spirituality

That's My Jesus! by Chris Hall

"Buddy Christ" from the movie  Dogma  (1999).

"Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma (1999).

“Art is the pure realization of religious feeling, capacity for faith, longing for God. […] The ability to believe is our outstanding quality, and only art adequately translates it into reality. But when we assuage our need for faith with an ideology we court disaster.” Gerhard Richter.

Today I am going to take a little side trip, away from Art, to write about religion and spirituality.  After 166 postings in this blog I have not once deviated from the subject of Art, so I think I can be forgiven in this one instance.

As explained in my previous post, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.  I don't get much out of one size fits all organized religious institutions.  The answers to my questions can not be found before a pulpit one hour on a Sunday morning.  Too much blood has been shed in the name of organized religion.  I can accept a certain amount of hypocrisy within myself and my life, but too often organized religion has too much hypocrisy even for me.  Instead I have long been in the process of developing my own spiritual path.  My self-created religion draws from a variety of sources: nature, art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and a variety of religious and mystical traditions.  Those traditions include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shamanism, Alchemy, Gnosticism, and yes . . . Christianity.

Christianity is where I started, my religious mother's milk.  It is the skeletal structure with which I base all my moral and spiritual beliefs.  I believe Christian is not something you are, rather it is something one should aspire to become.  You may ask yourself, how can a lefty weirdo pervert such as myself, reconcile their proclivities with Christian doctrine?  It is easy for me, actually. Jesus welcomed outsiders into his party; he rolled with a band of misfits back in the day. Jesus was not exactly, how should I say it, bourgeois?  Jesus was also a man of flesh, a human being with feelings and emotions.  Many would have Jesus be an unapproachable holy marble man, or a neutered Ken doll.  But Jesus was human.  He had his doubts and fears, he experienced pain, and he was even susceptible to anger.  Wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he also had a libido?  Even Jesus had a penis.  And what about his politics?  Jesus stayed out of politics.  Perhaps he would be the first to champion the separation of Church and State.  Jesus did not want to overthrow Rome; his message of compassion and forgiveness transcended the politics of his time.  Nevertheless, politics can learn from Jesus' example.  Reading The Bible, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus was the first Communist.  This is irrefutable.  Jesus, his disciples, and the first Christians all pooled their wealth together (Judas was the treasurer) and redistributed it equally and as needed.  No one went hungry in the first Christian Church.

When I read The Bible from beginning to end a few years ago, I was a little shocked by all that was left out in Sunday School.  It is full of fucked up angry God injustices (particularly in the Old Testament, where genocide, rape, slavery, human sacrifice, and the murder of children is both commanded and condoned), but if you have a dark sense of humor, you can get through the sanctioned violence and bloodshed without being completely turned off.  In the end it seemed to me that the good stuff in The Bible outweighed the bad, maybe not in quantity, but certainly in weight and worth.  The Bible is a fountain of inspiration and solace for those who may have a spiritual bent to them, and even for non-believers as well.  The story of Moses and Jonah, finding the strength to stand up to power, are particularly enlightening, and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes pose difficult questions on the nature of suffering.  The life of Jesus in the four Gospels of the New Testament are also of great value if you are looking for life lessons on how to live.  Jesus' parables are often like Zen koans and are a pleasure to read.  If you read nothing else of The Bible, read that at least.

Sometimes my friends are absent minded around me or just assume that because I have leftist leanings that I am anti-Christian.  I brush off their insults usually without correcting them, being too much of a gentleman to point out their small mistake.  Politicians who do hateful things in the name of Christianity are not much of a help, of course.  But at least Pope Francis is beginning to change many people's perceptions of what it means to be a Christian, and I am thankful for that.

Why I Believe in God by Chris Hall

Paul Gauguin,  The Yellow Christ , 1889.

Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889.

“Picturing things, taking a view, is what makes us human; art is making sense and giving shape to that sense.  It is like the religious search for God.” - Gerhard Richter.

“Art is not a substitute religion: it is a religion (in the true sense of the word: 'binding back', 'binding' to the unknowable, transcending reason, transcendent being).  But the church is no longer adequate as a means of affording experience of the transcendental, and of making religion real – and so art has been transformed from a means into the sole provider of religion: which means religion itself.” - Gerhard Richter.

For most of my life I can honestly say that I have experienced more bad than good.  My life has been marked by suffering in such a way that if I am ever fortunate to finally meet with some success, I fear I may never be able to enjoy it.  Often times it seems to me that my life ledger is grossly out of balance.  In such circumstances, how does one carry on?  Who do we hold accountable for disastrous fate?  Even Van Gogh threw in the towel eventually and clocked out of this mortal coil.  I think I carry on out of some kind of animalistic urge, akin to what Schopenhauer describes as “The Will.”  It is a stubborn kind of thing, and it has prevented me from doing harm to myself in my weaker moments.  At times like this, when I am at my worst, when it feels as if all my inner being is on fire and stuck in a perpetual, howling scream, I suddenly I remember why I believe in God.  Only someone with total omnipotence and omnipresence would have the dedicated time and strength to commit to making my entire life one living Hell.  This is why I say, believe in God, but do not trust.

“...Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition.” - Graham Greene.  

“Art is the highest form of hope.” - Gerhard Richter.

But there is another reason why I believe in God.  I trace it back to my youth and the old romantic in me.  It is buried deep, and sometimes I have to dig for it, but I know that a more benevolent God can be found in Nature and in Art.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed, as Saint Augustine suggests, squarely in the hands of mankind.  Perhaps the blame for my sufferings can be placed on the electric chemistry of my brain.  John Milton tells us in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”  This is true, to an extent, but this does not account for the undeniable amount of bad fortune that has has been my lot, only my reception of it.  I have many questions about life, suffering, and the fate of mankind.  Reading, writing, making art are my attempts at trying to find answers to these questions, though I confess I have, for the most part, come up empty handed.  Many of my questions remain unanswered.  At least the process is cathartic, and has, at times, given me peace.  Perhaps the process of making art is God's mercy.  Perhaps God is trying to redeem us through Art.

Paul Gauguin,  Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ , 1890.

Paul Gauguin, Self-Portrait With The Yellow Christ, 1890.

“Now there are no priests or philosophers left, artists are the most important people in the world.”   Gerhard Richter.

Considering some of Richter's other comments on the connection between religion and art, namely that art is a religion, I think it might be safe to say that in the quote above, Richter is suggesting that artists could, and perhaps should, take on the role of both priest and philosopher.  In the West at least, I feel that there has been a growing doubt in the power of organized religion to solve our modern woes, and a growing doubt that an omnipotent, omnipresent, and benevolent God may exist at all.  If these people are like myself, they may have questions that they would like answered, or at least would like the solace that can only be found in beauty.  Artists, then, can take up the role left behind by priests and philosophers.  I think this might be a noble calling, maybe even more noble than using art as a political prop, but certainly more noble than using art as an entertainment tool, or an advertisement for a product.

Music, Art, and Spirituality by Chris Hall

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913.

“Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Painting is a thundering conflict of different worlds, which in and out of the battle with one another are intended to create the new world, which is called the world of art. Each work arises technically in a way similar to that in which the cosmos arose – through catastrophes, which from the chaotic roaring of the instruments finally create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of the work is the creation of worlds.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Blood Promise (recorded live in 1997), by Swans, composed by Michael Gira, from the album Swans are Dead.

Ah!  If I could only make a painting that sounds like this song, I would retire my paint brushes forever! Like a good painting, listening to this song requires time and patience. It builds slowly, then at a certain point, it overwhelms and consumes. You lose yourself in spiritual, transcendent experience. The first part of the song is the sound of mankind's universal experience of pain, but then at the 8:17 mark, the bottom drops out, and you begin to float, you make the first hesitant steps at flying, at escaping, trying out your wings for the first time, fighting for joy, demanding entrance into heaven, the right to be dissolved into the universal void . . . only to begin again, born again, reincarnated.  This song gives me the shivers and puts goosebumps on my skin.  Today I want to write about music, art, and spirituality, while referencing two of its most famous practitioners, Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.

“Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”  Ludwig van Beethoven

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.” Ludwig van Beethoven

Music has always been an important part of my life.  I may have been born with a crayon in my hand, but it was music that gave me the inspiration and courage to use it.  I was born on December 16th, 1975.  I share this birthday with my brothers Ludwig van Beethoven and Wassily Kandinsky.  Like both of these artists, music is a big part of my life.  When I paint, I always have music on – it allows me to loosen up, to more easily channel my primal-self, that deeper part of myself where I act more on instinct than intellect, where I can better pick up on unconscious inspiration.

“With few exceptions, music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist's soul, in musical sound.”  Wassily Kandinsky 

While it is more known that musicians have attempted to portray visual imagery through sound (both figuratively, as in Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and abstractly, as in Alexander Scriabin's synesthetic oeuvre), it is less well known that artists have pursued painting with an eye toward music.  Wassily Kandinsky is one of these artists.  But music is by nature abstract.  How does one paint sound?  What shape does it take?  What color is it?  Wassily Kandinsky was profoundly inspired by music, and it is thought he may have even experienced synesthesia, where a person gets their senses confused, and they literally can hear colors, or see sound.  Kandinsky's synesthesia may have inspired him to create the first truly abstract works of art.  In his book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), Kandinsky sets up a color theory in order to merge ideas of music and art, with an eye toward using art as path toward spiritual transcendence.  

“Each color lives by its mysterious life.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Wassily Kandinsky

“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.”  Wassily Kandinsky

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural... The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Musical notation by Ludwig van Beethoven.

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”  Wassily Kandinsky

Like Beethoven and Kandinsky, I believe in the power of music and art to elevate notions of spirituality in people, and like them, I often seek spiritual transcendence through my work and the work of others.  Who can not listen to the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy and not get the feeling of spiritual transcendence!  

Excerpt from Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy, taken from the film Immortal Beloved (1994).

Art is as a noble profession, a profession I want to protect from pop culture banality and commercial interests.  These people are the real killers of art.  It seems so strange that I have so much in common with Beethoven and Kandinsky, in terms of personality and a deep love of music.  Of course we are all artists as well, but what is more fascinating is that we also share the same motivations for making art, and share a belief in the possibility of it being divinely inspired.  Perhaps there is some truth to this whole astrology thing.  The website thesecretlanguage.com claims to have collected and studied the life stories of 20,000 people over 40 years, and this is how they describe people born on December 16th:  visionary, imaginative, guided, impractical, out-of-touch, and troubled.  The website also has this to say:

Those born on December 16 are among the most imaginative people in the year. This is not to understate their physical side, however, which is highly developed and stakes out its claims on their personality as well. As a matter of fact, one of the major themes in the lives of December 16 people concerns transcending physical limitations of the body and reaching for the stars . . . December 16 people are not the easiest to live with. Emotional problems of all sorts plague them, usually as a result of their own complex nature. Those who live with them must be extraordinarily understanding and sensitive to their needs, not the very least of which may be a need for periodic solitude . . . Often December 16 people feel guided or even instructed by a higher power in whose service they find themselves. This power may be social, religious or universal in nature, but ultimately liberating for them. Through this association they are freed from their earthbound problems at least for a time . . . December 16 people are capable of feats requiring titanic energies. Once they are directed towards an inspiring but also realistic goal, there is little that can stop them from achieving far-reaching success in their work. Yet, they can be easily sidetracked and fall prey to all sorts of slights, real or imagined, annoyances and (to them) trivial problems involving other people’s feelings, to which they are not always the most sensitive. Living on what may or may not be a high spiritual plane or metaphysical cloud they can have trouble relating to those mere mortals busy with more mundane and petty considerations . . . Explosive reactions alternating with remoteness or indifference, manic periods followed by depressions, the highs of laughter and the depths of deep silence are all colors found on the December 16 palette. The most successful of those born on this day find expression for their high idealism and feelings through creative work, hobbies or social activities. Thus they are able to communicate with and touch their fellow human beings through shared interests.

Not exactly glowing reviews, especially the whole prone to mental illness and depression thing, but if I am honest with myself and my flaws, and I am, I have to admit this is very accurate.  And this is where art comes in for me.  Art (music, visual art, and writing) is not only a catharsis for me, it has allowed me to confront my flaws, and to hopefully work at getting beyond them.  Art, then, is my path toward spiritual growth and transcendence.  Art is my religion.

“Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”  Wassily Kandinsky

If you enjoyed the live version of Blood Promise by Swans (recorded 1997) above, I hope you may enjoy the studio version below, released in 1994.  It is a very different song, and short, about four minutes long.  It is the kind of song I think I might like to fall in love to.  

Blood Promise from the album The Great Annihilator (1994).

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.”  

Clyfford Still: Uncompromising Artist by Chris Hall

"Still makes the rest of us look academic."  Jackson Pollock.

"How can we live and die and never know the difference?"  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still was an American painter and a member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists who made monumental works of art conveying universal aspects of the human condition, such as creation, life, struggle, and death, themes which took on considerable relevance during and immediately following World War II.  He was the first among his peers, namely Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and others, to break free from representational work and into pure, non-objective abstraction.  Still was born in 1904 in Grandin, North Dakota, and spent his childhood in Spokane, Washington, and on the sprawling, wind swept plains of southern Alberta, Canada.  The harsh conditions in Canada would color Still's disposition and his approach toward art, fostering his need for solitude and an independent lifestyle.  He attended the Art Students League briefly in New York City, but graduated from Spokane University in 1933, and then Washington State College, in 1935.  In 1937, Still co-founded the Nespelem Art Colony, where he produced portraits and landscapes of the people and locales on the Colville Indian Reservation.

In 1941, Still relocated to the San Francisco Bay area where he worked in various war industry work to subsidize his pursuit of painting.  It was here that Still meet Mark Rothko for the first time, and the two became fast friends.  Still would have an influence on both Mark Rothko, and his friend, Barnett Newman, as by this time, Still was already painting pure, non-objective abstract work.  In 1943, Still had his first solo show at the San Francisco Museum of Art.  From 1943 to 1945, Still taught at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth College), before moving to New York City.

“I want the spectator to be on his own before the paintings, and if he finds in them an imagery unkind or unpleasant or evil, let him look to the state of his own soul.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still lived in New York City for most of the 1950's, at the height of Abstract Expressionism.  Even among his peers, Still was considered an outsider.  During this time, Still became increasingly critical of the art world.  He rejected any attempts by others to explain his art, and began naming his paintings after numbers, letters, and the year made to make interpretation difficult.  Still also distanced himself from European Classical and Modernist traditions, believing them to be decadent and profane, and said he came up with abstraction on his own, without any influence from art history.  In 1952, Still severed ties with commercial galleries, and refused to show in New York City until 1967, as he felt the city was too corrupt for his work.

In 1961 Clyfford Still distanced himself further from the art world when he moved to a 22 acre farm near Westminster, Maryland, where he would paint in the barn during the warmer months.  Five years later, Still would purchase a house eight miles away, in New Windsor, Maryland, where he would live until his death in 1980.

“You can turn the lights out. The paintings will carry their own fire.”  Clyfford Still.

Clyfford Still's work, like those of his peers Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, is largely concerned with juxtaposing different colors and surfaces.  Unlike Rothko and Newman, whose work is organized in a relatively simple way (Rothko's rectangular shapes and Newman's single, vertical zip), Still's compositions are less regular, and are, perhaps, more organic.  His jagged flashes of color can leave one with the impression that  one layer of color was torn off the canvas, to reveal the colors underneath.  Still also departs from Rothko and Newman in how he applies his paint.  Rothko and Newman used flat, thinned paints, where Still used thick, impasto paints, often applied with palette knives, causing a subtle variety of shades and sheen which shimmer across the canvas.

Detail from a Clyfford Still painting, attempting to show the thick, impasto paint.

Still's large, mature work recalls natural forms and phenomena; the ancient stalagmites, mysterious caverns, foliage, and canyons bathed in darkness and light give the impression of the poetic sublime.  His vast, expansive canvases seem to go on forever and overwhelm the viewer, and it seems Still could have painted forever, if it were not for the edges of the painting.  Still once remarked that it was "intolerable to be stopped by a frame's edge."  Often Still's work seem to echo the earth tones and open spaces of the Western Plains where he grew up (although Still, true to his irascible nature, would deny any connections between his art and the natural landscape).  

Philosophically, the work might also reveal Still's obsession with the dualism of good and evil, as symbolized through his use of light and dark, although, most likely, Still would deny that, too.  As an artist, Still's difficulty and propensity for being a loner is on par with William Blake and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Like Rothko and some of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, Still believed that his art had a living spirit and that it contained magic.  He believed his art was more than just the sum of their parts.  “I never wanted color to be color.  I never wanted texture to be texture, or images to become shapes.  I wanted them all to fuse together into a living spirit.”

Still, like many of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, was not interested in painting the specifics of his time, but instead interested in creating timeless, universal work, appealing to mankind's inner mythologies.  Still distrusted science, technology, and the works of man, especially after the invention of the atomic bomb, and wanted to produce work to counteract the damage done to humanity by them.  "I am not interested in illustrating my time.  A man's "time" limits him, it does not truly liberate him.  Our age - it is one of science, of mechanism, of power and death.  I see no point in adding to its mechanism of power and death. I see no point in adding to its mammoth arrogance the compliment of a graphic homage." 

In his will, written in 1978, two years before his death, Still left a portion of his work and his complete archives to his wife, Patricia, but left the rest any “American city that will agree to build or assign and maintain permanent quarters exclusively for these works of art and assure their physical survival with the explicit requirement that none of these works of art will be sold, given, or exchanged but are to be retained in the place described above exclusively assigned to them in perpetuity for exhibition and study.”  After Still's death in 1980, the Still collection of approximately 2,400 works was sealed off completely from public and scholarly access for more than two decades.  Finally, in August 2004, the city of Denver, Colorado announced that they would, with Patricia's blessing, receive Still's artworks and build a museum for them.  Patricia also bequeathed her own collection of paintings and the complete archives to the museum as well.  The Clyfford Still Museum opened to the public in 2010.  It contains approximately 3,125 works of art completed between 1920 and 1980, 95 percent of Clyfford Still's lifetime artistic output.

Clyfford Still's art was noble in nature.  He spent his career focused on human aspiration, the personal search for identity, and the liberation of the spirit.  It was a path from which he never strayed.  To me, Clyfford Still's art is emblematic of a life lived with no compromise and the maintenance of personal integrity.  I think more contemporary artists should look to Clyfford Still as an example of an artistic life well lived. 

“I affirm my profound concern to achieve a purpose beyond vanity, ambition, or remembrance.”  Clyfford Still. 

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. 

Happy Birthday . . . Brother! by Chris Hall

I've known for a long time now that I share my birthday with Beethoven.  Today I discovered that I also share a birthday with Wassily Kandinsky, author of "On the Spiritual in Art" (1910) and the world's first true abstract expressionist artist!  I have always appreciated both Beethoven's music and Kandinsky's art.  Based on my reading, I know that my temperament and personality is a match for Beethoven's, and I suspect it may also match Kandinsky's.   Strange.  Idealistically our art is really about the same thing, the desire to find transcendence in a troubled and tumultuous world.  I might not always reflect that in all my art, but that desire underlays all of my thinking and art process.  Happy Birthday Beethoven.  Happy Birthday Kandinsky. 

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.

Yayoi Kusama: Queen of Polka-dots by Chris Hall

1 kusama2.jpg

My first impression of Yayoi Kusama’s work was not favorable.  What I saw was phenomena art, kind of like Op Art . . . no real substance beyond just what you see.  It seemed to me that her work had a 60’s psychedelic design flavor to it.  I knew she was associated with Pop Art and had exhibited alongside both Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, both artists I do not care much for.  I also knew that she had no problem translating her art into pop culture consumer products.  She is shameless promoting her collaborative efforts with Louis Vuitton.  

Then there are the endless self portraits, photographs of her in front of her work.  I thought her art was kind of narcissistic.  Her outlandish clothing blurs into the paintings behind her, and blurs the line between fine art and fashion.  I am not one to really care about fashion and outward appearances, I’ve always been more concerned with what is deeper and inside, nor am I one to care much about cults of personalities.   I’ve always thought her self-portraits literally got in the way of the paintings behind her.

Yayoi Kusama is the Queen of Polka-dots.  Where Damien Hirst’s spot paintings are cold and pharmaceutical, Kusama’s art at least has a celebratory feel to it.  I’ll giver her credit for that.  This is a reflection from the peace and love idealism she embraced in the 60’s.  Still, I could not get past that a lot of her work was reminiscent of a fabric pattern.  

All of these negative things really colored my perspective of both her and her work.  So, it was to my surprise when I discovered that she had once identified with the abstract expressionists, this was before she changed allegiances to Pop Art in the 1960’s.  She made some really good work.  In reading about her, I found she could be really deep and psychically aware.  Here is a really good quote from her concerning one of her paintings, Flower (D.S.P.S.), 1954:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs straining my ankle.

It is clear that Kusama is sensitive to her surroundings, a signature of a good artist.  Perhaps this sensitivity is why she has chosen to live in a psychiatric hospital ever since 1977.  What about the polka-dots?  They are more than just decorative elements to her.  This is what she has to say about the dots:

A polka-dot has the form of the sun, which is a symbol of the energy of the whole world and our living life, and also the form of the moon, which is calm. Round, soft, colorful, senseless and unknowing. Polka-dots become movement ... Polka dots are a way to infinity.

This might not always translate to me in her work, but I like that in her heart she still has an appreciation for symbolism (many in contemporary art do not).  I have also learned to like some of her recent installation work.  I find that it can be beautiful and even, at times, sublime.  Her work sometimes suggests to me self-obliteration, infinity, losing yourself, and dissolving the ego into the universal void.  There is some spirituality hidden in there!  This is not your average everyday Pop Art!  

It is good to be skeptical . . . just do not allow it to overwhelm your curiosity. I am glad I dug deeper into Kusama's art and gave it another chance.  I've learned to appreciate both the substance and motivation behind some of her work. Unfortunately we do have to be willing to get past work such as her video piece Manhattan Suicide Addict (2010) in order to access it.

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.

William Blake: Visionary Anarchist by Chris Hall

William Blake was an English painter, poet, printmaker, and visionary anarchist.  Both in his life and work he supported anti-slavery and feminist views.  While reverent of the Bible, he was hostile toward all forms of organized religion.  Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions and he maintained an amiable relationship with the Anglo-American political activist Thomas Paine throughout his life.  Although Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, he is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work.  As an artist and poet, he had no predecessors, no peers, nor any successors.  His work remains a completely original, singular vision.  

William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1794

I was first introduced to Blake via his collection of poems in Song of Innocence and Songs of Experience.  Blake illuminated his poetry by producing them as etchings, which he would hand paint with watercolor.  Later I would tackle The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is filled with little bits of wit and wisdom that would have a profound effect upon my thinking.  Here some of my favorite extracts:

1. Without contraries there is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.
2.  If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.
3.  The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.
4.  The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
5.  He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence.
6.  The busy bee has no time for sorrow.
7.  Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
8.  Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
9.  You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
10.  As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. 

Below are some examples of Blake's work that I like.  Click to enlarge the image.


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.

The Art of Pompeii by Chris Hall

In 1999 I had the opportunity to tour Pompeii, the Roman city destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 AD.  I had previously seen some of the art in books and also in the museum in Naples, but seeing the art in Pompeii, in situ, had a profound effect upon me.  It was clear to me that the people of Pompeii thought, felt, and expressed themselves in much the same way we 20th Century people do.  Like us they were obsessed with sex, death, spirituality, nature, and capturing portraits for posterity.  Seeing these artworks among the ruins produced in me some strange, meditative thoughts, on life, death, and art, both as record specific to time and as something universal and eternal.  

Below are some images from Pompeii that I deem to be beautiful, in some form or fashion.  

Click the images to enlarge

Sex

Death

Spirituality

Portraiture

Animals and Nature

History


Love


Search for the Sublime by Chris Hall

I long for a spiritual revival in Contemporary Art.  The last time a formal movement championed this was Abstract Expressionism/Art Informal in the 1940’s and 50’s.  The sublime works of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and others was a refreshing antidote to the dead, propagandistic art coming out of the Eastern Bloc at the time (though it was recently declassified that the CIA secretly championed the movement to help attract intellectuals to the freedom of expression tagline, this, despite the fact that many of the artists were radicals and former Communists).  

But in today’s Contemporary Art theory, which is largely Marxist in nature, there is no room for religion or spirituality.  They too often confuse the sins of organized religion with spirituality, which is more personal in nature.  To these critics, spirituality is considered anachronistic and kitsch (not so much dangerous, because danger is sexy and inviting).  I would like to see more spirituality in art, more of the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime, such as described by the philosopher Edmund Burke, but interpreted through a new, contemporary lense.  Humanity needs this nourishment.  We drink eight glasses of water a day and still thirst for the infinite.  

 

Click on the images below for larger size and image details

Anselm Kiefer,  Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior , 2005

Anselm Kiefer, Let the Earth Be Opened and Send Forth a Savior, 2005

Shamanic Initiation, Spirituality, and Art by Chris Hall

In my earlier and more abstract work, I liked to explore notions of the spiritual sublime.  There is some truth to be mined there.  I like the notion of Zen Buddhist attitudes in art, that the very act of creating, as well as contemplation on the end result, can bring mental calm, enlightenment.  So it is with Sufism, a mystical sect within Islam.  Whiling Dervishes spinning until there is a total loss of all conscious thought, only union with the divine, and their music inspiring us to transcendence.  I am also indebted to Gnostic and mystic Christian beliefs for deepening the mystery.  

It was all there at the beginning with me.  When I was 19 I had a powerful dream.  It took place during my first bout of deepest, darkest, soul shattering, black howling depression.  I was taken away to a dark place, my body surrounded by spirits.  They took apart my body, piece by piece, and examined each part, arm and leg, flesh and bone, head and heart.  I was scared and in a lot of pain.  But these same spirits later put me back together again, only I was different in some way.  I had somehow changed.  I felt I was in possession of a powerful secret, that I could use this secret to access hidden corridors in my mind to produce meaningful works of art, and that this art would always be true.  

Soon after, I was reading a book on Shamanism by Piers Vitebsky.  I was shocked to learn that this dream is very common, and it signals an initiation rite by the spirits for newly minted Shamans throughout the world, but especially among those peoples found in Inner Mongolia and the steppes of Asia.  But that dream was a long time ago.  I don’t have magic powers and my art can not heal people (at least not literally).  Over the years my art has become more about this world than any alternative reality or vision.  

Perhaps one day I will return to it.  I still believe there is some magic involved in making art, and that the artist is somehow special, different from most people who are only pedestrians when compared to artists, with their ability to take spiritual leaps and find ecstatic truths, especially when tapping into the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious.  

Ah, but it is a double edged sword for those with this ability to conjure up ecstatic truths.  Modern societies do not have room for magic anymore.  This is even true in the contemporary, post modern art world, where there is a favoring of conceptual conceit over anything that smacks of spirituality, or anything divined from the heart.  Such work is deemed anachronistic and not worthy of investigation.  Maybe one day this will all change. . . .  

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.”  Francis Bacon