Opening the Cracks

RESPONSE TO ARTIST PRESENTATIONS
MFA Seminar, Jan, 2013.

A major inquiry of mine, while studying at Whitecliffe College of Art, is examining the latent desire and potential within Contemporary Art practice to be, or to become, Sacred. As I listened to the artist talks in the first MFA seminar (January 15-20th 2013), I began to immediately see the connections and possibilities of this already at work. Particularly artists Noel Ivanoff, Henry Symonds, and Mikala Dwyer – who all spoke generously of the details of their art work. They all seemed to share a common thread, in terms of their practise – which I’ll describe in rather general terms as having an element of sacred ritual.

From self proclaimed wiccan artist Mikala Dwyer’s séance sculptural circles, hovering ghosts and bauhaus ouija boards, to Noel Ivanoff and his intense colour field and ritual of painting construction, to Henry Symonds’ memory paintings and reverential still lives – they are all engaging in some sort of ritual – and potentially – a spiritual practise.

Artist Judy Millar also gave a thoughtful overview of the problems of contemporary art practise in our democratic, thoroughly capitalist and materialist world. The problem being that opportunities to speak beyond consumer capitalist culture, to ‘find the cracks’ – are unfortunately – not that great. She posits a solution offered by Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, (tbc) – he claims that ‘capitalism must be offset by an extremely rich spiritual life, otherwise passivity can take over, which is dangerous.’ This is a point that was also made a hundred years ago by artist Wassily Kandinsky:

“Only just now awakening after years of materialism, our soul is infected with the despair born of unbelief, of lack of purpose and aim. The nightmare of materialism, which turned life into an evil, senseless game, is not yet passed; it still darkens the awakening soul…. Our soul rings cracked when we sound it, like a precious vase, dug out of the earth, which has a flaw.” (Kandinsky, 1912, p. 24)

A large component of the discussions during the seminar – were how to subvert this passivity and find these cracks. And the artists role in being a ‘disruptive force’ in this ‘nightmare of materialism.’ Disruption can be positive – not just looking and taking about the obvious flaws and cracks in our culture. There are flaws aplenty – big fat gaping holes in fact – easy pickings. Rather than being reactive to obvious cracks, it may be more about being receptive to the veiled and more obscure tiny cracks in the boundaries of our existence. The mysterious, the mythical, the mystical, the spiritual – ie. the sacred. B. Richards, an author studying the importance of spirituality in technology, sums up his own and Kandinsky’s ideas thus:

Art is born from the inner necessity of the artist in an enigmatic, mystical way through which it acquires an autonomous life; it becomes an independent subject, animated by a spiritual breath. During decadent periods, the soul sinks to the bottom of the pyramid; humanity searches only for external success, ignoring spiritual forces.” (Richards, 2010)

Three artists in particular – Ivanoff, Symonds, and Dwyer – who presented their works at the seminar are perhaps one of many contemporary artists who are looking beyond, finding the cracks, opening them, and letting in some light.

Noel Ivanhoff employs a rigorous painting practise, with a very controlled and considered methodology. His large Digit paintings were made by drawing his finger through wet paint with the help of a set square in precisely spaced lines. The result is an intense vibratory colour field painting, with a distinct series of textured lines. Each painting is in fact the result of a ‘ritual’. Perhaps in the same vein as an Aboriginal sand painting, or a Buddhist monk creating a Mandala  – it needed to be completed in one action, it required intense concentration, with an absence of distraction, along with physical bodily exertion as the body is forced to move in relation ro one rigid dominant finger.  The hand, the very finger, of the artist is all over these paintings. The performance of their construction, the technique, is in fact deeply and bodily ritualistic.

His use of colour is also cause for a ‘spiritual effect’, as Kandinsky might say.

… colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with it’s many strings. The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.” (Kandinsky, 1912, p. 160)

The ‘key’ that Ivanoff has chosen is an intense orange yellow colour. Kandinsky writes that yellow has a ‘wild power’, that can be raised ‘to a pitch of intensity unbearable to the eye and to the spirit.’ Ivonoff’s yellow is softened with red/orange hues, and with a repetitive texture which subverts the intensity and creates a harmonic resonance, that may indeed speak directly to the soul. (Kandinsky, 1912, p. 181)

Painter Henry Symonds showed us his memory paintings – born from the memory of one painting in particular by Matisse that struck him instantly. He chose to paint in reverence of it using ‘memory’ only as his guide. Alexander Roob notes that in classical mystical antiquity memory was held to be the ‘mother of all muses’ (Roob, 1997, p. 573). By the time of the Renaisaance there was quite a polished technique for memory training. Renaissance author, R. Fludd, distinguished between a round and a square art of memory. The round art uses specific diagrams with which it seeks to draw down the celestial influences, while the square art uses real places and natural images. (R. Fludd as cited in Roob, 1997)

It’s fascinating to apply this mystic theory of memory to Symonds paintings. Which one of these memory ‘arts’ may have Symonds been employing? I suspect both. The square naturalistic memory was almost certainly consciously employed, as the colour is repeated, and certain aspects of the composition recalled. But I suspect that during his meditative moments – while painting the details, and fully involved in just the shape of the line or the movement of the paint – he was unconsciously painting ‘magically charged diagrams’ and calling down celestial influences – the ghost of Matisse perhaps?

Installation artist Mikala Dwyer confesses to an interest in ghosts since childhood, and has created ghost sculptures in many of her early installations. Her later work is unashamedly wiccan – séance circles, ouija board installations, and rhythmic drumming. She opens up windows to the unseen using ritual and magic, yet still keeping it playful. Her work is importantly interactive – inviting full body participation by the viewer. I would argue that interactivity, and art that is communal, is one of the key elements in sacred or spiritual art. She is fully aware of her role as ‘the artist as priest/witch’ and offers up spiritual ‘cracks’ which she invites the audience to explore – to be an active participant. Thus both artist and audience renounce passivity, and fully embrace dialogue beyond the culture of here and now, a dialogue with the spiritual.

The artist’s role as prophet, priestess, and spiritual ‘searcher’ of the ‘crack’ behind the veil, is one I’m interested in. It’s a positive way to subvert the prevalent consumerist economic dogma, especially in New Zealand and Australia, which are probably the most secular nations on Planet Earth. I think it’s something that most artists do instinctively, and perhaps in this way the art world can work alongside the religious world in offering ‘people strength, and a sensibility to defend themselves against consumerism.’ (Llosa, as cited by Judy Millar’s talk, 2012).

REFERENCES

Kandinsky, Wassily. (1912). On the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular. Munich: R.Piper & Co.

Richards, B. (2012, November). Concerning the Spiritual in Art [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://soulsatisfyingtech.blogspot.co.nz /2010/11/concerning-spiritual-in-art.html

Roob, Alexander (1997) The hermetic museum : alchemy & mysticism. New York: Tashen.