member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

(more on St. Rita of Cascia, patron saint of impossible dreams)

This is the biggest drawing I have made, 18 inches by 24. I am working also on a color version, but I'm not happy with it yet :)

There are many details that make the fig tree a good companion for a saint. First of all, that it will grow out of rock, like an orchid, only gigantic; that it could even grow out of the "ruins" of our civilization.

It is now believed that fig trees were the first plant species to be bred for food, some 11,000 years ago in the Middle East--several hundred years before wheat cultivation began. Because its wood is terribly difficult to chop down and provides nothing of interest to our markets, its existence in places like Queensland's national and state parks has saved those areas, and their other trees, from logging. The roses shown here are Alain Blanchard, from the species "Rosa gallica," which, according to Wikipedia, is one of the earliest cultivated species of roses.

As you might recall from my last post on St. Rita, one of her miraculous aspects was her ability to acquire a fig and a rose from a favorite garden in the dead of winter simply by wishing it so. Here, her presence has caused both to bloom from the same fig tree. After all, many things come from a fig tree: according to legend, underneath it, Buddha found enlightenment, and from between its roots sprung the Sarasvati* river; according to a NASA clean air study, the weeping fig also produces clean air, processing out our nasty pollutants--bringing us back full circle in this post and in the world, with new life forming from our ruins--by way of the fig tree.

You can see if you zoom in that as she sits in the curve of the tree trunk, it's as if she's pushing the bark outwards in waves--that is how I imagine it looks when reality "shifts" to allow an impossibility new space in the world. Being a saint, she lets the bird take the fig.

*note: The Sarasvati River was originally personified in the Hindu religion as Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, though through time, she developed into a separate entity. It is a very special river in ancient Hindu texts.

bark and roses

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's not the Words, It's the Intent: A Purifying Quest Versus Blood-Sucking Bats from Hell

Photo by Aizar Raldes,
La Paz, Bolivia 2006

This post began with the discovery in In the Labyrinth of an Aymara tradition, stemming from the introduction of the Aymara people to Christianity by Jesuit missionaries following the invasion of South America by Spain. The tradition is called "La Diablada."

Photo by DrCarlosAMG on Flickr

La Diablada combined the ancient Andean ceremonies and the medieval Spanish Auto Sacramental dances, which can be "defined as a dramatic representation of the mystery of the Eucharist," (Wikipedia) or a theatrical re-telling and explanation of the Last Supper, in which the bread and wine offered changed into the body and blood of Christ at his word, and were consumed. "La Diablada" tells a different part of the Christian story, in which St. Michael conquers evil by overcoming a multitude of devils. The story is also an "allegory of the indigenous population's conversion to Christianity" (source).

Wikipedia describes the event:
"At the start of the krewe are Lucifer and Satan with several China Supay, or devil women. They are followed by the personified seven deadly sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Afterwards, a troop of devils come out. They are all led by Saint Michael, with a blouse, short skirt, sword, and shield."

photo by Giorgio del Lago on Flickr of the Peruvian La Diablada

Photo by Dado Galdieri
Oruro 2005

Archangel Michael
The Archangel Michael is, interestingly, the patron saint both of battle (as in these presentations) and of healing, and guards over not only warriors and the police, but paramedics and other emergency workers. He is described as "the prince of light, leading the forces of God against the darkness of evil," (Wikipedia) a warrior, the warrior on God's side, expected in the end to lead the final battle against evil at the apocalypse.
We see that battle played out in generations of iconography as St. Michael and his sword facing down the devil:

"Saint Michael of the Apocalypse"
photo by Zenosaurus on Flickr, listed as an icon by Fr. Theodore Jurewicz.

"Archangel Michael Slaying the Dragon"



As far away from politics as I wish to stay, I find one aspect of the effect of Archangel Michael's legends fascinating in its seemingly perfect (perfectly horrific) expression of the dangers of confusing a metaphor, that is, an external representation of an internal battle for true balance between dark and light with the actual, physical necessity for the bloody gore of battle itself. The example I would like to use here is that of Romanian Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, who, after hearing the voice of God call to him from an icon of the Archangel, interpreted the symbolism of the icon in a very physical sense, and went off to form the Iron Guard, an act which would lead to what the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia calls "one of the most brutal pogroms in history--" a comment written after the end of World War II.
In Balkan Ghosts, Robert D. Kaplan describes the founding of the Iron Guard--the Legion of the Archangel Michael-- in terms that immediately call to mind the legends of Dracula, which stemmed from the same dark Carpathian landscape:

"He organized the Legion around cuibs ("nests") of thirteen members each. To join a cuib, an initiate had to suck the blood from self-imposed slashes in the arm of every other member of the nest, and then write an oath in his own blood, vowing to commit murder whenever ordered to do so. Before setting out to kill, each man had to let an ounce of his blood flow into a common goblet, out of which all would drink, thus uniting the entire nest in death. Members were also obliged to wear crosses and packets of Romanian soil around their necks...
Tall and handsome, Codreanu had riveting eyes and the chiseled features of a Roman statue. His followers call him Capitanul ("the Captain"). He liked to dress completely in white and ride a white horse through the Carpathian villages. There, he was worshipped as a peasant-god--the Archangel Michael's envoy on earth. When Codreanu married, 90,000 people formed a bridal procession.
King Carol II saw Codreanu as a dangerous rival, especially after Hitler told Carol to his face, during a 1938 meeting in Berchtesgarten, that he preferred Codreanu to be the 'dictator of Romania.' Carol, perhaps because of his overweaning arrogance, was no coward. He answered the Fuhrer by having Codreanu and thirteen other Legionnaires strangled to death in November 1938...
Many peasants claimed that they had seen 'the Captian' riding his white horse through the forests at night, in the weeks and months following his supposed execution. Later, the Romanian Orthodox Church proclaimed Codreanu a 'national saint.'"

Carol was forced out, and a General known as "Red Dog" took power, appointing several Legionnaires as cabinet members. This was not enough to appease the Legion members, and after a terrible earthquake was determined to have occurred in order to castigate the people for not avenging the death of their martyrs, an awful massacre began which included stripping 200 Jews naked and putting them on the slaughterhouse conveyor belt. The descriptions of the incident are unbearable.

Rethinking the Archangel:

It is here that his healing qualities become important to remember, because they point out that all this sword-wielding was for the protection of the souls of mankind--from a non-human darkness.

According to Wikipedia,
"At the place where he was first venerated, in Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), his prestige as an angelic healer obscured his interposition in military affairs. It was from early times the centre of the true cult of the holy angels, particularly of St Michael. Catholic tradition relates that Saint Michael in the earliest ages caused a medicinal spring to spout at Chairotopa, near Colossae, where all the sick who bathed there, invoking the Blessed Trinity and St Michael, were cured....
At Constantinople likewise, Saint Michael was the great heavenly physician. His principal sanctuary, the "Michaelion", was at Sosthenion, some fifty miles south of Constantinople. He supposedly visited Emperor Constantine the Great at Constantinople, intervened in assorted battles, and appeared, sword in hand, over the mausoleum of Hadrian, in apparent answer to the prayers of Pope St. Gregory I the Great (r. 590-604) that a plague in Rome should cease. In honor of the occasion, the pope took to calling the mausoleum the "Castel Sant'Angelo" (Castle of the Holy Angel), the name by which it is still known. The sick slept in this church at night to wait for a manifestation of St Michael; his feast was kept there June 9."

From there, we come back to the ritual of drinking blood, but in a different light.
The quest for the Holy Grail, the symbolic search for that famed hidden chalice which contains the blood of Christ, a mythical representation of the human quest for redemption famously retold in the King Arthur Legends and the Indiana Jones movies, also stems from the stories of the Archangel Michael:

"Also of legendary fame is the mythical vessel known as the Holy Grail. According to an ancient legend, when Satan rebelled against God, he was wearing on his crest an enormous stone, which is alternately identified as an emerald or a ruby. When the archangel Michael struck down Satan, this jewel fell to earth and was found by some unidentified sea-faring people who shaped it into a magnificent chalice. This was somehow acquired by King Solomon and from him it descended to Jesus, who used it at the Last Supper to institute the Sacrament of Communion. This same chalice was used by Joseph of Arimathea to gather the blood of Jesus while He was still nailed to the cross..."
--The Complete Book of Amulets and Talismans by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler

The search for the holy grail changes the focus of the St. Michael stories, from the battle with Lucifer itself to the recovery of this "jewel" which fell from heaven following that battle. That jewel was reshaped to form the cup which caught the blood of Christ, named the Redeemer of mankind--a very different drinking of blood than that enacted by Dracula or Codreanu. The quest stories are an internal search for what is good, for what will redeem us instead of the internal battle with what is bad. The idea here is to focus on the desire, the dream, the truth we must believe is there if we are ever to see it--as opposed to focusing on the bad that we see so easily in our every day lives, focusing on the difficulties that beset us, on things like violence, poverty, and suffering. The idea is to heal through our actions.

And that ideal brings me back to the art of Remedios Varo, a painter who often made visible magical possibilities, and who has recently been studied by Estella Lauter as a female creator of such a questing myth. She "claims that the fantasy and female-centered art of Remedios Varo reveals the same stages found in traditional quests: the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return." (source)

"Rupture" (The Separation: Leaving the cloister, despite the heavy, disapproving gaze of the Institution)

"The Calling" (The "quester" carries a chemist's flask; an alchemist's mortar hangs from her neck. She receives her charge directly from the heavens, it ignites her, it makes her a light.)

"Exploration of the Sources of the Orinoco River" (Note the waters of life flowing from the chalice hidden inside the tree.)

"Born Again"
Lauter describes the above painting thus:
"The moment of discovery in Varo's rendition of the quest occurs in Born Again. It is the discovery of the grail, which eluded all but three of King Arthur's knights. The naked female breaks through a wall into a sacred space that contains the grail, miraculously full and containing the reflected image of the crescent moon. . . . It is an ecstatic moment, . . . entirely feminine because of the ancient association of the woman with the vessel and the moon, and because of the vaginal imagery presented in the tearing wall. . . . [T]he protagonist has become her own fate."(92)

That final line seems most important, here: "The protagonist has become her own fate." Because the journey, just like the battle in the other versions of this story, is internal. It is a quest for the best of oneself, the quest to make that all that we are.

The Mont St. Michel:

According to Ben Heine, the photographer,:
"UNESCO has classed the Mont Saint-Michel as a world heritage in 1979 and this mecca of tourism welcomes more than three million visitors a year.
The 'Wonder of the Western World' forms a tower in the heart of an immense bay invaded by the highest tides in Europe."

By reaching up. Right?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Nature of the Absurd: the End of the World and its Beginning

"Lullaby of Uncle Magritte"
(All images in this post by Michael Cheval)

"Existir debe ser una imagen, en la que flotamos para no hundirnos." --Gabriel Pacheco
Which, loosely translated, is: "Existence is an image in which we float to protect ourselves from drowning." Drowning, perhaps, in the frightful chaos that is endless possibility. If the physicists are right, and everything is occurring all the time, and every possibility is played out somewhere, and nothing is either created or destroyed, but simply always is, then the thing that would define life as we experience it might simply be an image. Let me back up a few steps:

We know that the world is teeming with atoms, that in each sliver of each nail curving over the tip of a finger, we carry thousands of atoms. The air around us is not empty; it is packed with jostling objects. Probably, when we are born, we can see all of them. I imagine it takes us days and then weeks and months to learn to ignore certain atoms and group together others, coming to see them as one object as opposed to many. What I'm saying is, we learn what to see and what to ignore. I think that the other thing we develop in those first few years is a latent image, a picture that symbolizes what we come to call the world. An image which defines not just what's visible, but what's possible.

"Terra Incognita"


In the book Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Haruki Murakami writes about just such an image. He divides the book into alternate chapters, the first set being about a young man navigating a mysterious world of scientific intrigue, conspiracy, and personal danger, and the second set describing that young man's experiences in a seemingly idyllic but very isolated community. The community is surrounded by a high wall, to which the gatekeeper holds the only key. Beautiful, golden-furred unicorns are let out to the fields beyond the wall every day and brought in to sleep every night. As winter descends upon the population, the beautiful horses lose their vibrant color and begin to drop from starvation and cold. There are some hard, fast rules to living in this community--which one is not permitted to leave--, rules which especially include doing the job assigned to you when you arrive and minding your own business. In these rules, one begins to see the connection between the alternating chapters, the thread that holds the two seemingly unconnected stories together.

There is, of course, a lot more going on in the story, but this is the part I want to think about here: the strange, isolated locale is his latent image; it's how he defines the world. The existence of the place, how he got there, the larger meaning of why he's there, the reason he can't leave and the particular job he's been assigned, these things all just are; there's no real explanation for any of it, none of it makes too much sense, things just are a certain way, and you don't question them. When, in his "other life," he passes a stranger on the street who might need help or who might be trying to get his attention, he tells himself: none of your business. He has no lasting relationships, mostly visits prostitutes, lives alone. He does his job because it's his job--he doesn't even understand the larger purpose of that job, mainly because he doesn't ask about it. All of his behaviors in the world of scientific intrigue, the "waking" world, are explained by the slow, quiet chapters set in that idyllic community. Because of this image he carries, because of that view of the world, his options in life are severely limited, and are, at the time of the story, about to come to an end altogether.

The golden unicorns are the beasts of the earth who carry the suffering and the weight of our sins. Each year, with the coming of winter, they die slowly and miserably, and each year in the spring they are somehow replenished. This (death and resurrection) is a motif present in every single manmade myth I can think of. This is a motif that explains for him, satisfactorily at first, why some people suffer and others don't. As the story progresses, he begins to realize that the unicorns exist because he asks no questions, because he chooses, in essence, not to care about the people around him. Because he isolates himself, because every aspect of his world is a discrete, unconnected bit in its place which has nothing to do with anything else. He slowly begins to feel responsibility for those creatures, for the stories, dreams and memories (the untold stories, dreams and memories of those around him which needed somewhere to go, somewhere to be held) that they carry with them to their graves.

As the narrator discovers the stories held in the skulls of these beautiful beasts, he also discovers love. Love comes to him at first as a simple curiosity: who is this woman working next to me? What makes her so silent, and what would make her laugh instead? He wonders. Love is wonder.
That simple curiosity changes a main attribute of his latent image. He no longer feels bound by the rules and idiosyncrasies of that strange, isolated landscape and its brutish gate-keeper. He begins looking, not for an escape for himself, but for the story of this woman who has changed the way he views the world: the story she has somehow lost, a loss which haunts her, which binds her to the place. He begins to care more about what another needs than what he himself simply wants. As a result, his life in the outside (scientific, waking) world begins to change.

At the end of the novel, it is not clear what will happen; it is only clear that things have changed drastically, and with those drastic changes comes the possibility of an entirely new life, instead of that End of the World which had been hovering above his head throughout the novel.
And now we come to the point of all this here.

"Covert Fruits of Enlightenment"

"Heritage of Future"

This is art; this is why we paint, why we tell stories: to expand the possibilities of the image we live in, to make more things visible, thus making them possible. To create and explore the feeling of wonder. Art comes out of dissatisfaction, out of some desperation to change what we see around us and the ways in which what we see limits us. Art comes out of hope for something else. It is a form of magic, but it is a totally logical magic. Because, returning to the science at the beginning of this post (and in other posts here), what we see is not all that's in front of us; it's simply what we have chosen out of all that's in front of us. What we've chosen to believe, what we permit ourselves to see. Art is a refusal of limitations, it is an exploration into the absurd, into absurdities which through familiarity become normal, not only possible but plausible, not only plausible but mundane.

"A la Guerre Comme la Guerre"

In Michael Cheval's paintings, we see moments of time colliding; threads from one world seeping into another as a path you might follow to change life story-lines; life on its stage with the fine strings controlling our actions caught, momentarily, like a photo somehow capturing the hand of God. He paints using the language of dreams, juxtaposing things that "shouldn't" exist together in an often otherwise realistic style, making it easier to accept.

"March of the Lonely Hearts"

"The Little Mermaid"

The language of dreams makes sense here, as dreams are essentially re-workings of our latent images. Each dream that we have is a moving image that provides a metaphor for our belief systems, the belief systems that control us like little puppets during our "waking" hours. When we analyze those dreams, we put those images back into words, and then we have three things to work with: what happened to me yesterday; the images in my dream last night; the particular words I used to describe those images this morning. When we hold those three things next to each other, patterns emerge. We become more aware of our unconscious belief systems, we begin to "see" the strings controlling our every move.

"Art of Diplomacy II"

"Art of Diplomacy III"


In her book Sleep On It, Jane Theresa Anderson tells us:

"Consider the Colorado experiment where Dr J. Stoyva fitted volunteers with spectacles that turned the world upside down. They had to wear the glasses for several days, and, during that time, they gradually saw the world the right way up again. The brain could not match the incoming visual information with other incoming information (such as touch or sound), or with its ‘internal model’ of what the world should be like, so it simply changed its perception and turned the images upside down again. When the volunteers’ spectacles were taken off again, guess what? They immediately saw the world upside down again, this time with their own ‘bare’ eyes. Within a short time, the brain adjusted by inverting the incoming messages to make everything fit in with the expected view.

This is, in fact, what happens after birth. The physics of the eye is much like the physics of the camera. The retina, at the back of the eye, is like the photographic film in the camera, and the world’s image appears inverted on this screen. The message sent to the baby’s brain is one of an inverted world. Trial and error soon gives feedback to the brain that what it sees is not, apparently, what it feels, hears or moves around in. The brain turns the image round accordingly.

So it is seen, from our earliest days, that our brain works to alter incoming messages about its sensory environment if they do not fit in with its expectations. The great magicians and illusionists rely on the brain’s stubborness in seeing what it expects to see, rather than what it actually does see! Such is the art of deception. We cannot necessarily trust the brain with what it deciphers and concludes about the waking realities of our environment. It does an incredibly good job, but it does not always get the picture right. It may perceive alternative realities that are not there at all. Just as often, though, it may apply rational restraint, and cause us to discount its genuine experience of dimensions beyond those of waking life. Can we, then, ever trust our neurophysiological wiring to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’?"

"Zenith of Time"

"Cock'n'Bull Story Tellers"

"Perfect Stranger"

And then comes the trick of painting, or, for those who don't paint, the trick of visualization, or of story-telling.
Here's some science that turns the above experiment from bad news into good:According to Lynne McTaggart in The Intention Experiment,

"Research with EEGs has shown that the electrical activity produced by the brain is identical whether we are thinking about doing something or actually doing it. In weight lifters, for instance, EEG patterns in the brain that would be activated to produce the actual motor skills are activated while the skill is simply being simulated mentally. Just the thought is enough to produce the neural instructions to carry out the physical act.
When an athlete performs, the nerves that signal to the muscles along a particular pathway are stimulated and the chemicals that have been produced remain there for a short period. Any future stimulation along the same pathways is made easier by the residual effects of the earlier connections. We get better at physical tasks because our signaling from intention to actions has already been forged. It is not unlike a train track laid down through wild, inhospitable country. Future performances improve because your brain already knows the route and follows the track already laid down. Because the brain does not distinguish between doing something specific and just thinking about doing it, mental rehearsal lays down the tracks just as well as physical practice does. The nerves and muscles create a pathway just as sound as one produced through repeated practice.

Nevertheless, there are a few important differences between mental and physical practice. With physical practice, when you practice too much, you become fatigued, and fatigue causes electrical interference and blockage along the tracks. With mental intention, no roadblocks ever appear, no matter how much you practice in your head."

Later she continues,

"In 1961, Neal Miller, a behavioral neuroscientist at Yale University, first proposed that people can be taught to mentally influence their autonomic nervous system and control mechanisms such as blood pressure and bowel movements, much as a child learns to ride a bicycle. He conducted a series of remarkable conditioning-and-reward experiments on rats. Miller discovered that if he stimulated the pleasure center in the brain, his rats could be trained to decrease their heart rate at will, control the rate at which urine filled their kidneys, even create different dilations in the blood vessels of each ear.
Hypnosis is also a type of intention--an instruction to the brain during an altered state. Hypnotists continually demonstrate that the brain or body is susceptible to the power of directed thought [and that directed thought is most powerful when presented in image form, as opposed to word form].
One dramatic example of the power of mental suggestion concerned a small group of people with a mysterious congenital illness called ichthyosiform erythroderma, known disparagingly as fish-skin disease because unsightly fish-like scales cover most of the body. In one study, five patients were hypnotized and told to focus on a part of their body and visualize the skin becoming normal. Within just a few weeks, 80 percent of each patient's body had completely healed. The skin remained smooth and clear.

Through hypnotic intention, spinal-surgery patients about to undergo their operations have reduced blood loss by nearly half, simply by directing their blood supply away from the site of the surgery. Pregnant women have been able to turn their babies from breech positions, burn victims have sped up their healing, and people suffering hemorrhages in the gastrointestinal tract have willed their bleeding to stop. Clearly, during an altered state, roughly corresponding to the hyperalert state of intense meditation, conscious thought can convince the body to endure pain, cure many serious diseases, and change virtually any condition."

How does this relate? Say you have a dream where you are trying to get somewhere, but everything on the planet seems to be intent on interfering. You have trouble walking, you keep getting phone calls, your car won't start, there's traffic, the crowds at the airport are unmanageable, your confirmed seat has been given away, the plane left early. This dream is the type of latent image I've been talking about here: it is a metaphor for a belief system, for the belief that you'll never get to your goal, because the world is against you (or something similar). After a dream like this, you might use a visualization technique in which you re-enter the dream, using all your senses (hearing, smelling, touching, etc), and unravel each problem. Traffic looks insane, but as you're approaching the knot, a policeman appears and quickly alleviates the situation, creating an opening that clears the scene almost instantly. Your seat's been given away, but at the last minute, someone else cancels, or a clerical error is discovered which opens up a seat for you. The pilot realizes he forgot his lunch and taxis back to his parking spot, where you get on. The point is not that each action which unravels the problem make sense; in fact, it probably won't, because it's the very absurdity of the new act which lets you know that the possibilities available in your world view (and waking life) are being expanded.

"On the Way of Destiny"

"Bouquet of Metaphors"

Painter Michael Cheval defines absurdity as a "“game of the imagination, where all ties are carefully chosen to construct a literary plot.” A plot he himself has created. An intentional plot.

Lethebasher describes Cheval's paintings thus: "The shape of a dress or a faucet will become another object, a surreal object, such as a table or a horn instrument; but it will retain the original shape of the dress or the faucet. Such are Cheval’s games of the imagination; we do not always know what we are looking at. The eye must adjust to the picture object-by-object as it simultaneously takes in a new chessboard of reality."
That is to say, instead of instantly recognizing the logic which unites the parts of the painting, one has to investigate, piece by piece, discovering and entering another world as one goes. Objects that one recognizes are shown in at first unrecognizable situations or uses, which after that initial moment make some sort of (absurd) sense.

"Cavalier of Flitting Past"

You can, after all, see how the connection was made between the wide (isn't it actually absurd in itself?) ruff (collar) and a seashell. And we all know that the seashell carries the sound of the sea...the voices in that sound..the lost souls, the mermaids, the siren calls... Perhaps the man is merely the anthropomorphizing of a sea gull--maybe that explains the aviator cap and goggles, the empty bird cage in his hand the titular "flitting past". Perhaps not...

"Down to Earth"

So: to expand the boundaries of the possible, to begin anew, we must give in to wonder, be curious, explore. We must invest in absurdities, feel and smell the impossible, concentrate on dreams, and perhaps...
simply ignore reality when it interferes...
One step in this process, for me, is enjoying art like this.

"Echo Hunting"

“Absurdity, like any other genre, has its own rules. But it implies everything that is outlying of common rules and boundaries.”
Michael Cheval

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Creatures of the Earth: The Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Part II

I have blogged about the glorious palette and fascinating symbolism of the paintings of Clive Hicks-Jenkins before here, but new works for an upcoming show, as well as the recent publication of a book he illustrated (using a fascinating and complex method he describes below) have made it seem necessary to address his talent here again.
His new paintings are inspired by the Seamus Heaney poem, St. Kevin and the Blackbird, and they exhibit stunning shades of blue and very real sensations of tenderness, patience, and love. In them, Kevin seems to embrace the world.

The poem:

And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity:now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.

St. Kevin was a Celtic saint who died in 618, at the ripe old age of 120. His name, meaning "of gentle birth," was given to him because his mother experienced no pain at childbirth. Throughout his life, he would continue this gentle and loving relationship with the mothers of many species.

His particular practice of contemplative life involved extreme solitude and painful physical exercises meant to increase the concentration of the mind. According to Phyllis Jestice in Holy People of the World, "that this contemplation was meant to conform to nature rather than oppose it can be seen in two stories from the life of Kevin." The one is the legend of St. Kevin and the blackbird, illustrated here in these paintings and in the poem by Seamus Heaney, a story that according to Jestice "affirms that spiritual and natural rhythms can and should conform to each other"--for it is said that he prayed continually in perfect stillness until the birds had hatched and left the nest. In the other story,

"Kevin was in his hermitage when he was approached by an angel, who indicated that a pleased God had promised Kevin a vast monastery and great city in the valley below. Furthermore, no one buried in the monastic cemetery would know the pains of hell. The four mountains surrounding the valley would be leveled to accommodate all these wonders. But Kevin refused, calling the animals of the mountains his housemates, and not wanting to move them on his account."

For many years, Saint Kevin slept on a raised stone slab "perched on a perilous precipice that an angel had led him to--" hopefully not the formula for such a long life. Today you can visit the 2 meter-deep cave called St. Kevin's bed, which stands 10 meters above the Upper Lake in Glendalough. Monks later did come and build a monastery in his honor (though not the mountain-destroying small country the angel had suggested), but he visited them seldom, still choosing to live as a hermit. When you visit the sight of its ruins, you can see the "Deer Stone," where another legend regarding his special relationship to nature and mothers has it a doe would wait for the saint in order to give him the milk he needed for two orphaned babies. According to Fionn Davenport in his city guide to Dublin, "The stone is actually a bullaun, used as a grinding stone for medicines or food. Many are thought to be prehistoric and they were widely regarded as having supernatural properties; women who bathed their faces with water from the hollow were supposed to keep their looks forever. The early churchmen brought them into their monasteries, perhaps hoping to inherit some of the stones' powers." (223)

"Tender Blackbird"

Clive says:
"I've borrowed the Renaissance convention of simultaneously viewing an exterior and an interior... in this case the saint's cramped hermitage... by rendering the wall of the building transparent. We've been discussing planting some pencil cypresses in our garden here, and in the painting I've wish fulfilled the intention into a mature avenue! The rowan (Mountain Ash) and the soft fronds of fennel are already in the garden, as is the box-hedge and archway. Alas, we have no hermit, though the blackbirds are legion."

These paintings of St. Kevin will be shown at the one-man exhibition entitled "Touch," at the Martin Tinney Gallery in March 2010.


"Study for St. Hervé and the Wolf"

I had the great luck to be able to discuss with him some of his works concerning the story of the Breton people's Saint, Hervé, and I discovered that he expresses his ideas verbally with just as much poetry and art as he does when he's painting them. He explains:
Clive: "He [St. Hervé] was blind from birth. The story goes that a wolf came down from the woods and ate Hervé's dog, and thereafter the saint was never seen without the wild beast at his side, as though it had decided to do penance for its crime and to replace the dog as the young man's companion."

"St. Hervé and the Wolf"

As seen with the previous paintings of St. Kevin, Clive's paintings often address the extraordinary connections between man and beast that form an important part of the tales of many saints. The vivid red of the above wolf, and the expression on both wolves' faces are very striking; the proximity of that ferocious expression to the calm face of the saint highlights and makes very immediate its wild nature. The painting underscores the ability of the saint to both keep his calm and develop a very close relationship with the wolf without "stealing" from him his wildness. When I noted this aspect to Clive, he responded:

Clive: "I have no interest in expressions of the stories where the nature of the wild is perverted from its true self, as though the intervention is like that of the patriarchal God of the Sistine Chapel, changing things by dint of a flash of lightning from his finger tip. For me the true miracle of relationships that break the usual mould is that the animal moderates its behaviour because it's moved to."

"The Blind Boy and his Beast"

He had an opportunity, while in Nantes (Brittany), to visit the large moated park surrounding Nantes Castle to see the wolves that had been temporarily released there. From a parapet high above them, he was able to study their movements and behaviors.

He said,
"For an hour or more we studied them, fascinated by the way they were so completely un-dog like. Their feral lope was odd, more that of cats, and the pale gold of their eyes was hypnotic and unnerving. They have a very direct stare. Our friends Dave and Philippa were captivated too, though both Peter and Philippa felt that anyone falling into the park would have no mercy from the wolves. The male was particularly large, and much darker. The females fawned on him, and there was evidence of affection between the individuals within the pack. Between them Peter and Philippa concocted gruesome scenarios of what would happen if anyone plummeted into the enclosure, and it was not pretty. But on the last evening of our stay we went back to view the wolves again. To our astonishment we saw a slip of a girl appear through a gate into the enclosure, and the pack swarmed toward her, fluid as a river. But when they reached her instead of the expected carnage, they greeted her with clear pleasure, standing on their hind legs to lick her face and play. It was quite wonderful. Suddenly my Hervé paintings seemed a lot more plausible."

It is immensely pleasurable to see these seemingly contradictory aspects of the wolf captured together in these paintings.


At the end of last month (September 2009), a special edition of Equus, by Peter Shaffer, was published by The Old Stile Press, illustrated with commissioned images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about it for this post.

Me:For those of us unfamiliar with the text, could you explain a bit about the main ideas in it which influenced your illustrations?

Clive: Peter Shaffer's play is about a psychiatrist persuaded against his better judgement to take on the case of a disturbed teenage boy accused of having blinded the horses in his care. This horror is known almost from the outset of the play, although the motives behind the terrible act are unpacked slowly so that the drama unfolds as a psychological mystery.

From the first performances Equus caught the imaginations of audiences. The director and designer imaginatively made use of masked and stilted actors to represent the animals, and the action of the play was stylised so that the violence, although disturbing, was represented in a manner that was theatrical rather than unwatchable.

While John Napier's iconic designs for Equus undoubtedly played a significant part in the success of the play, I didn't want to to reproduce them in the book. For the Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Shaffer's text there was an opportunity to create an alternative experience to that of seeing it in performance. My conjuring of Alan Strang's fevered imaginings could be quite different to what had been possible using actors in horse masks. In the book the horses are fluid, transforming from page to page. Sometimes noble and muscular living creatures, sometimes blinded apparitions mutely accusing their young tormentor from the margins. Sexuality underscores play. Alan strips naked and brings himself to orgasm while riding the horse Nugget by night.. He constructs an alternative religion for himself, with Nugget transformed to the Horse-God Equus as the object of his worship. It's a potent brew.

Me: Could you describe the process used for creating these?
Clive: The book illustrations are relief printed from polymer blocks. The images were originated in multiple layers. Pen and ink on paper (sometimes collaged) layered with acrylic on acetate into which were scratched the 'sgraffito' elements. These 'layered' drawings were photographed with a plate camera and the blocks then generated from the negatives via an ultra-violet light-box that 'cured' the exposed areas of polymer through the transparent parts of the negative. (It's an updated version of the the old... and slightly obscure... 'cliché verre' technique once used by printmakers using sunlight through inked glass onto photo-sensitive paper.) The result is as you see. No greys of course. Only the illusion of tonality generated by spacing the marks. The Old Stile Press has made a bit of a speciality of this relief printing from polymer blocks, and I've been the artist who has used it most. It's been a learning curve!

Equus is an edition of 200 copies, with a special edition of 10 copies which includes this edition relief print:

The book can be purchased by making inquiries here. On Clive's website, he has an entire section devoted to "Saints and their Beasts."

Saturday, October 3, 2009


"The Descent of Sophia"
"This painting is a mirror of the ancient Jewish myth of the soul journey known as The Descent of Sophia (the Goddess of Wisdom)." --Lynden Saint Victor

The Descent of Sophia is a story celebrated by Gnostic Christians as well, as the coming to earth of the feminine aspect of divinity. Here, the artist depicts Sophia attired in a mixture of aviator gear and ragged "lady of the night"-wear, symbolizing both her time above, in the heavens, and below, on our lowly plane, and the travels in between. The suggestion of this myth is that full wisdom cannot come without immersion into the experience of life itself, however "impure" and inherently physical that experience may be. And it shows the feminine--the yin, the internal--approaching the male/yang, as both those aspects must be present for full wisdom as well. Here, life on earth is represented by the robot--not even completely human, or humanity "still in its early stages of evolution, operating within a sphere of instinctually programmed survival mechanisms." As Sophia descends to meet it, the cage of its chest opens, releasing a flock of birds in a Jungian symbol of transcendence, although a pair of lovebirds is left behind to form his heart.

St. Victor describes chaos as "simply the instigator of evolution from an established “order” to a higher level of “order”."
He describes the painting thus:

"In this painting I represent Chaos as a gift as illustrated with the big red bow with Chaos sitting atop a crumpled purple cloth representing the fall of monarchies at the hands of the disenfranchised. Her striped clothes represent the cosmic tango between order and chaos, yin and yang, working together in evolutionary harmony. The tornado in the back- ground façade is the destructive force of nature which is not evil or punishment, it is simply a natural force of the planet we call home and chaos theory in the other panel represented as a seemingly unrelated series of events, equations or concepts that in retrospect reflect a highly organized pattern tied to a much bigger universal picture. She is shown with the attributes of the fertility god Pan, which was later demonized by the Church, in representing something life-giving as being condemed as evil. Above the façade we see the sunrise dawning as new possibilities and potential arising with every occasion of Chaos."

The association with Pan is interesting, as he was the son of Hermes, a trickster god very commonly caught inspiring chaos. And the word "panic" comes from the fear Pan could inspire when his irritation was aroused, or when he blew his conch, apparently a terrifying act that immediately decided the outcome of battles. According to Cotterell and Storm, "His worship spread from Arcadia to Athens immediately after the Athenean and Platean victory over the Persians at Marathon in 480 BC, because he made the Persians flee in panic. He rendered a similar service for Zeus during the battle against Cronos and the Titans. His conch deeply worried Zeus' opponents." This service he had rendered for Zeus also applies to Saint Victor's ideas in this painting, as Cronos was the father of Zeus, and this was a battle to overthrow his tyrannical rule (Cronos had tried to avoid any questions to his authority by swallowing all his children as they were born, but was deceived into passing over Zeus). So Pan's feet resting over the purple cloth of the fallen monarchs is an apt symbol, both of his instigations towards chaos (panicked chaos) which help ensure the overthrow of the old and the beginning of the new, but also of his demonizing by the old powers who try to thwart him, as today, the goat-like Pan is often used as the very image of Satan himself (click link to see Satan's goat-feet).

"Sweet Dreams"
About this self-taught Artist:
"I believe our mission on earth is to evolve - into what exactly, I have no idea. I also believe that the road to expedite this mission is to live this current life with two main goals - and these have become my mantra (with a shout out to the amazing Bishop John Shelby Spong), “To live wide-eyed in the Mystery of Life and Dare to Love Wastefully.” "
He lives in Santa Fe with his wife and dogs, and donates a percentage of all his sales to Good Dog Mountain for the rescue of death row shelter dogs. His webpage, the Saint Victor Diaries, is here.