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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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