it strips it of its shamanistic, sorcerer roots, leaving in its place the idea that an artist is merely an accomplished craftsman, and not someone who seeks out deeper truths.  This is why I nominate the word Pharmakos (druggist, poisoner, wizard, magician, and sorcerer) as a proper substitute, and considering Pharmakos already has etymological connections with Pharmakon (drug, medicine, poison, remedy, charm, spell, painted color), you can see how I might think the connection to be appropriate.  

Interestingly enough, Phamakos also refers to a sacrificial ritual, where a city-state would purge evil by exiling (after being beaten and stoned), or by killing (either thrown from a cliff or burned) a Pharmakos, which in this case would be a human scapegoat and community outsider (usually a slave, a cripple, or a criminal).  The ritual was done during times of great stress, such as a famine, invasion, or plague, in hopes that the fortunes of the city would make a turn for the better, or during times of calendrical crisis, where the object was to restore a sense of balance.  But in times of great stress today, is it not the art and artists who are first on the chopping block?  Are not artists today generally thought of as outsiders in the community, at best barely tolerated by society?  Sure, a select few artists might become famous and afforded celebrity status, but for the vast majority of us, we are indeed outsiders, outcasts, and social pariahs.  I suspect quite a few creative types back in the days of Ancient Greece might have become a Pharmakos in the dual sense of the word, being both an artist and human scapegoat/sacrifice.  And the analogy goes further still.  The Pharmakos ritual wasn't just a community catharsis, it was also viewed as a sacrifice.  After the Pharmakos was killed, they would cremate the body and the ashes would be scattered to the ocean.  Vincent Van Gogh, the man who Antonin Artuad writes was “suicided by society,” was a Phamakos of sorts, in that he was shunned by the community during his life, but almost immediately following his death, his work began to be honored and appreciated.  It is a recurring pattern, one that I think is still true and relevant today.  

Art and the Healing Power of Dreams by Chris Hall

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

“Physician, heal yourself:  thus you will heal your patient too.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

“It is only by retaining and enhancing the original power of the image that the artist can take back his or her role as a redeemer and healer of the psyche from the theologian.”  Ann McCoy.

Many modern and (some) contemporary artists are aware of the power that dreams can have on healing the psyche.  In the Western culture, however, we have stepped away from dream analysis as a tool for healing, viewing it as irrational nonsense, favoring instead physical medicine, psychiatric drugs.  But dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires (the domain of Sigmund Freud). Dreaming can be a shamanic technology.  Dreams can be used for healing, guidance, and power — the classic domains of shamanism (championed by Carl Jung).  Jung considers the dream to be a vital and natural expression of the unconscious psychic process, and an X-ray of not only what is going on inside us individually, but also collectively within our culture.  Dreams are made up of a matrix of symbols, and as such, can be deciphered and analyzed.  The West hasn't always eschewed the power of dreams.  The Bible is full of episodes where dreams are used as signs to guide people on a proper course of action., from the psychopomp Joseph who correctly interprets the Pharaoh's dreams, thus avoiding starvation from a future famine, to Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, whose dreams foretold of consequences (the Massacre of the Innocents) if they did not flee with the Christ child to Egypt.  But dreams can do more than predict the future, they can also heal.  The ancient Greeks knew this well.  

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

In ancient Greek culture, dreams had a special significance.   The Greeks had not one, but three gods responsible for dreaming, and several other accessory gods to help produce the conditions necessary for dream to take place.  First and foremost were the three gods known as the Oneiroi (meaning Dreams).  Morpheus was the god of dreams, specializing in projecting human forms.  It is from his name that we derive the name morphine.  Phobetor was the god of nightmares, who excelled at projecting images of birds, beasts, and serpents.  We get the word phobia, “fear,” from his name.  Phantasos was the god of false dreams and illusions who was an expert at projecting the landscape, and things made of earth, rock, water, or wood.  From Phantasos we get the word phantom.  The father of the Oneiroi was Hypnos, the god of Sleep.  We derive the word hypnosis, meaning “sleep condition,” from the Greeks.  The Roman name for Hypnos is Somnus, from where we derive “somnambulism” (sleep walking) and insomnia (the inability to sleep).  Hypnos' wife, Pasithea, is the goddess of hallucination and relaxation.  Hypnos' twin brother is Thanatos, the god of Death, or the eternal sleep.  Hypnos' parents are Erebus, the god of Darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of Night.  Together they live in a mansion in a cave, where they never see the rising or the setting of the sun.  At the entrance to the cave grows a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants.  Their home doesn't have a door or gate, so that they might not be awakened by a creaking hinge.  The underworld river Lethe, known as the river of forgetfulness, flows through the cave.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Jungian psychologist Carl Alfred Meier tells us that “the Greeks, especially in the early period, regarded the dream as something that really happened; for them it was not, as it was in later times and to 'modern man' in particular, an imaginary experience.  The natural consequence of this attitude was that people felt it necessary to create the conditions that caused dreams to happen.”  To induce these dreams, the ancient Greeks would go to one of the thousands of temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine, hoping that their dreams might prescribe a healing course of action for everything from chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  These healing temples, called Asclepieia, were set in beautiful natural surroundings, often near a cave or a spring (the home of the Oneiroi and the source of Asclepius' healing powers).  

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

Asclepius, the god of Medicine, is the son of Apollo.  Asclepius' daughters Hygieia (health and cleanliness), Panacea (universal remedy), Iaso (recuperation from illness), Aceso (healing), and Aglaea (Beauty - yes beauty is important to healing and well-being) helped him in his practice.  The original Hippocratic Oath, used to swear in doctors up to the 1960's, began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..." The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still used as a symbol of medicine today.  Apollo (himself known as a healer) carried the baby Asclepius to the centaur Chiron (Sagittarius) who raised him and instructed him in the art of medicine.  It is also said that in return for some kindness shown by Asclepius, a wise snake licked Asclepius' ears clean and also taught him secret healing knowledge  The Greeks believed snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection.  Today the non-venomous Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus), is named for the god.  

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he eventually surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.  Ascelpius was even able to raise the dead.  This caused a population boom, which displeased Hades, who had a lack of fresh souls in his kingdom.  Hades complained to his brother, Zeus, and Zeus resorted to killing off Asclepius in order to regain a balance.  After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder (acknowledged as the 13th sign in the zodiac).  Some sources, however, state that Zeus later resurrected Asclepius in order to prevent a feud with Apollo, but only on the condition that Asclepius never revive the dead without his approval again.  

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Patients at an Asclepieia would first purify themselves in the gardens outside the temple, often leaving token votive offerings called pinakes.  Many of these pinakes were clay depictions of the body parts to be healed, everything from hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads.  Patients would spend days, sometimes weeks, outside the temple before being let into the inner sanctum, the dream incubation chamber called the abaton.  Many abatons, like the one in the Asclepieia  Epidaurus, were located underground, in a labyrinth, symbolizing the dark and mysterious place where dreams come from, or a journey to the depths of the unconscious.  Here the injured or sick would sleep and pray in the chamber while non-venomous snakes sacred to Asclepius would slither around the temple floor unmolested.  The purpose of the incubation rite was to induce a vivid, ecstatic dream, a mantike atechnos or “artificial mania,” from which a dream interpreter might prescribe a course of action.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Sometimes the process of inducing a mantike atchnos would take days.  To help induce the healing dream, priests and priestesses would employ a number techniques.  First, the beds used in the ritual, called klines, were more like couches than beds, with a stone headrest encouraging the clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.  It is thought by many that this sleep position encourages active dreaming.  Patients were also given powerful soporific drugs, such as opium in order to promote sleep and dreams.  Being underground, in constant total darkness, also disrupts circadian rhythms.  Light sleep, with more awakenings and a longer REM stage is the result, leading to powerful lucid dreaming.  Priests and priestesses would also whisper into the ears of the sleeping in order to facilitate dreaming.  Today we know that dreams can successfully incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells.  It would seem that the result of all of these techniques, used in combination, produces vivid dreams, if not realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.  

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Asclepieia dream incubation chambers must have been powerful places.  These places were designed to produce dreams  providing healing wisdom as well as instant cures - and if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti, they were successful.  Successful cures were also honored with inscriptions on the sanctuary walls, advertisement for future patients.  The Greeks believed that healing is holistic enterprise.  Life vitality comes as a result exercise and proper diet, but also spiritual practice and mindful study.  In the Western culture today, the first two are now the exclusive domain of the physician, while the later (and too often neglected) is a role being filled by theologians and artists.  But as the role of dreams in our life are continually being downplayed in contemporary religious practices, mirroring the advance of scientific rational thought, the mantle should be picked up more by artists.  In this regard, artists ought to be considered professional dreamers and even dream interpreters, like the shamans of old.  Through our art we should hope to not only heal ourselves, but also the world at large.  

"... in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There it is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.”  Carl Jung.

Jackson Pollock Part One by Chris Hall

“Painting is self-discovery.  Every good artist paints what he is.”  Jackson Pollock.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is a legendary figure in 20th century art.  He was the first American artist to gain an international reputation as an innovator without having studied or worked in Europe, the birthplace of modernism.  His challenging abstract imagery and unusual painting technique are still controversial today.  Pollock is best known for his unique style of drip painting.  Regarded as reclusive, he had a volatile personality, and struggled with alcoholism for most of his life.  In 1945, he married the artist Lee Krasner, who became an important influence on his career and on his legacy.  Some have argued that the troubled and reclusive Pollock would not have been successful without Krasner's tireless efforts to promote him.  Pollock died at age 44.  Along with other American celebrities who died before their time, such as Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, his life has become mythologized and become a part of American collective identity.  

Pollock's Shift from Radical Politics to Mythic Visionary

Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, in 1912, the youngest of five sons.  He grew up in Arizona and in Chico, California.  While living in Echo Park, California, he enrolled at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, from which he was expelled for protesting the  school's special treatment of athletics and the ROTC.  During his early life, Pollock explored Native American culture while on surveying trips with his father.  Pollock would count Native American art as his first and primary influence.

Growing up in California, Pollock's interest in art was supported by his father, Roy Pollock.  Jackson became interested in the work Albert Pinkham Ryder.  Another influence was his art teacher at Manual Arts High School, Frederick Schwankovsky.  Schwankovsky, who was a Communist Party member, would go with Pollock to Communist meetings at the Brooklyn Avenue Jewish Community Center in East Los Angeles and to spiritualist Madame Blavatsky's Theosophist Society, where he learned about the connection between avant-garde art and radical politics and perhaps gained an interest in the works of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.  

In 1930, Pollock followed his older brother Charles, and moved to New York City, where they both studied under Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League.  Benton's rural American subject matter, know as Regionalism, would have little lasting influence on Pollock's work, but his rhythmic use of paint and his fierce independence were more lasting.  Benton used Pollock as a model for a steel worker in his mural America Today (1930 – 1931) in the New School for Social Research.  While Benton was not a Communist, he was sympathetic to leftist and progressive politics.  His art champions the working class and many parallels can be drawn between his work and Socialist Realism.  During the Great Depression, a lot more people were open to radical politics as a possible solution out of economic woe.  Pollock recalled his father frequently defended the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  Pollock, who grew up in a left leaning family, found in Benton a surrogate father figure.    

1933 was a watershed year for Pollock, America, and the world at large.  Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States, and Pollock watched as Diego Rivera painted his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Center.  Soon, Pollock's taste for avant-garde art and radical politics led him to break away from Benton.  Pollock was becoming more interested in the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco.  All three were known for their radical politics, with Rivera and Siqueiros being active members of the Communist Party.  

In 1936, Pollock attended Siqueiros' political art workshop and quickly became a part of his inner circle.  Siqueiros was a Stalinist and would later attempt to assassinate Leon Trotsky in 1940.  Pollock collaborated with Siqueiros and his entourage in creating a float for the May Day Parade which featured a Wall Street capitalist holding a donkey and elephant, indicating that both parties were controlled by big money and thus were enemies to the people, and a large ticker-tape machine being smashed by a hammer emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle.  When the Great Depression began to ease, thanks to Roosevelt's New Deal and his WPA programs, many people, including Pollock, began turning away from radical politics.  Siqueiros's experimental techniques, however, (such as pouring liquid paint) would have a lasting impact on Pollock's art.

From 1935 to 1943 Pollock worked for Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, the visual arts arts arm of the Work Projects Administration.  The FAP's primary goal was to employ out of work artists.  These artists were hired to primarily to create art for public spaces.  The FAP was divided into mural arts, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts.  Pollock worked for the easel division.  By 1936, the FAP employed over 6,000 artists.  FAP artists created more than 200,000 works of art.

“I don't paint nature.  I am nature.”  Jackson Pollock.

In 1938, Pollock had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized for four months for alcoholism.  Recent historians have speculated that Pollock might have suffered from bi-polar disorder.  Whatever the reason, from 1938 to 1942, Pollock underwent Jungian psychotherapy, first with Dr. Joseph Henderson, and later with Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.  When World War II broke out, Pollock's Selective Service status of 4F for medical reasons (neurosis) kept him from being drafted.  Henderson engaged Pollock through his art, encouraging him to make drawings exploring Jungian concepts and archetypes.  These would later feed his paintings and shaped Pollock's understanding that his pictures were not only the outpourings of his own mind, but also, perhaps, the universal expression of mankind's modern condition and the terror of having to live in the shadow of nuclear war.

During this time, Pollock grew more interested in mythology and began using his art and dreams as healing tool and a method to explore the inner self.  Henderson and  Staub de Laszlo had also reawakened Pollock's interest in Native American art.  Some Jungian analysts believe in the controversial theory that a colonizing people inherit the racial memory of the natives they displace.  Henderson and Staub de Laszlo encouraged Pollock's exploration of Native American inspired art.  Pollock began attending demonstrations of Native American sand painting at the Museum of Modern Art and attended a workshop hosted by the Austrian-Mexican Surrealist in exile, Wolfgang Paalen (which, incidentally, was also attended by future Abstract Expressionists Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottleib, and William Baziotes).  Paalen was famous for his fumage technique of making images from the smoke produced by candles.  He was also an expert on Native British Columbian Totem art.  Paalen's lengthy article, Totem Art, would later be a significant influence upon Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

In 1936, Pollock had for the first time briefly met Lee Krasner, but the two would not meet again until 1941.  In time, their relationship would bring Pollock some of the few spells of calm and happiness he would ever know.  Despite hs personal problems, Pollock remained bullishly confident in his art.  Krasner, impressed with Pollock's work, introduced him to her teacher, Hans Hofmann.  Hofmann was equally enthusiastic, and a friendship between the two men soon developed.  Once, Hofmann was said to have remarked that Pollock needed to work more from nature, to which Pollock replied, “I don't paint nature, I am nature.”

Lucas Cranach the Elder by Chris Hall

Lucas Cranach the Elder was a German Renaissance painter (c. 1472 – 1553).   He learned the art of drawing from his father, Hans Maler (incidentally, Maler means “painter” in German).  Cranach was known in his day for his portraits of German princes and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, but is more known today for his earthier subjects, depicting classical mythology.  Cranach embraced the Protestant Reformation enthusiastically, and befriended the movement's leader, Martin Luther.  While Cranach did produce religious work, he did so with caution; during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, religious art, particularly icon painting, was looked upon as Catholic image idolatry.  Cranach had two sons and three daughters.  His two sons also became artists.  The bulk of Cranach's output depicts nude subjects drawn from mythology and religion, often shown with an eye toward innocence and naivety.  Sometimes, however, Cranach chose poses that were intentionally erotic, seductive, and even exhibitionist.

Cranach's liked paint the same subject matter over and over again.  It is interesting to me to see the same subject depicted by the same artist, looking for subtle differences between the works.  Here we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Lucas Cranach liked to paint mythological subjects from Classical Antiquity.  

Cranach also liked to paint old men seducing younger women.

Venus, often accompanied by Cupid, is a favorite subject of Cranach.

Cranach was also interested in the suicide of Lucretia.

Like many Renaissance painters, Cranach was obsessed with the Biblical femme fatales Salome and Judith.

Mark Rothko by Chris Hall

Mark Rothko was an American Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painter.  With Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his considered to be one of the most famous postwar American artists.  Rothko's art grew from representational to amorphous mythological subjects, to pure abstract, non-objective fields of color and light.  Rothko was born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Latvia), in 1903.  Fearing that Mark Rothko's older brothers might be drafted into the army on the eve of the First World War, the Rothko family emigrated  to Portland, Oregon, in the United States.  

Rothko received a scholarship to Yale, but when the scholarship was not renewed after his first year, Rothko worked as a waiter and delivery boy to pay for his education.  He found the Yale community to be elitist and racist, dropped out at the end of his sophomore year, and moved to New York City to study art. Rothko enrolled in the New York School of Design, where he worked with instructor and abstract artist Arshile Gorky.  Rothko thought Gorky a domineering figure, and so he left to take classes at the Art Student's League, taught by cubist artist and instructor Max Weber.  Under Max Weber, Rothko began to view art as a tool for emotional and religious expression.  Rothko's early influences were the works of the German Expressionists and the surrealist artist, Paul Klee.  Rothko also met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb and Barnett Newman.  The Rothko family did not understand his decision to be an artist, especially in the middle of the Great Depression.  Rothko, however, like Gorky, Pollock, de Kooning, many other artists, found employment with the Works Progress Administration.

When World War Two erupted, Rothko felt that a new art was needed with a new subject matter that would have social impact, yet would also be able to transcend the confines of political symbols and values.  Rothko also wanted this new subject matter to complement his growing interest in form, space, and color.  He temporarily stopped painting in 1940 and immersed himself in studying Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, the works of Carl Jung, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and others.  From this was born Rothko's “Mythomorphic Abstractionism” period.  

 Rothko's interest in using mythology to transcend the troubled times was not unique.  Gottlieb, Newman, and Pollock were at a similar crossroads in their art, using mythological symbolism to bridge the gap between representation and pure abstraction.  They were all interested in dream theory and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, and believed that by using mythological symbolism they could transcend specific history and culture.

Rothko had a noble goal in mind for his art.  He wanted to relieve modern man's spiritual emptiness, which he believed resulted from a lack of mythology.  Rothko felt his art could free unconscious energies in the viewer, which were previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.  In this respect, Rothko viewed himself as a modern day “mythmaker,” and proclaimed  that "the exhilarated tragic experience is for me the only source of art.

Rothko debuted his new paintings in 1942, at a show in a New York City Macy's department store.  In response to a negative critical review of the show by the New York Times, Rothko and Gottlieb issued a manifesto where they stated, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal. We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth."  Rothko and Gottlieb also fired a broadside toward those who would prefer a less challenging art, writing that their work “must insult anyone who is spiritually attuned to interior decoration.”

In June of 1943, Rothko and his wife Edith separated.  Rothko suffered a long depression following his divorce.  Thinking that a change of scenery would help, Rothko returned to Portland.  From Portland, Rothko traveled to Berkeley, where he met and befriended the artist Clyfford Still.  At this time, Still had already eschewed surrealist representation in favor of pure, non-objective abstraction.  Rothko looked at Still's work and saw his future.  Rothko's experiments in unconscious symbolism had run its course; abstraction would be the next step.

In 1945 Rothko painted Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, showing his new-found interest in abstraction.  His new work possessed a more organic structure, often featuring blurred blocks of various colors.  They were devoid of any reference to the figure or the landscape.  Rothko thought that these new works, by shedding figurative qualities, had a life force  of their own and contained the “breath of life.”  Rothko discovered his trademark symmetrical rectangular blocks of two or three opposing and contrasting, yet complementary colors in the winter of 1949.  He also began to use large, vertically formatted canvases, which he intended to make the viewer feel “enveloped within” the painting.

Rothko viewed his work as living entities.  As he began to achieve success, he also began to be increasingly protective of his works, turning down several potentially important sales and exhibition opportunities.  Of this, Rothko would write, “A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer.  It dies by the same token.  It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out into the world.  How often it must be permanently impaired by the eyes of the vulgar and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend the affliction universally!” 

Beginning in 1950, Rothko started to meet with financial success and fame.  Despite his success, Rothko felt himself isolated and a sense of being misunderstood as an artist began to developed.  He feared that the people purchasing his paintings were doing so simply out of fashion and that the true purpose of his work was not being grasped by his collectors, critics, and audience.  Compounding his isolation, many of his friends began to abandon him, Rothko's new fame and patrons not sitting well with them.  Old friend Clyfford Still even asked for the return of his of gifted paintings.

Rothko defended himself against accusations of selling out.  He maintained that his work was “only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.”

Some people, however, did understand Rothko's work.  New friend and poet Stanley Kunitz saw Rothko as "a primitive, a shaman who finds the magic formula and leads people to it." Great poetry and painting, Kunitz believed, both had "roots in magic, incantation, and spell-casting" and were, at their core, ethical and spiritual.  Rothko was insistent upon the proper interpretation of his work and worked hard to spread his message.  In 1958 Mark Rothko spoke at the Pratt Institute and gave his recipe for a work of art:

1.  There must be a clear preoccupation with death - intimations of mortality... Tragic art, romantic art, etc., deals with the knowledge of death. 2. Sensuality. Our basis of being concrete about the world. It is a lustful relationship to things that exist. 3. Tension. Either conflict or curbed desire. 4. Irony, This is a modern ingredient - the self-effacement and examination by which a man for an instant can go on to something else. 5. Wit and play... for the human element. 6. The ephemeral and chance... for the human element. 7. Hope. 10% to make the tragic concept more endurable.  I measure these ingredients very carefully when I paint a picture. It is always the form that follows these elements and the picture results from the proportions of these elements.

That same year the beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons had completed their new building on Park Avenue.  Rothko agreed to provide paintings for the building's new luxury restaurant, The Four Seasons.  Other three months Rothko completed forty paintings in a series of dark reds and browns.  Shortly afterward, Rothko, with his new wife Mell, sailed to Europe aboard the SS Independence where he joked with Harper's Magazine publisher John Fischer that his true intention for the Seagram's murals was to paint "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.”  He hoped that his paintings would make the restaurant's patron's "feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall."  Upon his return to New York, Rothko and Mell visited the nearly completed Four Seasons restaurant.  Rothko became upset with the restaurant's dining atmosphere, which he considered pretentious and inappropriate for his work.  Rothko quit the project and returned his cash advance to the Seagram and Sons Company.  

By the 1960's the art world began to turn away from Abstract Expressionism, turning their gaze toward the next big thing, Pop Art, particularly the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist.  Rothko labeled Pop artists as “charlatans and young opportunists,” and wondered aloud during a 1962 Pop Art exhibition, “Are the young artists plotting to kill us all?”  On looking at Jasper Johns' flag paintings, Rothko said, “We worked for years to get rid of all that.”  Rothko knew that his fame would be fleeting, and that he would eventually be replaced, but what he could not fathom was that he would be replaced by Pop Art, which he found sterile and vapid.

Rothko spent his last years working on a commission for a chapel in Houston, Texas, which he believed would be the artistic pinnacle of his career.  He would never see the installation of his work.  Rothko and his wife Mell separated on New Year's Day, 1969, and he moved into his studio.  On February 25th, 1970, studio assistant Oliver Steindecker found Rothko's body lying dead on the floor in front of the sink, covered in blood.  He had sliced open his arms.  An autopsy also revealed that he had overdosed on anti-depressants.  He was sixty-six years old.  On February 28th, 1971, at the Rothko chapel dedication in Houston, Dominique de Menil said, "We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine."  I believe Rothko would have agreed with him.  Initially the chapel was to be Roman Catholic, but within three years the chapel expanded to become non-denominational. 

Santa's Pagan Origins by Chris Hall

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Odin with his two ravens, Thought and Memory.

Our present day Santa Claus (an American invention) as well as some of his European contemporaries (Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, etc) is an amalgamation of the Christian St. Nicholas and a variety of pagan mythological sources.  In honor of Christmas, I’ve decided to research and write about some of Santa’s pagan antecedents.  Here you will read about the Germanic god Odin, the Yule Goat, the Tomte and Nisse spirits, the Sabine/Roman goddess Strenia, and the giant ogress Gryla and her sons the Yule Lads.  Merry Christmas!

Odin

The name Odin is derived from the Old Norse, meaning “the furious one,” Odin is the king of the gods in the Germanic pantheon and ruler of Asgard.  Odin is associated with war, victory, and death, but also represents wisdom, Shamanism, magic, poetry, prophecy, and the hunt.  Like Mercury in the Roman pantheon, Odin is a Psychopomp, or a guider of souls from one realm to the next.  Like most pagan deities, Odin is ambivalent towards the fate and fortunes of mankind; he is the bringer of poetry as well war.  

Odin rides on a flying horse with eight legs named Sleipner, and is accompanied by two talking ravens, Huginn and Muninn or “Thought” and “Memory.”  Odin’s ravens fly away from him during the day and report the news of all they have seen of the world back to him during the evening.  Having spirit animals, particularly ravens, his relation to poetry and inspiration, as well as his role as a Psychopomp, connects Odin firmly within the realm of Shamanism.  

Odin has one eye in his head, as he sacrificed an eye by dropping it in Mimir’s magic well in order gain wisdom.  Odin prepares a sacrifice to himself by hanging himself from the World Tree for nine day and having himself pierced by his sword, also in order to gain wisdom.  Germanic mythology promotes the notion, then, that with suffering comes great wisdom.

As a Psychopomp, Odin receives the souls of the valiant dead into the Halls of Valhalla.  Only through a heroic death can a soul achieve immortality.  All other souls perish.  Odin saves the souls of the valiant so they can assist the gods during the final battle during Ragnarok. 

Odin carries a magic spear named Gungnir which never misses its target, a magic gold ring which multiplies into nine new rings each day, and the severed head of Mimir which foretells the future.  

The Wild Hunt by Johann Wilhelm Cordes, 1857

Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt, leading a host of slain warriors and Valkyries in furious and violent pursuit across the sky.  Seeing the Wild Hunt is considered to be a bad omen, foretelling future disaster or war.  Odin’s Wild Hunt takes place around the same time as the Germanic Yule festival, in midwinter.  Wars would often start when the frost thaws in spring.  In the meantime, Odin would make up for it with the Yule festival.  Like Santa Claus, Odin would sometimes climb down the chimney and leave gifts for people.

Odin is killed (or is to be killed) by the wolf Fenrir during “Ragnarok,” which is the “Twillight of the gods” and the world apocalypse.  

After Christianity was introduced, Saint Nicholas rode on the back of the Yule Goat.  Previously, the Yule Goat was a Goat-Man who gave gifts during the Winter Solstice.

Yule Goat

In many Scandinavian countries, the midwinter gift giver was a man dressed as a goat, a Yule Goat.  A popular theory as to why the goat was chosen as a gift giver is that Odin’s son, Thor, rode around the sky in a chariot driven by his two flying goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr.  Then Christianity came, and the Yule Goat took a back seat to Saint Nicholas.  Before Santa Claus had his famous reindeer, Saint Nicholas would often keep the company of Yule Goats, sometimes riding them, suggesting his dominance over the devil.  In the Scandinavian wassailing tradition, often times people would dress in holiday costumes.  A rowdy Yule Goat demanding gifts was often included in the mix.  In Sweden the Yule Goat was an invisible spirit that showed up before Christmas to make sure that the Yule preparations were done properly.  The Yule Goat, in straw effigy form, was often the center of a prank where people would the Yule Goat in a neighbor’s house without their knowledge; the neighbor successfully pranked had to rid themselves of the Yule Goat in the same way.  

For a short time beginning in the 19th Century the Yule Goat returned to role of being the gift giver with people once again dressing as goats to distribute gifts.  Once again, the Yule Goat was eventually replaced by the end of the century, but not with Saint Nicholas.  The Yule Goat was instead replaced with the more secular Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus.  Today there is once again a Yule Goat revival, particularly in Finland.  The Yule Goat often takes the form of small Christmas ornaments, but sometimes as a giant straw or stick effigy erected in cities and towns.  Often times these giant Yule Goat effigies are the victims of arson.  Meanwhile, in Finland, many people are once again returning to dressing up in Yule Goat costumes.  

Tomte's Barn Dance by Jan Bergerlind

Tomte and Nisse

They are called Tomte in Sweden and Nisse in Norway and Denmark.  Tomte and Nisse are little miniature versions of Santa Claus.  They are fairies or gnomes who give gifts to people during the winter solstice.  Tomte and Nisse are small creatures ranging from a few inches but slightly under three feet tall. Like Santa Claus, they have long white beards and wear bright red robes.  Sometimes they are depicted as having a single, cyclopean eye.  Sometimes they are also thought to be shape-shifters, able to take on any appearance they choose.  The Yule Goat and the Tomte coexisted, with the Tomte gaining more acceptance with the introduction of Christianity.  However, it should be noted, that while the Tomte seem more benevolent in surface appearance, the Tomte could actually be quite cruel and dangerous.  If treated well, the Tomte and Nisse  would help out with the chores, but if not respected, they would play tricks, start to steal things, and might even maim or kill your livestock.  It should be noted that the bite of a Tomte or Nisse is considered to be poisonous.  The Tomte and Nisse would leave gifts at the doors of people during the midwinter solstice.  In gratitude, and to prevent their potentially lethal pranks, it was a tradition to leave a bowl of porridge with butter out for their kind gesture.  With the introduction of Christianity, the Tomte and Nisse were demonized.  A farmer jealous of his neighbor’s success might accuse him of using a Tomte or Nisse in order to bring about the wrath of the community.  Beginning in the mid 1800’s there was a revival of interest in Tomte and Nisse as the deliverer of Christmas gifts.  It has become quite a confusing affair as the Tomte and Nisse are either in competition or conflated with both the Yule Goat and the American version of Santa Claus.

The Roman goddess Strenia.

Strenia

In ancient Roman religion, Strenia was a goddess of the New Year, purification, and wellbeing.  Strenia has her origin not in the Greek pantheon, but was adopted from their enemies, the Sabines outside of Rome.  The original Romans are thought to be refugees from Troy after their loss during the Trojan War.  Troy is in modern Turkey, near Greece, so they worshiped Greek gods and goddesses.  Adopting Strenia, a goddess of the Sabines, a people native to Italy whom they would conquer, is unusual.  On January 1, twigs from Strenia's grove were carried in a procession to the citadel in Rome.  In return for maintaining her cult, Strenia would bestow good fortune.  New Years gifts called strenae would also be exchanged between people.  St. Augustine writes that Strenia was the goddess who made people “strenuus”, or strong.  The gift giving cult of Strenia survives in Italy today in Befana, the “Christmas Witch.”

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

On the Winter Solstice, Gryla would leave her cave and look for children to eat.

Gryla and the Yule Lads

Once upon a time in Iceland there was a giant troll who lived in a cave in the mountains named Gryla.  Once a year around the winter solstice she would leave her cave in search of her favorite prey, naughty children, who she would boil in a hot stew.  She had three husbands, none of whom could compete with her malice and wickedness.  Some say Gryla is dead, while others have her living in a cave in the Dimmuborgir lava fields.  Gryla had many children, including the famous 13 Yule Lads.  By the 17th century the Yule Lads continued in Gryla’s tradition of Christmas violence, each Yule Lad’s behavior ranging from mere pranks to homicidal monsters who eat children.  One by one they leave their cave in the mountains and appear on one of the 13 days before Christmas to scare children who have been naughty.  Sometimes they are accompanied by a giant Yule Cat who attacks and eats the children who do not receive new clothes for Christmas.  

Unlike many other European countries, Icelandic culture remained more resistant to the introduction of Christianity.  Gryla and her offspring never really went underground or were suppressed until 1746.  The stories of Gryla and the 13 Yule Lads had become so terrifying that there was a decree prohibiting their re-telling to children with the intent to frighten.  

During the 19th century, the Yule Lads and even their hideous mother, Gryla, underwent a gradual rehabilitation.  They no longer were the child snatchers and cannibals of folklore, but had become mere thieving tricksters, who, nevertheless, are out to punish bad children on the 13 days before Christmas.  Each Yule Lad was given a name, identifying their specific mischievous character.  They arrive and depart on specific days:  

December 12th.  Stekkjastaur (Sheepfold-stick).  He harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg legs.  Departs December 25th.

December 13th.  Giljagaur (Gulley-gawk).  He hides in gullies waiting for the chance to sneak into a barn and steal milk.  Departs December 26th.

December 14th.  Stúfur (Shorty).  Abnormally short, he steals pans in order to eat the crusts left behind.  Departs December 27th.

December 15th.  Thvörusleikir (Spoon-licker).  He steals wooden spoons with long handles.  He is thin and malnourished.  Departs December 28th.

December 16th.  Pottasleikir (Pot-scraper).  He steals left-over food from pots.  Departs December 29th.

December 17th.  Askasleikir (Bowl-licker).  He hides under beds waiting for people to put down their “askur” which a type of bowl with a lid.  He then steals them.  Departs December 30th.

 December 18th.  Hurdaskellir (Door-slammer).  He likes to slam doors, especially during the night.  Departs December 31st.

December 19th.  Skyrgámur (Skyr-gobbler).  This Yule Lad has a craving for skyr, a kind of Icelandic yogurt.  Departs January 1st.

December 20th.  Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-swiper).  He hides in the rafters and steals sausages that are being smoked.  Departs January 2nd.

December 21st.  Gluggagægir (Peeping-Tom).  He looks into windows in search of . . . something to steal.  Departs January 3rd.

December 22nd.  Gáttathefur (Doorway Sniffer).  He has a large nose which he uses to locate Christmas bread, so he can steal it.  Departs January 4th.

December 23rd.  Kjötkrókur (Meat-hook).  He uses a hook to steal meat.  Departs January 5th.

December 24th.  Kertasníkir (Candle-stealer).  He follows children in order to steal their candles, which were once edible as they were made of tallow.  Departs January 6th.

By the early 20th century the Yule Lads have become basically reformed and have taken on a more benevolent gift giving role comparable to Santa Claus.  They now place gifts in the shoes of good Icelandic children, but occasionally will place rotten potatoes in the shoes of bad children.  Likewise, they are occasionally depicted as wearing late medieval style Icelandic clothing, but are otherwise generally shown wearing the red robe costume traditionally worn by Santa Claus.  

"Art" by Herman Melville by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) , 1888.

Paul Gauguin, The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888.

Art

by Herman Melville

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.


Melville is, of course, referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, a strange story found in Genesis 32: 22-32.  I’ve always loved Herman Melville’s writing.  Perhaps best known for his novel, Moby Dick, his writing is peppered with scatological and dark humor, only to suddenly shift to something highly philosophical or spiritually transcendent.  How right he is about art requiring the use of opposites . . .  humility and pride, instinct and study, love and hate, audacity and reverence.  The process of making art can be quite a struggle.  In the visual arts it can be reflected in physical technique (use of warm and cool colors, for example), studio practice thought and attitude, philosophy, and subject matter.  It might not be a full contact sport, but making art is definitely a form of wrestling.  Incidentally, did you know that Art was an Olympic sport for the seven games between 1912 and 1948?  

Early Influences: Schiele and Klimt by Chris Hall

Egon Schiele,  Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock , 1913

Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in his Blue Painter's Smock, 1913

Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt (along with Edvard Munch) heavily influenced my drawing during my first two years as a student at the University of Georgia.  In 1995 I even filled an entire sketch book copying Egon Schiele’s work.  I fell in love with their line work which is searching, sensual, and organic, like the very fiber of life.  Below is a little about Schiele and Klimt.  Sometime later I will devote an entire blog post to Edvard Munch.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele was an Austrian painter born in 1890.  His work is known for its intensity and its expression of raw sexuality.  His figure drawings and paintings, many of them self-portraits, often have twisted body shapes defined by expressive contour lines.  The work is often suggestive of sex, death, and the grotesque, with a disturbing eroticism bordering on the pornographic.  In 1907 Schiele sought out Gustav Klimt as a mentor, who was impressed with his work enough to help him secure exhibitions and patrons.  As a young artist-bohemian, he lived an unconventional lifestyle that led him to being driven out of one town and being imprisoned in another.  Eventually Schiele decided to settle down and marry Edith Harms in 1915, but three days later he was conscripted for the Austrian Army as the First World War exploded across the continent.  Schiele was lucky to get a reasonably comfortable assignment as guard and clerk in a POW camp in Prague, and Edith was allowed to follow him.  But in the fall of 1918, tragedy came in the form of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which would kill over 20,000,000 people.  First it would take Edith’s life, and then three days later, Egon Schiele’s.  He was 28.  Schiele’s last drawing is of his dying wife.  

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter born in 1862.  His work is known for its frank eroticism and decorative elements, often incorporating gold leaf.  The subject of much of his work is women, often in shown in allegorical, symbolist, mythic, and erotic circumstances.  He would also make landscapes and portraiture as well.  Klimt kept his life private, but it was a life marked by sexual hedonism.  He would often dress in a robe and sandals, wearing no undergarments underneath.  Klimt would have many mistresses and would father 14 children.  Early in his career Klimt received many public art commissions, but he would stop taking the commissions after his three paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized for being pornographic.  These three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, were later destroyed by retreating Nazi SS forces in May of 1945.  Klimt, like Schiele, would die in 1918, from complications brought on by the Spanish Flu.

Critical Paranoia and Artistic Vision by Chris Hall

I came to assist as a spectator at the birth of all my works.  Max Ernst.

You need both a bit of mind and a bit of mindlessness to make a painting. It's a play between control and surrender. Paul deMarrais

Let the painting tell you what it needs. Charles Reid

Painting is stronger than I am. It can make me do whatever it wants. Pablo Picasso

Painting is much like fishing. Sometimes we get hits and sometimes we get a glimpse of the phantom of the deep. Sometimes we sit adrift. But sooner or later, we get a keeper. Paul Allen Taylor

I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.  Arthur Rimbaud

Christopher Hall, The Perfect Muse, from the "Divination Series," 1997

Many a great artist has relinquished control in their art making process in order to become a seer and discover psychic truths.  Art can become a doorway and a bridge to the subjective interior psyche, the collective unconscious, as well as objective reality.  By approaching the art making process without any premeditation for the results, you can discover unknown truths, subject matter (archetypal content), and composition.  The Surrealists used this process to great effect.  But this new way of seeing isn’t really new at all.  Leonardo da Vinci would instruct his students to use a perception technique where they would look into the stains and cracks of a plaster wall, or the patterns found on river rocks, and discover landscapes, battles, clouds, faces, and new attitudes, new meaning out of chaos.  This alternative form of observation is akin to divination, rolling bones, and shamanic vision techniques that go back to the dawn of mankind.  Max Ernst would call it “Regarde Irrite,” Dali, "Critical Paranoia.”

I did not need the Surrealists to introduce me to Critical Paranoia, I was already sensitive to the art of Looking/Seeing and I discovered the technique on my own.  Even as a boy I would use my active imagination to transform shapes on a wall into birds, clouds, and human faces.  My real breakthrough in using Critical Paranoia in art came in 1997 with my “Divination Series.”  For this series, consisting of 16 works, I would tear up photocopied pages from a book on Marc Chagall’s art and randomly glue down the pieces on to a prepared panel.  I would turn my Paranoiac Critical eye to the gaps and creases between the torn pieces of paper and seek out images, subject matter, and composition, which I would then develop with crushed and diluted oil pastels.  

Soon afterward I would turn this new process of perception into direct painting.  I would go into the undergraduate studio at night, when it was quiet and free from distraction, and, with the aid of alcohol (only just enough to loosen the brain) I could escape rational thought, shake off notions of reason, taste, and morals.  I could enter into a meditative, trancelike, hallucinatory state of being.  This was my ecstatic working process, my tools necessary for the disruption of the everyday tyranny of the banal.  I would begin by making fluid, random marks onto a canvas or panel.  After the first brush stroke, the canvas began to assume a life of its own and I became both governor and spectator to my own event.  I would look into these marks and begin to see things from deep within my subconscious, and, if I was lucky, deeper still into the collective unconscious.  In the words of Gordon Onslow-Ford, I was a “pioneer artist (who) becomes a SEER with insight into the vast expanses of the inner worlds and their correspondences to the nature of the universe.”  

In my writing from the time I would compare myself to a deep sea diver into the sea of the unconscious, Theseus finding a way through the dark labyrinth (hoping to not lose the string that would guide me back home), an explorer of subterranean worlds, pulling the manhole cover over my head, or a artist-hunter entering the dark woods in search of truths to bring back to civilization.  It takes fortitude to keep painting like this.  I discovered many monsters lurking in the back channels of my mind.  I burned out sometime around 2000 and began to look for other modes of expression.  Around this time I began painting flowers from direct observation.  But that is another story to write about.  I still work, from time to time, using the Critical Paranoia technique, but I no longer use it exclusively.  

Working Without a Sense of Shame by Chris Hall

Hermes, the trickster, patron god of artists

Hermes, the trickster, patron god of artists

There is this notion that artists work without a sense of shame, both in their art and in their life.  Perhaps this is true, and this, more or less, with each individual artist.  To be brazen and bold, to speak the truth, or to show things that many people would rather not see, but perhaps should  . . . if this is what it means to make art without a sense of shame, then I would argue that to live life or make art with an eye to decorum, tradition, and convention speaks of certain cowardice.  The artist should never be afraid to call a spade a spade and announce that the Emperor has no clothes.  In this world where we are continually pressured to toe the line and conform, the artist becomes both trickster and hero, breaking the status quo and into a new realm of freedom.  I am reminded of Hermes the trickster god of Greek Mythology and his slaying of Argus Panoptes, the giant with a hundred eyes.  “Panoptes” means “all seeing,” and Argus always saw, everything.  When some eyes would sleep, there would always be others awake.  Lewis Hyde tells us that in this myth, Argus symbolizes shame, his multitude of eyes, always open, are the eyes of the community, forever prying into everyone’s business, waiting to catch us in acts of shame.  The shame Argus was tasked to discover was Zeus’ infidelity with Io.  Hermes plays his lyre and sings stories until one by one each of Argus’ eyes close in sleep.  Hermes then beheads Argus.  Metaphorically, Hermes uses art to slay shame.

Hermes slaying Argus Panoptes, the symbol of shame.

Hermes slaying Argus Panoptes, the symbol of shame.

How does shame function in our society?  What purpose does it serve?  At it’s best shame functions as a check against the temptation to perform unethical acts.  At its worst it functions as a form of censorship and a denial of liberties.  They are two sides of the same coin.  Ethics and morality differ greatly between different societies, within a single society, and among individuals. There is hardly a consensus, and even within one person, the dividing lines between what is good and what is bad are not exactly well defined.   There is no black and white, as such, only zones of ambiguity, shades of gray, and contradiction among shifting sands.  Ethics are not static, but are in constant flux.  What may be wrong at one time may be what is right at another.  There are times when it is necessary for the individual, either for one’s self or for the perceived greater good, to break with moral and ethical hypocrisy, and this is one of the tasks artists perform.  It isn’t always easy, when we are socialized to behave a certain way . . . shame has a deeper grip on our subconscious than we would like to at first acknowledge.  When speaking against a collective who insist that the world is flat, you are at first perceived as being crazy.  Society must protect itself; its paranoid fear that when it breaks down, how helpless we are as individuals in savage nature.  As individuals, too, we are not completely liberated.  Even the most free of people will have a secret shame, a shame which they can only hint at.  But revolution, be it personal or societal, must be given its due, and truth will out when the right time comes.  The great thinkers and artists of our world will shine the light reason on those dark forbidden corners and banish shame from back to where it belongs. 

I don't know what Hermes is doing here, but I'm almost certain is something cool.

I don't know what Hermes is doing here, but I'm almost certain is something cool.

Hermes the trickster also has parallels to the artist in that both are notorious thieves.   Hermes steals 50 head of cattle from Apollo and through a series of clever subterfuges, attempts to cover his tracks.  In the case of artists, inspiration sometimes does come out of thin air, but more often than not, it also comes from other terrestrial and cultural sources.  You can read more about the artist theft in the next blog entry, The Art of Stealing.

 

Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus by Chris Hall

Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c 1560

I’ve always rather liked this painting, so full of life when compared to a lot of Bruegel’s other works.  And the interpretation of the myth, the fall of a hero and nobody notices, almost seems contemporary.  It is not with any surprise that nearly a dozen poems exist riffing on this painting.  Of the lot, my favorite is William Carlos Williams poem, titled the same as the painting:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned 
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning