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.
I saw “Leaning into the Wind” with Andy Goldsworthy yesterday. In my mind it was superimposed upon my current obsession with Paleolithic art and signs. Goldsworthy seemed to me to be a shamanic figure, making lines and markets upon the earth with clay and rocks, like our unimaginably distant ancestors. Who were us.
He climbed into trees a lot; this could have a relationship to the practice of “climbing the world tree,” one of the ways the ancients visualized entering the spirit world. His body was part of the art. It’s also interesting to me that the few colors he did use, from leaves, petals, or perhaps natural earth pigments, were deep yellow and red. The use of ochre, often heated to produce an even more striking red color, is the first evidence of differentiated color preference in early humans. Goldsworthy spent a lot of time breaking stones, which reminded me of our first tools, the chipped stone hand axes. He made grave-like stone sleeping hollows and tomb-like tunnels.
Red ochre was used to make signs, dots and forms in the deepest, smallest passages, some of them hardly more than animal burrows. I am reading “The First Signs” by Genevieve von Petzinger. She has spent years crawling through dripping, muddy, claustrophobic passages recording abstract graphic forms. Mud was everywhere in Leaning Into the Wind, along with streaming walls, slick pavements and goopy clay mixed with human hair.
The movie’s soundtrack is as compelling and hypnotic as the film. Goldsworthy talks transparently about his own evolution as an artist. For some people, preferring the Goldsworthy of sixteen years ago in Rivers and Tides, it might prove more of a “Dylan goes electric” letdown. I found it trance-like and moving. Have you ever had one of those dreams where you work hard in your dream all night and wake up tired? The film produces an effect like that. Recommended. Currently at the Summerfield, at 3:45 only.
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?
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.