Some famous researchers into Paleolithic art, David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes, believe the ancients may have seen the cave wall or rock shelter surface as a “permeable membrane.” They say that the shamans encountered the spirits coming through that threshhold and, I suppose, immortalized their visions on the rock, so that the image continued to act as a wormhole for spirit. It’s worth hearing it from them:
“The painted images of another world made sense because of their location on the ‘veil’, the interface between materiality and spirituality. The walls of the shelters thus became gateways that afforded access to reals that ordinary people could not visit – but they could glimpse what it was like in that realm as painted images filtered through…”
I like to create a permeable membrane. What comes through are arrangements of lines, ideas. The more random it is, the more I can see. Many more transformations are possible. It’s like ordering chaos, but allowing the background to meld with the foreground, the unconscious with the conscious. There has to be sufficient complexity for the spark to ignite, an invitation for the spirit of creation to arise.
That would make the artist a kind of shaman, though I don’t like that often-misused word. And here’s a painting on that surface, full of random marks. You might not know what will come through and leave its tracks, scratches, and breath on the surface.
I love cows. I saw far more cows than people before I started going to kindergarten. I find peace and soul in the feeling of that huge rectangular wall of living flesh breathing in a green or yellow field.
In this painting, the bright colors of pink/orange spatter are not applied last, but first. I sanded down after overpainting them with opaque paint to reveal them underneath, like arteries. In every domestic cow there’s a ancient auroch underneath.
I like like digging up the old layers, revealing the hidden veins: it’s my own version of the X-ray style of aboriginal art. I find cows make a good imaginary canvases. All that warm action lies just under a vast surface area.
What about our private, individual Stone Ages? What about your art that was a start, years ago, before it ripened? What’s in your art cave? Is it brilliant? Submerged? Rough? Hard to find? From ancient eras? In this post, I’ll share some personal old, extinct art. Some is destroyed, some still exists hidden, and all are my little secrets.
As I considered paleolithic creativity, I began thinking about my own ancient art. Art is transient. Periodically, I clean out and discard my old art. Ancient art in nature is drowned, avalanched, petrified, faded, scratched and licked by animals, mineral-dripped, overpainted, destroyed. Some fragments remain.
I still don’t know why I made this painting, which I named just today after years of existing title-free. It does look like a shaman within a shaman, or big foot, or a gorilla, with magic biceps. And a little hippo is sort of irresistible. Maybe there’s a little bit of Big Bad Wolf, with granny inside. It’s scary enough that it never got hung on a wall. It has a personality…. someone you may not want to meet in a stone age alley by moonlight.
And a few more details of old paintings. I was really into that heavy texture, my own modeling paste, made from thick gesso and lightweight spackle from the hardware store, half and half.
Antique fragments, excavated up from our own lost ages, still have power. What do you do with your own ancient art?
Neanderthal art has now been shown to exist and has been dated back to over 60,000 years, before Homo Sapiens was in Europe. It has graphic abstract forms and seems to have recognizable animals (see the short film below). As more and more work is done on the “abstract” sign forms in deep caves , we are finding that the abstract is not more “primitive” than the realistic animals. They occur together.
It could be more like comparing a novel with a movie made from the novel: the more abstract marks have known meaning and carry specific information, perhaps a story script, or “credits” with location, authors, and events, while the beautiful animals are the movie itself. Books and movies do not exclude each other, but enhance each other.
We always seem to want to separate the “written” and the “visual.” We have even assigned them different sides of the brain, which has now been shown to be a erroneous. It reminds me of how much we wanted to believe the Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging apes rather than sharing a known human experience.
I’m going to try to paint my own paintings using some of these beautiful Neanderthal abstract marks. I’ll keep you posted on the paintings.
Upcoming events: on First Friday May 4, 2018, I’m hosting a gallery show of modern art in ancient modes created by five artists.
The Greek Gods weren’t white! We just think they were. “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation. Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.
“Chromophobia” is the fear of color. It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual, but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia. Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent. But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.
Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum. I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today. Yummy!
Look at those pinkish stones! Pink was a popular color in ancient times.
I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red: Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink; someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.
A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples. Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life. There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.
The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.
The ancients used all the color available to them. We should too.
Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”
I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery. I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it. I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources. I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so! I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.
Gold leaf always seems so complicated. It makes us think of old masterpieces and secret processes. How can you use gold metal leaf in intuitive, contemporary abstract painting?
Prep the canvas first. I like to use gesso and modeling paste. Build a few bumps and ridges into the canvas. This will make the gold metal leaf have interesting texture when you apply it later. Then drip on a few interesting colors in light, abstract washes. You can use Golden liquid paints. Remember that you are not planning too much. In intuitive art, the painting will form itself from the media. You will get ideas as you go along. Let the layers dry. You can see an example with texture under the leaf here.
Let the gold metal leaf tear into large and small forms. Don’t try to control the shapes: that’s part of the process! Then use regular waxed paper from a household roll to pick up the “broken” pieces.
Apply the gold metal leaf first or in the under layers of the painting. I use a Minwax acrylic deck varnish from the hardware store. I brush it on, let it dry a minute so that it is neither wet nor completely dry, then apply the gold leaf. Let each random fall of the leaf lead you to decisions on where to place the next layer. Press the waxed paper to make the leaf adhere.
Now you have the start of a very interesting abstract painting!
But how do you integrate the gold leaf and make it a finished painting?
I will write more on the process next month. I don’t believe in “trade secrets” in painting anyway. I will always reveal media and techniques– because your painting process and finished work won’t be like mine anyway!
I am hosting a class in my Santa Rosa, California studio this month. You can find the listing for Abstracts with Gold Metal Leaf here on my website. Please scroll down. Gleam on! Suzanne
“What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” John Keats
I painted Beauty in early August, shortly before the total solar eclipse, which we caught in John Day, Oregon.
The eclipse was a summer zenith of awe, cosmic mystery, and great American road trip. Scott and I met up in Portland after I finished taking a painting workshop with Jesse Reno, and took off from there into the high desert of central Oregon.
My painting Beauty, with images of teeth shining as if for a selfie, a band-aid on a cheek, scratches and boo-boos, precariously balanced on a tipsy pedestal, and a sort of sweetness in her mismatched eyes, is how I have felt for nearly six months.
In October we were caught in the devastating Santa Rosa wildfire. Thankfully, our home and my studio were not harmed, though Scott’s place of business was badly damaged. In December I tripped and fell on cement and hurt my face under my cheek, just like Beauty, who was painted in August. I am recovering from pneumonia in my left lung. And on the day of the Blue Blood moon, the second moon of January and a total lunar eclipse, our cat Nora was killed by a car. From eclipse to eclipse, it’s been a wild ride.
Sometimes paintings hold the future. Beauty’s childlike sweetness and humor made me smile between the eclipses, through precarious times. Seize that beauty.
I’ll be sharing new paintings and exploring ideas in more depth in my upcoming Tinyletters.
“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Albert Einstein
One good thing about a real painting is that it’s a gift, not a Trojan horse. You can look at a good painting over and over. It will still speak, still radiate, still suggest. When the CDC asked to use this painting on the cover of a medical journal, it reminded me of the process of Four Hands Painting with Susan Cornelis. It turns out I also did a blog about this particular piece.
When images spontaneously appear, it makes you believe that the image somehow has its own consciousness. The image/idea wants to manifest itself, if not through you, then someone else, or more than one person, in the case of Four Hands Painting. If images are living things, they come alive again when someone else sees them. Apparently the Trojan Horse wants to canter again, this time in a medical metaphor. I see the painting as a meditation on time. What do you see in it?
I recently started a newsletter called Symbol Warehouse Paintbox through TinyLetter. The email is more like an old-style snailmail letter, more intimate and newsy, and reveals more of my inner process and personal life. I’m writing them about twice a month. If you’re interested, go to this link: https://tinyletter.com/saltworkstudio. You can read the letters in the archive and decide if you want more.
I’m getting cool emails from my friend Travis, full of big dreams and symbols. Things are popping in his spirit. Travis is an interesting guy, so Etruscan pot shards and kabbalistic alphabets are involved. These are times in life when everything makes sense, moves forward and is enlivened by meaning. Your intuition is part of the great Round, and you feel it. Life advances.
It’s a bit like travel. What makes travel, travel? It’s that we are living intensely, noticing things, sorting them out, digesting them. The days are charged with meaning, and often, pleasure. We advance into fields of unfolding metaphors. It’s risky and interesting. As one of my teachers said, “That’s why you call it risk-taking. Otherwise it would be ‘sure-thing taking.'”
I’ll take a risk here, not knowing who I’ll offend: any real painting is a journey where you might not know where you end up. I’ve been listening to Brene′ Brown’s interview on creativity, risk, and criticism. Well, as benign as it may seem to risk something in painting– after all, it’s only a surface and pigment— I, and so many others, will clutch and stutter and smother when it comes to taking a true risk. Because we will fail.
Yes, we will fail: that’s one thing that Brown insists on. There’s no way to mitigate the risks: no perfect paint or brush, no perfect teacher or color scheme. But we will sometimes have a glorious “yes,” a breakthrough, which is burned into our happiness like a shining brand.
All the pictures of work you see in this blog are failures. They never made it to maturity, but were stages later obliterated, or discarded. Yet they have their integrity as individual marks. They have a transient beauty, like most of life.
I am interested in teaching how to retain the flow of unconcious, or vision, in painting. At the same time, I love the finished product, so I’m also into working with archival materials, frames, shows and showing. But the finished product is only a product without intuitive vision lighting the way. Because who are you painting for, anyway? You are painting for yourself, and a tiny handful of other artists and humans you love and respect.
I’ve long wanted to link abstract painting with dreams, vision and intuition, and to teach it. I’m teaching an intuitive painting retreat in a beautiful locale in Calistoga in October. I’ll be keeping you up to date here in the blog as I develop my ideas on intuitive vision in painting, and how to take the risk. Oh, and Travis will be there!
Friday May 5, 5-8 PM. First Friday Open Studio in SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa. Join me for an informal evening of art. Many studios are open in the neighborhood. map/directions
Friday June 2, 5-8 PM and Saturday June 3, 12-5 PM. Art and Absinthe. Drop by my studio in the SOFA Arts District, Santa Rosa, on Friday or Saturday, to partake in a drop of the legendary art drink, Absinthe, see art, and hang out. Add a Saturday visit to me to your Art at the Source plans! map/directions
I’m back to writing you after a long hiatus. I’ve been doing lots of journal and dream writing, but that’s not for public consumption. Paintings are leaving my life, going to owners; their exit feels almost more like a sign of a change in my life than “sales.” Europa, above, caught in paint my interest in travel, ancient culture, Greek myth, and the ocean–and, of course, Europe. And now Europa has traveled to her new destination, swimming away, founding a new civilization.
I’m at a point of change in my life, almost at the end of my “day job.” It strikes me, now, that “day job” has a slightly derogatory ring to it. I suppose that the term is supposed to carry the message that capital-A art is the only worthy profession for an artist. I have been lucky in my job as a public high school teacher; I’ve managed to maintain an art practice, and served a few young people. Soon my life will be turned upside down.
This painting, “Upside Down,” recently sold as well. It was painted for a film festival as a response to the Indian filmUpside Down, a charming antidote to Bollywood and well worth a watch. The white designs on top are calledWarli, originally made with paint made of rice and used to decorate Indian houses. We’re turning our own little house upside down right now, shaking out the dust and getting rid of outworn items, ancient papers. But no matter what walks out of our life, something new and fresh will be waiting to appear on the canvas. I rely on that.
I’ll be back to blogging weekly for a while. It’s nice to be back.