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 have always used the term “object lesson” without quite knowing what it was. I felt, though, that I was having one, so I looked it up. “A striking practical example of some principle or ideal.” Uh-oh. Striking means that, for me, it has to hit you over the head– or open up in your face, like flowers.
I planted bulbs this year. In our time zone, they should go into the ground in October or November. Instead, they moldered and half sprouted in our garage. My husband, the gardener, gave me gentle reminders, about a dozen of them as the months wound by, to plant the bulbs. Finally, with difficulty, in mid-January during a warm spell in our California winter, I threw them in, knowing that the genetic clock had ticked on by for most of them, and that they mostly wouldn’t sprout. I blamed myself for my neglect and selfishness in not planting them; I was convinced I had failed. I visualized them sadly rotting underground. Procrastination would claim another victory in my haphazard battle to gain ground, to make beauty.
Just planting them was so invigorating I decided to scatter and sow ancient seed packets I had lying around, California poppies and cherry tomatoes, in the same bed as the old bulbs. I planted some decade-old nasturtium seeds too. One bulb package contained Parrot Tulips. I didn’t even know what they were, but planted them in a pot near my door.
You might have guessed the story before I did. Most of the bulbs sprouted. The daffodils were that amazing dancing yellow, and the parrot tulips were wonders . The seeds are all coming up right in the ground, not even transplanted as seedlings.
I deal with painting projects sometimes much like the bulbs. I procrastinate, shelve them in dark places, and deny that they need attention. But even late, “bad” attempts at planting can bear unbearably beautiful blooms. I don’t deserve them. But they sometimes happen anyway.
Object lesson: Do it anyway, late, half-assed, or whatever. A basic lesson in creativity.
The last two pictures show the parrot tulips in decline, beautiful even in decay. They reminded me of the lush still lives of the Dutch masters, where a bit of rot was cultivated for its opulence, and for its object lesson. Carpe diem. Do the work.
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
How do you get that authentic, intuitive creativity going? When I’m stuck, I make a Metaphoracard.
It’s not news that small collages can unleash a big creative flow. The Surrealists used collage as an alternate language. Austin Kleon recommends collage, even little messy ones like the Metaphoracards, for coming unstuck. Maybe even especially the little messy ones, the imperfect ones, the ones that will never see the inside of a gallery.
Laura Foster Corben and I invented Metaphoracards as a play activity for Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow Adult Camp. We would take the cards the group made and tell fortunes with them. We wanted to stay out of the territory of the serious, archetypal, and therapeutic, and instead encourage play. But even before that I made series of small collages one summer with my friend David Short. In looking through them, I don’t know now which of us made them– but we had a grand time.
Collage is communal. It’s trashy and it violates rules because it rips and tears stuff. It releases energy, especially when it is done for itself alone, with no desire to show it publicly. It’s totally stealing images, and so it is mercurial and a bit sleazy. I never show my Metaphoracards in public because someone else– many others, in fact– made the individual images I stole.
Collage also invites synchronicity and magic. Austin Kleon writes about how artists cultivate messiness, precisely so that the unexpected can appear. I have begun to think that even collecting images in advance to use later “kills” them, because they no longer exist in the moment.
How are Metaphoracards different than other forms of small collage? Well, we paint first. Getting your own hand and colors on the surface first claims it much better than a glossy cutout background, no matter how beautiful. And it’s so much better if it IS a we, a group, because image finding is best done communally, through a large, messy pile. There are also no words and no suits. With Metaphoracards, you’re always playing with a full deck!
Frog Chalice Shrine
Love After Laundry
If done randomly enough— which is no easy thing– the cards catch a message to deliver both to the maker, and to the group around it. It’s like they are little nets that catch a fragment of the zeitgeist of the present.
And, by the way, they blow dynamite into any creative blockages you might have. I like to make them at the start of the year, to mystify myself. I love to try to figure out what the heck they mean. And they endure as a source of pleasure for many years to come.
You don’t need to take a class to make them, but I’ll be doing a Metaphoracard Class on Saturday, February 24. In the meantime, why not try a random collage with stuff on hand around you? The little spark that is creative intuition will flare up. You’ll see.
And if you can interpret any of the card photos here, let me know! Happy Valentine’s Day! Remember making our own valentines in the old days? These are like Valentines from the collective unconscious.