Streams of Thought : Mystical Emanations in Art

For just a brief moment my body, suspended mid-leap, is doubled, my reflection in the stream’s surface a fleeting portrait of a teenaged boy trapped between the blues of sky and water. I am fleet-footed at this age, able to bound from boulder to boulder, curious about the matted bundles of driftwood, the truncated forest edges, the suspended log pathways, the coursing water both hidden and in plain sight. I feel a part of nature, a creature sensing its way along a watercourse.

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Dan Nuttall, “Fall Stream”, diptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each, SOLD

The stream connects me to life – a wren nest wedged where deadfall branches interlace, robust pungent moss pressed under my palms, smoothed stones, crunching sorted gravel and sand. As if a paintbrush has been flicked, a spatter of dark olive streaks dart to where my amphibious scuffing of rocks has dislodged algae. The small green cloud drifts, all pattern, change and sustenance.

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Dan Nuttall, “Snag Stream”, diptych, acryic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each

Shoulder to shoulder bleached granite sentries create a jumbled causeway of exits and impasses. I am humbled by their smoothness, their completeness, the ease of their weighted, shouldering postures, so separate from the stuff of water and so inseparable from the idea of stream. The light is emanating around me, floating above the gravel beds, glancing back from every riffle, splashing back at the world in radiating rings, mixing with the dappled streambank shade. The world, in flux, hovers between abstract and real.

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Dan Nuttall, “Forest Stream”, quadriptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each
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Dan Nuttall, “Urban Stream”, hexaptych, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each

 

Years later, far from any stream, but not so far from the Hudson River, I am standing in the Whitney Museum in New York City looking at the delightful paintings of Charles Burchfield. The show, aptly titled “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” is mostly watercolours. Many of them have been painted as if elements within the painting are vibrating, and the overall effect of the brushstrokes is one of a charged atmosphere. Here are my “emanations”.

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DETAIL, Charles Burchfield, “Autumnal Fantasy”, watercolour on paper, 1916-44

Charles Burchfield’s emanations captured sound, light and the ephemerality of nature. His watercolour painting “Autumnal Fantasy” (1916-44), seems to be alive with calls of nuthatches, while the pounding light of the sun passes in crescents through the woodland clearing and between the trees. Even the holes in tree trunks seem to emote. The very substance of nature hangs precariously on the page, waiting for entropy and the eye to force their way between the vestiges of substance. Guy Davenport, writing in “Charles Burchfield’s Seasons”, suggests that “The step from Van Gogh to Willem de Kooning is a short one… that Burchfield… took in his own way, into an idiomatic calligraphy of his own devising, a sign language for radiant light, for wind, for insect song, for emanations”. Expressionistic in his treatment of light, Burchfield’s works is often described as mystical and visionary. His paintings leave me with the feeling that he is able to see a nature more alive than nature. Though he has not received as much attention as many other American painters it is worth noting that Burchfield had the distinction of being the first person to receive a one-person exhibition at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in 1930.

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DETAIL, Emily Carr, BC Forest Interior, 1935

 

Similarly, Emily Carr’s emanations are rooted in the mystical. While Burchfield’s emanations were more discrete and identifiable, Carr’s merged in large swooping streams of colour that radiate from nature or course through the air, becoming a vital plasm in which all things are immersed. In “Edge of the Forest” (1935), the central tree seems to be the source of an emanating aura which fills the sky. In “Juice of Life” (1939) and “Blue Sky” (1936) all of nature moves together, a synchronous coalescing flow within the universe. Carr’s exposure to Christianity, particularly her upbringing with Calvinism, her experimentation with theosophy, her later reading of The Sadhu written by B. H. Streeter (about a Christian mystic from Punjab named Sadhu Sunder Singh), ultimately become layered in her approach to painting – an approach that uses radiating or coursing illumination to depict an ecstatic source of enlightenment. In Carr’s representations of nature we find a form of reconciliation, a pronouncement of the world at peace, often with a sense of calm, harmony, or joy – akin to the experience of a soul in union with a higher power.

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Dan Nuttall, “Broad Stream”, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20″ each

The emanations we perceive on the painted surface have their own language – waves, and crescents bordering on calligraphy, text, letters. What gets transmitted in a symbol? What gets lost? As the meanings behind symbols change how does this affect our interpretatio of what we perceive? Think about the #/number sign and its migration to #/hashtag or the changeful life of the “@” symbol.

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Dan Nuttall, 2018, Symbolic Stream 1, acrylic, 36 x 48″

 

The painting of emanations draws our attention to nature and then beyond nature, to the unknown and unseen. Life, as if subatomic, both light particle and wave, illustrating the engine, the power, the mystery that drives it all.

By dwelling on the ephemerality that Burchfield  so boldly pronounced we are able to inhabit that “soft focus” moment of being dazzled and at peace with nature. However, unlike Carr’s mystical harmony these works present a pulling apart, a disassembly, through the use of a fractured and changeful whole. The viewer must work, engaging the parts and using energy to assemble the whole – an ecological act in itself.

You can find more of my work here: http//:www.dandoesdesign.com/

You can find me on FaceBook here: https://www.facebook.com/torontoartist/

 

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HUNTING AND GATHERING: HOW ART FAIRS HELP YOU EVOLVE

I often tell people that being an artist is like being a more primitive human – we tend to live in caves more commonly referred to as studios. Periodically, we step out into the world, art in tow, to bask in the light of the collective gaze.

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You are what you hunt and and forage for?

Though few primitive humans actually lived as cave dwellers, over ninety percent of human history has been spent hunting and gathering. As hunters and gatherers the ongoing goal of the human animal has been survival and adaptation. Over evolutionary time frames the success of our species has been predicated on our ability to detect and then locate the resources that allow us to survive. Such detection has relied heavily upon our sense of vision. In terms of space allocated to the senses vision is the clear forerunner – 30% of the neurons in the brain’s cortex are dedicated to vision while touch (8%) and hearing (2%) are a distant second and third. The human animal is a species that has evolved to search. The human animal is a species that has evolved to look.

And what are we adapted to look for and thus at? Things that sustain us.

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Water sustains, “Forest Stream” by Dan Nuttall, 2016

As the human animal has evolved the idea of what sustains us has broadened in direction association with our broadening culture. While “hunter and gatherer” humans travelled great distances to secure the things that sustained them, the transition to a more sedentary agrarian society meant a consolidation or concentrating of necessary resources. Think about your reaction when visiting a market – all those resources gathered in one place – and the pleasure of looking nearly synonymous with the reward of having. The invention of agriculture ensured that variables such as proximity, diversity and ease of selection became critical criteria in determining how we live. Further, it makes sense that we tend towards modes of efficiency when securing valuable resources. It seems then that we humans have a foundation built upon hunting and gathering, with a veneer of newfound appreciation for the efficiency of the marketplace.

Most animals have “search images” meaning they have evolved to have forms of visual shorthand that help them locate the things they need to survive. In a world that may seem visually confusing to us, the process of evolution has produced animals adept at spotting exactly what they require to ensure their survival. Thus for human animals a glance at the confusing tawny stubble of a fall field yields little to look at while the scanning eye of a hawk has evolved to identify the exact information required to pounce and secure prey. Animals survive by developing images of the things that will help them survive.

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Can you find the blueberry?

Enter the art fair, where hunting, gathering, and the search for images and survival collide.

But is a visit to an art fair somehow adaptive? If it is, what are we searching for? And how might it be adaptive? Do people who collect art or live in the presence of art leave behind more genes? Is there something about collecting art that connects us to our more primitive selves? What does a visit to the museum or art fair or the collecting of art or exposure to art do for the modern human being?

A visit to an art fair keeps our “sensual selves” intact, meaning that we “live in the realm of the senses” when we look at art. Such looking engages and hones our senses, particularly vision, as we move about, like our primitive selves, in search for things that sustain us. Is the act of looking at art at an art fair become a metaphor for survival? Instead of seeking the actual resources are we instead seeking representations or scenes where our basic primitive needs can be met, scenes that we are “hard wired” to appreciate? And are there other benefits at play that are also adaptive?

When we think of how humans evolved the theory of “prospect-refuge”, proposed by Jay Appleton, in “The Experience of Landcsape” (1975), proves particularly useful. This theory suggests that humans were essentially an “edge” species that inhabited the boundary where the forest met the grassland. There, our species could seek safety (refuge) in the forest while being able to seek opportunity (prospect) while looking out over open spaces. More specifically:

1The theory thus predicts that humans are attracted to art and circumstances that have:

  • broad, unoccluded vistas
  • visible places for easy refuge(a copse of trees, caves)
  • water
  • plants
  • a smattering of preyspecies

It further predicted that we should like spaces when:

  • we are at the edge, such that our back is protected (rather than the middle where we are most exposed)
  • we are covered, rather than open to the sky

In short, we should like everything that is optimal for survival and reproduction in the savannah. The theory says that we respond to such things in art subconsciously, and that individuals attracted to such circumstances would have stood a better chance of survival by choosing to spend time in such places. Art that puts the viewer in between prospect-dominant and refuge-dominant areas will be most appealing.”

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At the edge, looking out, a broad vista of water, “Cape Cod” by Dan Nuttall

Prospect-refuge theory seems to predict not only the kinds of spaces we might actually enjoy but also the kinds of spaces that we might like to have represented. Indeed, prospect–refuge theory seems entirely consistent with some of the most popular genres of painting, namely “landscape” and “nature” paintings. The theory is also consistent with the kinds of landscapes that are designed to be “therapeutic” for human beings. You can read more about therapeutic landscapes HERE.

Such gazing at nature and landscapes, if it enhances our chances for survival, should place us at ease, at peace with the open space, the greenswards, the falling water and plants, the animals, and the abundance of resources at hand. This sense of ease is supported by research that indicates that being in the presence of actual or virtual landscape-nature resources can prove relaxing. You can read about how landscape and nature art reduces stress HERE.

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Zebra Long-Wing Butterflies and Coralbush, Mexico, connect us to nature,                            as in “Butterflies” by Dan Nuttall

But back to evolution and adaptation and leaving more genes than your competitors: do people that experience the relaxing and therapeutic aspects of art leave behind more progeny?

One could argue that relaxation is a key variable for survival in our modern lives and one does not have to look very far in the literature to find concrete evidence that stress reduces lifespan, sex drive and quality of life.

So it seems that when we engage our senses in the act of visiting an art fair we are doing more than merely wandering amidst a deluge of images and occupying time. Instead, we are searching for images that connect us to our primal needs and simultaneously serve as resources for our contemporary selves. In our modern lives the resources we call “art” engage us in ways that are adaptive, in ways that help to relieve stress and to sustain us. Thus art and the art fair are essential to the self in both cultural and evolutionary senses.

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Dan Nuttall, The Artist Project 2016

I like to think that when modern humans, Homo sapiens, occupied caves, one of the benefits of being bi-pedal, dextrous, and a tool maker and user, was the ability to place art on their walls, through drawing. Today’s art fairs have come a long way. There are now a myriad of ways to put art on your walls, and the act of hunting and gathering art may be more essential to your survival than you know.

You can see more of my art here: http://www.dandoesdesign.com/

Visit me on FaceBook here: https://www.facebook.com/torontoartist/

Follow me on Twitter as @dandoesdesign

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REFERENCES

1 http://everything2.com/title/Prospect-refuge+theory