oil on panel 48X36" 1999
This paper is dedicated to David Nye Brown, whom I recently learned, has passed away.
I was racing someone in my dream by sledding down a very, long and gradual hill. It was fun. I was on a piece of cardboard on my stomach and making great pushes with my arms. During the dream, I began to think about the undersurface of the cardboard, and thinking it would make an interesting art piece. Would a presentation of the sheet of cardboard convey evidence of the sledding experience? Would the nature of the experience be present in the piece? It would certainly have evidence of the geography of the hill, perhaps evidence of moisture absorbed from the snow, some scratches from any stones in the path of the sled. We could guess whether there was a lot of snow or a little. It would also have marks from the hands that held the sled, and might inform us about the size of those hands and whether or not they were wearing gloves. Also there might be impressions that would indicate the shape, size and perhaps the gender of the body that rode the 'sled'. This minimal presentation would contain a world of evidence, of geology, climate, human industry, forestry, manufacturing, and transportation. A History of the Earth. This is something I consider in my work; communicating something from personal experience, which may seem intangible and obtuse, but is able to convey a wealth of information, both personal and general.
In both my musical and visual expression, as well as in other acts in my life, I have experienced the paradoxical quality of nature, of opposites coexisting simultaneously, and the existence of purpose in the seemingly random. I have embraced these realities, as an effective basis for my work.
Fourteen years ago I studied Eastern Religion and philosophy with professor David Nye Brown at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. His interpretations of Hinduism and Buddhism were more influential to me than my formal training as an artist. I am interested in the notion that we can be something in the absence of the self. When the self is bypassed, subverted, or transcended there is the continuing presence of an
intelligence. This is a state I attempt to cultivate when I am painting.
In this paper I will discuss works, which culminated in a thesis show in May 2000. The paintings which illustrate the paradox of the personal and the universal by discerning my own visions formed from random marks and
presenting them to the viewer. The use of random marks stems from a faith that ideas are able to express themselves despite a lack of intentionality.
One of the most influential persons to me, artistically, has been David Nye Brown, a professor of humanities at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and philosophy with professor Brown and found that his teachings, and his interpretation of Hinduism and Buddhism were more influential to me and my work than any formal art training I have received. Many of the ideas correlate with the way I feel about living and painting. It has become a foundation for my work for fourteen years now. I credit professor Brown for this influence. I am by no means a scholar in Eastern religion, in fact, my knowledge is nominal. However, I find that a belief in the paradoxical quality of nature, of opposites coexisting simultaneously, and the existence of purpose in the seemingly random, to be an effective basis for my work.
‘According to the Gita Hindu tradition, Maya, or Nature is a manifestation of a divine, creative power that is playfully patterned. The Gita tradition confirms the existence of duality, of opposites in perfect balance. Nature is paradoxical, and inexhaustibly intelligible. Reality consists of a divided wholeness where any one part equals the whole. Reality is one and many; the spirit is present in all yet remains one. The spirit is present in all matter.’ (Brown)
It follows that the phenomenal world is embodied by spirit or intelligence. I consider the unconscious mind to be a microcosm of nature. The seemingly random is laden with meaning and is intelligently patterned. What at first appears accidental, reveals itself to be part of an intention of which we were unaware. I believe that in chance there is pattern and evidence of awareness. Intuition and unconscious awareness are forces intimately linked with creative work. Influence is a form of consciousness, which filters the seeming chaos of external information and refines it into relevant information selectively accepting its effects internally. Influence and the intelligence of the external, paradoxically, remain part of the self. Influence is consciousness at work. These are resources I attempt to draw upon. I am interested in that which surpasses me.
Utilizing these innate human abilities enables us to exceed our own perceived limitations.
‘According to the Gita Hindu tradition; intentional consciousness is evidence of a compulsion to control. When one is concerned with outcomes one is attempting to control Prakrti (the spatio-temporal or physical world). This places one in the midst of a vicious samsaric cycle. (Samsara is the perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.) Intentional consciousness is evidence of a compulsion to control. It follows that one must face frustration in the fact that ones will or intentions cannot be satisfied through control. One finds that the means achieve ends which are not those which were intended. Instead of control one has come up against a lack of control. At this point unintentionality needs to be distinguished from non-intentionality. Unintentionality implies accidental factors, yet includes the fact that one had intentions. Non-intentionality is a state of being which is other than intentional, which is not bound to intentions.’ ‘Nirvana, in the view of the Gita Hindu is the death of the false self, the karmic self which is attached to outcomes. Suffering is the teacher that leads one to awareness and non-intentional consciousness. One emerges out of the vicious cycle of causal reality and finds oneself in the world but not attached to it. ‘Samsara is Nirvana.’ (Brown)
All actions consciously attempting to approximate natural behavior are unnatural. This is self consciousness. One cannot act natural. Natural action comes from the suspension of intentionality and a suspension of self consciousness. I attempt to express myself without the imposition of intentionality, or self-consciousness.
In mining a territory which is characteristically unfamiliar, new abysses are unveiled with each discovery, illumination of one area reveals another which remains unlit. The scope of our discoveries colors our character, our knowledge of ourselves, and our understanding of human nature.
A search from remote places within the self can bring to the surface something which can resonate with others. Painting to me is both a means of communication, and an exploration of the self. When I am painting it is my intention to communicate with the viewer. Painting employs intuition and instinct. Intuition is an innate human ability which enables us to ascertain meanings otherwise unavailable to us. Through intuition we are able to sense things beyond our immediate comprehension. We may be led to a place
we did not know we intended, a destination available to us only because we were willing to suspend the intentions of our conscious minds.
These images, thoughts and ideas which emerge in my paintings are not to be seen in isolation, as in the realm of the merely personal. The works stem from a source that is within myself and is certainly partially attributable to my individual experience. But, its personal character belies its ability to communicate something universal.
According to the Gita tradition, In the phenomenal world there is no imperfection, all is as it should be. I employ this idea in my painting. An autonomous image appears independent of my intentions and has a power
3 of its own. I seek to find and preserve an instant of recognition. I wonder at the peculiar nature of the imagery, and I am often surprised by its specificity. Themes, narratives and concepts emerge.
While painting earlier works, I would attempt to render the autonomous image to a higher degree of finish, which I thought would make it more complete; however, the the essential
character was destroyed by willful action. I realized that concerns about anatomy and composition were secondary to my impetus. Eventually I learned to allow the work to speak.
I find, while working, that when something becomes overly conscious it becomes idealized and sometimes sentimental. Artifice becomes an imposition upon something which needs no adjustment. I have a deep distrust of artificiality and of overt languages that tell us what we should be feeling rather than allowing us to feel it ourselves. In such cases what the viewer experiences becomes a third or fourth generation approximation of what the artist intended, filtered through layers of language, mediated by the artists transparent intent
ions. It is the difference between a symbol of a thing and the thing in itself. I find that raw images which emerge spontaneously retain a vitality which is lacking in more refined images.
The resulting whole illustrates how unconscious processes work. When I am painting, I create a field of random marks, applied without regard to outcome. The eye orders the chaos, patterns emerge and images begin to form. At the margins of consciousness there is a coalescence, the emergent seeks representation and emotions and subconscious thoughts convert their energy to form. These find a means to express themselves, and chaos becomes patterned.
The work reflects or emulates elemental forces of nature. The elements wear and carve, and over time objects dissolve and wither. The surface is etched and scoured as an object would be when subjected to the elements of rain, wind, cold and heat. Similar to the effect of time and nature acting upon the work. New growth forms on top of old, and is eroded again, revealing a fusion of bleached bones and histories. Nature and the unconscious are closely linked.
q In nature, chance produces unexpected beauty. In the
natural world all seems as it should be. Though the thesis works consist of non-intentional marks, a sort of natural occurrence, they still contain imagery.
The painting starts with a carefully prepared panel surface. The panels are made with about ten layers of gesso, sanded to a glass-like finish, which is smooth and rigid. Paint is applied, using a variety of mark making tools. A broom, a palmetto frond, brushes, rags, etc. give me a broad vocabulary of marks. When I begin, I am not rendering anything, and I have no specific content or images in mind when I begin a painting. My palette is generally very limited, using earth tones, and sometimes, the color is limited to various shades of black and white. This allows me and the viewer to maintain focus on form, while limiting the imposition of artifice.
In this way I avoid the appearance of overt intentionality.
The approach is indirect and subtractive, rendering forms and imagery by extracting information which is not applicable, rather than the more traditional additive approach. In this way the integrity of the initial image is preserved. What remains is comprised entirely of accidental marks, without the imposition of artifice. The images are neither timid nor indefinite, and are comprised of aggressive marks. The painting “Free Animals plus Godzuki” (Fig. 1) in an early stage, is a field of random marks made with a palmetto frond, the images of the finished painting exist within this field. The final image of animals frolicking (Fig. 2) was made only by extracting information from the random field. This is done by sanding away layers of paint.
“The Marmosets Lesson” (Fig. 3) demonstrates how narrative
s emerge subconsciously. The figures are incomplete and in parts non-specific yet they retain identities as individuals. The marmoset like creature in the foreground plays the role of
the omniscient narrator. A skull hovers over the marmoset as though death is his representative. The two figures are presumably a man and child. The child looks to the father, obese, self-absorbed and sexual. The dissipating head of a Toucan like bird floats over the scene, free from the miseries and constraints of the earthbound humans. This narrative was created more or less accidentally. It is not as clearly about non-intentionality as the later works are. The images are comprised of chaotic and non specific marks, yet retain an illustrative specificity, Even the degree of purposeful definition of forms in “The Marmosets’ Lesson“ was abandoned in later works.
An influential piece in t
he evolution of my work, was “Beak” (Fig. 4) one of the first paintings in which I wholeheartedly embraced subtraction. Originally, I worked
with rags to remove some of the marks, But on this piece I allowed the final product to be stripped of all but the most essential information, leaving nothing but an enigmatic beak as an emblem of the power of the bird. The revealed gessoed surface was a part of the image, a bare, stripped field of flecked and chipped white. The history of the painting is still evident despite all of the removed information. In the empty spaces of the painting the viewer participates in the story through the insertion of their own scenarios.
It may seem as though I am saying that I am not responsible for the painting. Ultimately, I am. It is my perceptions which choose what information to retain or to eliminate. Though the marks that remain are of an accidental nature, in chance there is pattern and intention, as discussed with regards to Hinduism and Buddhism.
The skill being developed is an ability to find order in the seemingly random, discovering the patterns innate to a particular painting, and creating the context in which such patterns
can be sought and recognized. This generates a state of perpetual discovery. The first step then is to create chaos. Recent works begin as a field of marks made by a palmetto frond onto a panel, several layers of paint are applied using this imprecise and highly varied method, essentially eliminating intentionality. Also a limited palette of toned blacks on white panel diminishes the imposition of artifice. In a field of chaos each individual will see something different. The images seen within that field say a great deal about the individual and speak to deeply embedded nuances drawn from experience, desires, fears, etc. I discern the images I find and remove the irrelevant information to include only the images of my
choice, making them visible to the viewer as I see them. In this way I show the connection between the personal and the universal.
Music has been an important counterpart to my creative action and understanding of it. My experience with music taught me to recognize a few things about creativity. I learned about improvisation, and developed the ability to recognize patterns within seeming chaos. I learned to tru
est in impulse. When I played music I documented every session no matter how rough they seemed. I would listen to the recording and find that it captured the moment of discovery, would be present in the recording. Through music, I confirmed my belief that works which stem from a personal and remote location can be felt and recognized by others. It is possible for others to touch upon the same experience I had when creating a piece. I learned to seek the state of discovery. Music was much like painting. Given certain tools or available elements, the creation of it relies on creative combinations of
cthese elements. I found that playing music broadened my understanding of painting. I returned to painting with new perspective.
“Birds of Appetite” (Fig.5) was the culminating thesis work. The title “Birds of
Appetite” came from Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton, which I was reading, and it expressed many ideas congruent with my own, including freedom from investment in outcomes. This work created an environment in which the viewer could be immersed. A place mined from the most remote of locations, created in the hope that it might stir an awareness of those same places in the viewer.
D The painting was designed to fill the thirty-six foot long wall of the Bergen Hall MFA gallery from end to end. The panels were screwed flush to the wall so that the painting would be less distinguishable from the wall itself, and it became less of an object and more a part of the environment, surrounding the viewer with its monumental scale. The freedom of working on this scale influenced the outcome and is conveyed in the final piece. The physicality of applying paint on such a large piece, and painting on a surface that seemed to expand endlessly, was exciting.
The thesis exhibition showed the evolution of an idea, stemming from the notion of non-intentionality. Avoiding direction and control, I allowed the images to emerge autonomously and create their own relationships beyond my intentions. The work recalls the paradoxical qualities in nature and the existence of purpose in randomness.
Sean Connaughty 2000
Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Lectures by David Nye Brown, Indian Philosophies course at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minneapolis, MN, 1988-1989. Recorded by Sean Connaughty
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