Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reflections on Abstract Art and its Relevance in Contemporary Society

(Delivered as a short talk at the Cozmic Café, 12/8/09)

It’s impossible for me not to imagine art comes from and relates directly to consciousness. Ideas flow through the mind. The conscious and unconscious compose the mind. But what is mind, exactly?

We know, courtesy of subatomic physics, that all matter is comprised of little strings: that is to say, little bits of vibrating energy. So if everything is energy and we know this to be true, how then do we all get so emotionally entrenched and distressed by life’s demands? What tools do we have to cultivate this perspective to dissolve our anxieties / preoccupation / self-importance? It isn’t easy.

One has to meet appointments, shower, check email, drive through traffic, engage in conversations with disagreeable people, endure insults, shave, get burned by the sun, show up to work, remember birthdays and pay taxes. The list goes on. Contemporary life demands so much from us and eventually we all get stressed out. It becomes clear that we need to evolve countermeasures to sustain our sense of sanity and humanity. We need a reprieve from the monotony and hard work that daily life requires.

As such, yoga classes have ballooned into a billion dollar industry. Millions of Americans take anti-depressants—to be point of “hidden epidemic.” Beer and wine companies aren’t folding anytime soon. Medical marijuana cards will soon be roughly as novel as having a tattoo. Churches maintain their patronage and new-age bookstores enjoy brisk sales. We seem to be collectively seeking answers to questions that can only be answered in the terms and articulation of our own searching.

It is this last territory where art comes into relevance and the territory where I feel my art may be of service. The power of abstraction reminds us that half-dome’s gigantic mass of rock in Yosemite is actually just a pysically manifest dream, made solely of little strings, dancing in their rather rigorously defined matixes. Seemingly monstrous in its density, half-dome is simply matter that is largely empty (as everything is). . .lots of little strings, all of them humming along, without violins or conductor.

When Nietzsche declared God was dead, he must have been acceding to the monstrous emptiness of the universe that astronomers had come to understand. As the universe grew unutterably large, the central place of humankind was dwarfed by the scale of nature; a universe we had only the tools to barely glimpse and much of which was simply undeciphered, as it remains today. As we were displaced from the center, our lonely position crystallized more precisely and undeniably. As Carl Sagan pointed out in the late 20th century, “We stand equidistant from the atoms and the stars.”

Is it any wonder, then, that we have embraced Tai Qi and Zen? Is it surprising that physics and Daoism have become such close neighbors? As we embrace our own emptiness we find, rather ironically, that this act often leads to a wondrous and strange fulfillment. A single breath may be seen as the definition of richness and vitality. And so we breathe more consciously these days.

My paintings explore these questions; expanding a small window through which we may embrace our loneliness more readily and breathe deeply in the zen of the moment.

I lived in Taiwan for a long time, where people are not exactly Daoist in any self-consciously philosophical sense. Instead, many Taiwanese live in a Daoist way much as non-Christian Americans like me still behave according to deep-seated Christian values that pervade our culture without active questioning into origins. Moreover, these values are continuously reinforced, such that one doesn’t have to read the Bible to behave in a quasi-Christian manner. So I absorbed some of those Daoist ideas in my 12 plus years in Asia, swimming around in the suchness of that place, and I think this has influenced my attitutudes, including my esthetic.

Abstract painting, writing, music, and living abroad, have served as lenses through which it becomes possible to see my own cultural biases / better to identify my own half-acknowleged (but well-ingrained) predispositions, personal or cultural. These tools help me to guide my life's shape. I think it is true that art, music and poetry can change one's mind and perception; can awaken the self to aspects of experience and consciousness for which the blur of quotidien life has no time. The things to be learned in this context take time and energy but are worth this effort, for me. More simply put: paintings are tools of meditation.

This is why I have been drawn to paintings such as Mark Rothko’s work. There is a discovery there that seems to be hard to find elsewhere. The terms of the visual work translate into my ability to ask open-ended questions. These are the bigger questions to ask, ones I have outlined in a poem from Taiwan, as follows:
Recipe for Material Self-Doubt in an Existential Age

1. What do I want?

2. Who is the "I" that wants?

3. Why do I keep filling this hole?

4. For whom and for what am I working?

5. What do I own?

6. What owns me?

7. Why am I so jealous of the clean remove of the moon?

8. If all is moving energy, is the stillness of death an illusion?

9. Why does resistance of one's hungers feel just as much of a mind trap as their satisfaction?

10. Why bother fussing over origins when the present moment already encompasses such oceanic being?

11. Is it myopic or strained to assume such a central axis for love?

12. Who paints Neruda into my imagination?

13. Why do I feel so whole and full when emptying myself?

14. Can we all forgive one another and start over?

15. Shall I grow old and lonely and read my poems into the wind?

16. Why are sky and ocean such generous patrons of the arts?

17. Will parents come to recognize how their babies do their weeping?

18. Why do I feel so wealthy when I have so little money?

19. Does my guitar move my hands?

20. Does God feast on the names of the dead?

These larger questions sometimes come to me when hiking in the mountains; through deep conversations with the people I love; through reading poetry or listening to music; and through creative projects like, well, writing songs. I also just look at the sky, take in the moon through clouds or even watch a bird carve a line into the sky. These moments of esthetic arrest can be expansive—even as they are, ostensibly, empty. How can this be true? How is it possible to feel so alive when doing something so simple? In this mental state I am not focused on myself or what I have to do; I am removed from myself but not in a reactionary or escapist way. Rather I have opened my soul to nature; and not just to nature beyond the self, but toward the nature that is within myself and has been patiently waiting to be acknowledged; to be recognized as a natural fact. I have released myself from my ambitions; from my obligations and material needs. Even if only for a brief moment, it is in this state that I may drink in the waters of this larger, freeing perspective.

Abstract paintings can create this headspace, and can achieve this without destroying brain cells or delivering a headache the next morning. Abstract art can render poetic connections between the very small and the very large; invoke the cosmos; free the mind to consider itself on terms not ideologically charged or predetermined by a prefabricated cookie-cutter or commercial agenda. Representative art mirrors our recognizable world in a way that explores it directly, but perhaps without the latitute to invite a greater freedom for consciousness. Abstract art leaves this world behind, issuing an open-ended contract; a catalyst that can recharge the psyche; a tender endorsement of human curiosity. . .a calling forward of the ways we connect our thoughts into the whole of our consciousness and further, to our sense of self.

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