If it were possible to ‘try on’ ego death, what do you imagine would be possible? What could you imagine being capable of? Or no longer bound to? Obviously, it is a bit of a paradoxical thought experiment, but it’s the best way I can invite you into this mindset, even if just temporarily. Take a moment and close your eyes. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and slowly out of your mouth. Imagine the act of your ego death. In this space, I would like to welcome you to entirely forget the concept of having any problems at all with who you are as a person, whatever that means to you. You can spend a few minutes here, feel free to write down anything if you feel called to do so.
When I paint, I like to imagine when I’m working, that the canvas has some properties which are akin to a mirror. As my work is largely abstract, it’s often only long after a painting has been completed that I’m able to perceive some of the characteristics, which are typically associated with mirrors. But instead of a mirror which shows the viewer a reflection of their physical features, this type of mirror shows features of the Self. Here I employ a Jungian definition of the Self; being the totality which exists beyond the consciousness of the ego and the lucidity of the unconscious mind, the union of these opposites. This can be quite difficult to visualize but it most definitely looks utterly different from our physical form.
But technically speaking, even what we are able to view when we look into a traditional mirror is quite deceiving. The first, and perhaps the most obvious reason, being that what we see is not exactly how others see us. It’s a mirror-image so, it’s flipped; what actually is our “left” is portrayed as our “left” in a mirror, but is appears on the “right” side when someone else sees us. We will never be able to see our physical form directly with our own eyes. We can have a picture or photograph taken, we can look in a mirror… we could even have a portrait drawn or painted of us; but it still is not equivalent to seeing our own body with our own eyes. The second reason why traditional mirrors are deceiving is that, for many of us, when we look into a mirror, we bring with us a certain bias. We either pick out obscure peculiarities and focus on those, or we optimize our expression to some predetermined level of satisfaction and confirm our ideas of what we believe looks good or acceptable. Or… as is probably the case with the majority of people, we engage in varying degrees of both.
And the final reason that traditional mirrors are deceiving, and the point that I would like to explore in this post, can be demonstrated when we realize that the thing we see in our reflection is but a brief snapshot of an everchanging thing. It changes from morning to evening; it changes from day to day. But the changes are so slight and so gradual that oftentimes it’s difficult, if not impossible for us to see these changes for ourselves; but a family member who we don’t see very frequently or an old friend we bump into can very easily perceive. There are, of course, some changes which are abrupt and drastic enough for us to be able to see; they are obvious (like haircuts or a black eye) but I will not discuss these here. Instead, I would like to now head in the direction of some of the influences or driving forces behind the subtle changes which take place in what is our physical appearance. It should be noted, however, that the subject matter of ‘physical appearance’ is completely and wholly arbitrary and is simply the best parallel in terms of translation of my actual idea… which, rest assured, we will eventually get to.
A large part of my work involves a high degree of allowance and freedom when it comes to making decisions about the outcome of a particular piece. Sometimes there is an image or emotional message of some kind which I would like to try and chip away at; but I largely trust my process and myself to hold the right balance of freedom and control in order for a painting to come to fruition. This takes many forms. For one, the color choices that I make are often completely dependent upon whatever colors I have at my disposal. Before moving, I gave all of my paint to a friend in Colorado and started from scratch with very few color options. I received a gift from my mother-in-law of some colors and have slowly accrued a decent variety… but it is not nearly as bountiful as my collection in Colorado was. This is fine with me because I know that, on some level, the choices that I have been making regarding everything from decisions in interior decoration of my new home, to the direction I decide to walk that evening, to how many times my cat decides to wake up and annoy me while I work; these are all things which influence me, and influence which colors ultimately found their way to my studio; and so, subsequently this influences my painting.
Secondly, I recently have begun to favor painting in a highly energetic and active way. It’s fast-paced, loud and violent, aggressive and incredibly messy. This is quite different from previous phases in my work where I tended to work more methodically and contained. But however ferocious or tender the actions which are taken in order to create a piece; there has always been a deliberate space for the unknown to manifest itself, however it may like. This sometimes takes the form of unintentional droplets or smears of oil or paint as I move, or picking up a brush that was much smaller than I wanted or accidentally dipping my brush into the ‘light’ water instead of the ‘dark’ one. These become a part of the painting. This is how I can allow my subconscious into the process; to work on the painting simultaneously as I work.
This particular aspect is something that I am working to understand – whether or not this is actually some part of myself, which attempts to make itself visible through the acts of my ‘uncontrolled’ approach to painting, or whether this is actually some overlap of consciousness whose origins arise from some place other than within myself. Jung talks about the ego and the subconscious, which for me would seem to be the most obvious connection to make when I work in this manner. But especially with everything that’s been going on lately with Covid19 and all of the political turmoil, I can’t help but wonder if, as artists we actually tap into the other thing that Jung talked about; the collective subconscious.
I have begun to ask if perhaps there is a way to access a layer of our collective subconscious; to free some of the anxieties from their cages in our unwillingness to confront our fears, into existence- and not only that but to do so in a manner which is fundamentally innocent and sensitive and filled with symbols and emotions which I believe we can all connect to. I have talked about this before (link) – being able to convert pain and suffering into meaningful and beautiful experiences and I believe it is part of the reason that these exist as a part of the human condition.
But recently I’ve spent more time challenging this idea, as a way to approach (and hopefully understand) it from another angle. Reading, thinking, talking, listening to ideas and spending time in silent contemplation and to be honest, fucking awe of it all. It’s not been easy trying to translate it into words. My paintings often go without much explanation, for better or for worse. And for the longest time, I had grave issues with calling this my subconsciousness or society’s influence or accidents, lack of talent or the will of god or whatever; I think somehow I must have remembered Jung’s theory of collective subconsciousness but I couldn’t quite place it where I needed to go in order to make this connection work in my mind, relative to my art. And namely to pinpoint exactly why it became so apparent when I incorporated an extreme level of spontaneity into my art practice.
So, let’s go back to the mirrors. It typically takes me anywhere from an afternoon to a week to finish a non-commissioned piece. And once I reach a place of ‘completion’ I often engage in a similar process to that of looking into a mirror. I enjoy the overall piece, or I don’t. But I pick out its’ flaws and focus unceasingly on how their presence must be associated with a representation of some inherent flaw in myself, and that’s why this has come into existence. Maybe I change it, paint it over, leave it, edit it a little… and give it some time. But my flaws, or the flaws that I find in my life are not things that I necessarily shy away from. In fact, I tend to obsess over them because I know that they are here to show me something, maybe to teach an old, unlearned lesson, or to highlight some potential mistake or heartbreak which may result from my current trajectory. I pay attention to them and I love them. So, following this line of thought I find it somewhat difficult to actually label them as ‘flaws’ I don’t like the word. What are they? Flaws must hold in them some element of disappointment, suggesting that there was an expectation which was not met. These are not flaws, these ________ (things). Yeah a blank space, to be filled, eventually with this emerging concept of whatever it is that these things are; what I am trying to figure out. Manifestations of our collective subconscious hopes and fears, sort of but also something incredibly far beyond that. What to call them? Interstellar hiccups, messages? They could be absolutely nothing at all. Now wouldn’t that be interesting; the blank space is actually a blank space. Sartre and Camus would be so proud. My point is that, this process is in some way a type of communication with either:
- My subconsciousness (limited*)
- Someone from the past
- Someone from the future
- Someone from somewhere else
- My subconsciousness (unlimited*)
- Interdimensional bandits
*Limited and unlimited subconsciousness to be discussed on next week’s episode of Why Elaine is Awake at 3AM Again (will post the link here later). Well anyway that is more of a subpoint of my main point, and my main point is this: When I look at something which has been created with more “chance” or randomness than something with a deliberate and intentional outcomelike a portrait – like a quick doodle on the corner of my notebook while I am zoning out during a lecture, or what my palette ends up looking like after a few weeks-worth of painting has accumulated and crusted over the plastic plate from which I work – when I first look at it, I don’t see the flaws (at least at first). In fact, I always, a l w a y s, without failure, end up surprised at the immense admiration I feel for myself, in a weird selfish way, for having had the opportunity to play a role in the creation of this thing. Though I’m sure I would eventually be able to pick apart the things about it that I dislike… in this moment I always wonder if what I’m looking at is a message that I somehow did procure because it was the thing that needed expressing in that particular moment, or maybe is something like a droplet that fell into this world from an ocean of somewhere else.
Maybe this has something to do with the level of self-love, or lack thereof, that I have for myself. Maybe it’s a reflection of my current mental state, whatever that is. Maybe it’s a step in the direction of working to understand our connection to one another. Why it is that there are seemingly infinite possibilities, especially when looking at an abstract painting, to find connection or inspiration. Even for people who don’t typically engage with this sort of thing. Actually, I really enjoy witnessing that. If you have a friend or family member who rarely goes to museums or says they don’t “get” abstract artwork – take them to a museum! Ask them questions about the paintings, tell them what you think, how the paintings make you feel. I know a lot of art professors like to tell us that there are, most definitely, wrong answers but there really aren’t. If you find meaning in the color choices because it reminds you of the wallpaper in your grandmother’s kitchen – then that’s a way in. It really is as simple as that. And anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is either trying to make money or has something to lose by deceiving you (probably also money).
All of this came together about a week ago when I finished a piece that I’m really pretty excited about and showed to my partner. I said that it reminded me of Texas – even though there had been no particular reason that I should be thinking about Texas, let alone making a painting inspired by ideas of Texas. This surprised my partner and he said he would have never seen that if I hadn’t said it. I think that is actually the case with most of my paintings but I don’t really mind if people know or don’t know what I see in the painting. Because you see what you need to see. You see what it’s front of you. It’s like a portal. Like a mirror.
The Tao Te Ching
CLEANING THE DARK MIRROR
Maintaining unity is virtuous,
for the inner world of thought is one
with the external world
of action and of things.
The sage avoids their separation,
by breathing as the sleeping babe,
and thus maintaining harmony.
He cleans the dark mirror of his mind,
so that it reflects without intent.
He conducts himself without contriving,
loving the people, and not interfering.
He cultivates without possessing,
thus providing nourishment,
he remains receptive
to changing needs,
and creates without desire.
By leading from behind,
attending to that
which must be done,
he is said to have attained
the mystic state.
[Translated by Stan Rosenthal]