Sunday, May 20, 2007
Look at this shell. It’s nothing extraordinary, and yet it is totally extraordinary! What follows is a flow of ideas associated with interpreting Robert Brawley’s painting “Persephone,” pictured above. It covers the importance of considering stages of consciousness when interpreting art, the limitations and important function of concepts, a fresh look at drapery in the light of Aldus Huxley’s mescaline trip, Fibonacci and the possible meanings of the shell and spiral shape, the Goddess, objects of worship and offering, anchors into the eternal Now moment, the secret esoteric teachings of Georgia O’Keeffe, and my subtle dream body kissing and caressing holographic surfaces on the imaginary screen of inner consciousness. Enjoy!
First, when interpreting art, I think it’s very, very important (and interesting) to consider that the artist’s state and stage of consciousness obviously effects what objects are seen and thus depicted. All objects exist in a particular worldview or perspective and an artist paints or depicts only those objects available to their perspective. In art, and in people, there are "magic objects," "mythic objects," "existential objects," and so on (because there are magic stages of consciousness, mythic stages, existential stages, etc. see endnote). Remember, according to postmodern philosophy, there is not a single pregiven world, but rather a spectrum of enacted worldviews (which develope in stages). Artists, like everyone else, see the world through particular worldviews, and by painting objects occurring within those worldviews, they make them more visible, one of their great services.(1) Later, Huxley will bring us back to this exciting idea.
So, this painting by Robert Brawley is what a shell (and the world) looks like though the lens of an integral thinker, Gnostic practitioner, and long-time meditator (see previous endnote).
Some background: When I first saw this painting by Bob, displayed in the 2005 faculty show at KU, I was on my way to his postmodernism class, actually. I walked into class, Bob sitting there laughing with his thermos of coffee.
“Bob, I love your shell painting!” I said.
He giggled. “Oh, I’m so glad you do! The light on that shell was very difficult to paint.”
“I’m going to buy it.”
And recently I was privileged to do just that.
One thing to notice is that the painting is circular. This is not conventional, and immediately sets it apart from others.
Circle paintings remind us of portals or boat windows, maybe mirrors. Circular windows of course appeared most often in churches, filled with stained glass arranged in some sort of radial design not unlike a mandala, representing flowering perfection, the Eye of God, or divinity. Going to church when I was little was quite boring, except for the huge circular, beautiful blue stained glass window beaming down from high up on the stone wall. I didn't understand what the preacher was saying, but I understood that window.
Anyway, next thing to notice is the figure in the center of this painting. It’s easily recognizable as a shell, yes? But the painting’s title is “Persephone,” the name of a Greek god.2 What’s Bob trying to do here? In school we often discussed the power and importance of titles. They can frame the work with a mood. They can dislodge the work from conventional, easy interpretations, and release it into an enigmatic context of wider possible meanings. A title can help break up the habits of our minds to limit the meaning of things. For example, through repetition, pictures become conventionalized so that certain images convey distinct, easily recognizable, and well-defined thoughts/meanings (like “shell” or “tree”). This is very useful. But, the symbol or image actually contains a wealth of meaning that words cannot adequately express. And we often get trapped in our linguistic thoughts, forgetting the rich layers of feelings. The right brain nods with understanding, being the hemisphere that communicates through color, music, dreams and images. The left-brain doubts this, asks questions, or rolls its eyes in cynicism. This is why titling a painting of a shell with a seemingly unrelated idea helps open a gap of mystery, where the intellect can’t lock onto a certain meaning so quickly, and the image can sink a little bit deeper into the body-mind of the viewer (and thus, deeper into the body-mind of the universe). Things aren’t always as they seem. This is not just a shell; it is Persephone, the goddess of death and re-birth. And she is Gaia, the Earth Mother, and Quan Yin, a Buddha, a jewel, a luminous form enfolded within the radiance of being.
This is an object of worship. It is not simply a “shell.”
But the nondual secret of the whole thing is that yes, in the end…it is just a shell! Look! It's just a shell!
But the shell is sitting on flowing drapery much like a nude model would be, and this strange juxtaposition indeed places the shell into an intriguing context of mystery and contemplation, doesn't it?
I’m usually a sappy romantic when it comes to this stuff, and I’m not holding back at all for a description of this painting. This painting clearly shows that window light falling on a shell is enough beauty to induce weeping awe. It’s as if the shell is being viewed through the eye of Spirit. The shell, and the painting, is steeped in beauty, in holiness. This painting of a shell is somehow a tidal wave of infinite embrace, slipping me into an ocean of ease and care, drenching my mind in an awakened radiance glowing from within. As Judy McCrea, chairwoman of KU’s art department, said: “His paintings would appear to emanate light from within.” From within the painting, but also, from within ourselves.
The first time I stood in front of one of Bob’s paintings, I was so confused. His time-consuming painting technique created an almost haunting jewel-like effect. It looked like a dream. I stopped breathing and sort of surrendered in reverence to the radiant beauty. “Nice job, Bob”, I thought. You did it. I don't know how, but you did.
In his own words:
“The painting technique is rather arduous, being many-layered overglazing with semi-opaque or transparent paint. The image, which begins very roughly, is gradually "focused" with succeeding glaze layers giving more resolution to the image. My own understanding of the image is developed and meshed with its creation, which is to say that I do not understand the image until it has evolved through the hands-on work and constant intuitive evaluation which "pulls" the image to completion.”
This reminds me of something my sister Jane once said. She said that you really can’t understand the clouds until you draw them. It also reminds me of what Gautama Buddha said before he died:
"Life is very short; please investigate it closely."
Jeff Ridgway, a former student: “When you look at his paintings, you see that the world is a very special place.”
Looking at the flowing drapery in this painting makes me think of Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception.” Have you read that book? It’s very short, and very, very good. In it Huxley describes looking through art books at a Drug Store and discovering that drapery is actually a major theme in art. Classical paintings were actually studies of falling drapery! The face of the important figure pales in comparison to the beauty and detail and expression of the flowing cloth. I’ll just quote some of the book because it’s worth re-reading, and points to the great purposes of art (also mentioned in the first part of this essay).
“My attention was arrested and I gazed in fascination, not at the pale neurotic heroine or her attendant, not at the victim's hairy head or the vernal landscape in the background, but at the purplish silk of Judith's pleated bodice and long wind-blown skirts.
This was something I had seen before-seen that very morning, between the flowers and the furniture, when I looked down by chance, and went on passionately staring by choice, at my own crossed legs. Those folds in the trousers - what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the gray flannel - how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous! And here they were again, in Botticelli's picture.”
He then provides us with a beautiful tour of drapery in art, concluding:
“But this is not the whole story. Draperies, as I had now discovered, are much more than devices for the introduction of non-representational forms into naturalistic paintings and sculptures. What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful. A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness. It is a knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existance. For the artist as for the mescalin taker draperies are living hieroglyphs that stand in some peculiarly expressive way for the unfathomable mystery of pure being. More even than the chair, though less perhaps than those wholly supernatural flowers, the folds of my gray flannel trousers were charged with "is-ness." To what they owed this privileged status, I cannot say. Is it, perhaps, because the forms of folded drapery are so strange and dramatic that they catch the eye and in this way force the miraculous fact of sheer existence upon the attention? Who knows? What is important is less the reason for the experience than the experience itself. Poring over Judith's skirts, there in the World's Biggest Drug Store, I knew that Botticelli - and not Botticelli alone, but many others too-had looked at draperies with the same transfigured and transfiguring eyes as had been mine that morning. They had seen the Istigkeit, the Allness and Infinity of folded cloth and had done their best to render it in paint or stone.”
"This is how one ought to see," I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more than Van-Goghian chair. "This is how one ought to see, how things really are." And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else. Just looking, just being the divine Not-self of flower, of book, of chair, of flannel. That would be enough.”
Indeed. When I rest with this shell, and the Not-self of that white blanket, with its loose, untortured folds and patterns of flowing light and shade framing the shell's sexy form, intrinsically significant and divine, I don’t want to do anything else. I am free from wanting. And is that not a precious gift art gives us over and over again? That moment of rest? That light and easy satisfaction?
God this shell! It is so real it is unreal. It’s more real than a picture of a shell. It somehow communicates the feeling of the shell. It invokes the love of studying the surface of an object and discovering its tiny nooks and crannies. The artist can't paint all the detail (there is an infinite amount) but they do get to CHOOSE exactly what details the viewer gets to intake, and so, it's as if Bob chose all the right details, the ones that mind would most enjoy seeing. And the mind also gets to fill in the missing detail, actively co-creating the image. Conciousness gets to participate in the creation and perception of the shell. And it loves that. (This is one secret most artists know: the power of leaving things open for the mind of the viewer to finish.)
The shell is a little out of focus in places, making the eye race and roll all over the place, grabbing onto detail that quickly slips away, into the soft, foggy fields of formlessness. And the window light reminds me of a Vermeer. Actually, now that I think of it, standing in front of Vermeer’s Milkmaid in Amsterdam created a similar sensation inside me. I could feel and hear the milk. I could touch that bread and feel that light on my face. I could walk into that space. Also, Vermeer’s paintings were all very small, like this shell painting. Small paintings create a very intimate atmosphere. You have to get close to them. Big paintings overtake and swallow you. With small paintings, you are the swallower. Or so it seems. The tiny painting acts as a focusing device, much like a mantra or yantra or the breath in zazen. And this leads me to ideas about meditation: The most basic form of meditation is Single-Pointed attention. This means attention centered entirely on a single object or activity. Such attention may be focused on the breath, as in Zazen, or on a word or sound, such as a mantra or music, or on a visual pattern or shape, such as a yantra, mandala, deity, or shell. It could even be attention directed into the simple feeling of being. My "Isness," as Huxley reminded us. Repeat to yourself "I am, I am, I am, I am." Really feeling into that sense of I am-ness is a powerful meditation that open’s one up to the eternal I AM that spoke to Moses through that attention grabbing burning bush. I’ll leave that idea right there. It is important to know that Bob really liked Vermeer and considered him a great teacher. He also promoted this type of meditation.
I’d like to note also that to worship natural forms—to elevate stones and trees and people to spiritual glory—is to elevate our own nature (our body, our feelings, our earth), to its proper place in divinity. Ennobling objects can remind us that THIS body is the Temple; THIS world is the Gift, if viewed clearly and deeply. "All in All." But also, by seeing Beauty in the forms, art like this can point to some sort of formlessness that is behind or within the forms: the Spirit or Consciousness that is the cause and condition and support of the many luminous, numinous forms. This idea is, of course, felt or intuited. There is no concept “this picture is pointing to Spirit.” But that quiet feeling arises. It's a feeling of openness and understanding that this beautiful object is pointing to something divine. Something Beautiful, something Good, something True, something Holy. But those are all words again. And a picture is not words. And should not be reduced to concepts.
However, concepts play an important roll in distracting a part of the mind-muscle like chewing gum so that the image can pass freely into the deeper structures of the individual (and thus deeper structures of the universe) to transform it from within.
Back to the painting.
There are hardly any surface strokes on this painting that might keep the image from freely entering the mind. This is a mirror or a window. The intellect can have no qualms with it. The painting of the shell is as ordinary and natural as the shell itself. The only qualm that the intellect might have is “Why a Shell?” This question, though, quickly evaporates in the blazing sun of obviousness after just a few minutes of exploring the delicate detail, which seems to be more detail than experienced in everyday life. This painting provides a peek at intense, lucid seeing, or a glimpse into seeing with awakened, curious eyes. I’m reminded of the scene in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, where Siddhartha is sitting by the river:
“Tenderly, he looked into the rushing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its drawing, so rich in secrets. Bright pearls he saw rising from the deep, quiet bubbles of air floating on the reflecting surface, the blue of the sky being depicted in it. With a thousand eyes, the river looked at him, with green ones, with white ones, with crystal ones, with sky-blue ones. How did he love this water, how did it delight him, how grateful was he to it! In his heart he heard the voice talking, which was newly awaking, and it told him: Love this water! Stay near it! Learn from it!”3
Don’t you want to re-read that book now?
Bob’s painting also reminds me of O’Keeffe’s shell and flower paintings. She often said she was a portrait painter. Flowers were her models. And she thought that painting these objects would help people slow down and appreciate. In her own words: “So I said to myself-I'll paint what I see-what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it-I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” “Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven't time, and to see takes time - like to have a friend takes time.”
“Stop and smell the flowers” is the cliché spiritual advice of our culture. But it is actually one of the great secrets of spiritual transformation all the major religions and wisdom traditions teach. Bring attention into what is happening around you in the immediate present moment. Stop. Smell the flowers. Look at the light happening all around you. Look at a shell. Feel it.
Gathering attention into a flower or into a feeling happening right now makes you rooted in something a little more true than the individual dream movie occurring in your mind. That hypnotizing drama or “inner chatter,” which can be louder than the city outside, is hushed for a moment, and cascading waves of clarity and consciousness can usher in the immediate Life of the Present. This is the power of beautiful objects. They can act as anchors into the Eternal Now consciousness that resonates with Godhead. There are many great books about this, like The Power of Now or Be Here Now, so I won’t take up any more of your time.
Sacred art points to the sacred. The Sacred is the Beauty, the Good, the True. What is untrue about a shell?
However, and here’s the rub…Look! There is no shell! It is totally a lie. (There is no spoon!) It’s just a play of flat colors on a 2-dimensional wood board! It’s all an illusion. And the brain is so confused it reads it as if it were a real, 3-D shell because it is conditioned to. And only upon tilting the painting or touching it with our hand can our minds be convinced it’s flat. But there is an uncertainty, and the shell immediately pops into form out of the flatness when we look at it again. It’s magic—it's illusionism—pointing again to the secrets of the universe. This world we see is all an illusion in the mind of perception. Look carefully and you will see your mind playing clever (and useful) tricks. Perception is deception. Just look! Where is there not mind? The Real is always out of sight.
Man, Persephone brings me into an ecstatic, yet quiet, embrace of beauty and simplicity. Ordinariness. Light. Surfaces. Complexity. There is nothing else here. The Zen like simplicity of it...I can taste a hot cup of tea and hear the birds singing outside that unseen window. I can feel that space the shell is taking up. And the weight of that weightless shell hangs in the subtle spheres of my perception, and the surface is rubbed by my mind’s eyes. I kiss that cool shell, cradle it in my hands, and then delicately place it on the shrine next to the window. I close my eyes, and the pink, jewl-like bulb still glows and hums the silent song of serinity. "This is how one ought to see."
(It’s as if there is a little David inside me that is holding, examening, and caressing this shell as I look at it. It’s extremely subtle, but I can feel the surface of the shell reflected inside me. It's as if the shell exists on the other side of the mirror.)
Let's return to a common question. Why a shell? This painting must have taken countless hours to paint. What’s so important about a shell? Maybe it's because the shell is a form in nature that manifests symmetrical arrangements, making visible an ordering principal in the universe. I know Bob was very interested in order and chaos, symmetry and asymmetry, and he often spoke of the amazing balance between the two. The shell is a spiral, and spirals are sacred geometry. Contemplating their origin and purpose leads to contemplating the origin and purpose of everything. Also, shells exhibit the Fibonacci sequence. This mathematical sequence is found in the branching in trees, pinecones, flower seeds, the curve of waves, an uncurling fern…the list goes on and on. It’s even found in the expanding population of rabbits. The spiraling shape itself is found everywhere in nature, from galaxies to the double helix of our DNA. I just learned that with many plants, the number of petals is a Fibonacci number.
And even though spirals and the Fibonacci numbers are not necessarily a universal law, they definitely are a fascinating tendency or cosmic habit. Which reminds me of Sheldrake’s morphic fields or Laszlo’s psi-fields. I think this is a fascinating idea and should be explored more later. Google it and have fun.
The spiral of a shell can represent the underlying order, symmetry, and intelligence of the cosmos. In this way, a painting of a shell is like a painting of Jesus or Buddha. It is a profound religious icon escorting anyone to the source and suchness of life, growth, chaos, and symmetry.
And its pink, glistening surface might even remind us of a vagina. Or the naked torso of a goddess. Persephone? It does look like human skin, doesn't it? How did he do that?
Bob practiced a type of Vajrayana Buddhism for many years, and in that tradition the shell is one of the eight holy offerings. In Buddhism, offerings are beautiful objects offered to the dissention of higher Awareness. And interestingly, the shell represents music offerings, among other things.
But, now we are looking at the painting as if he was a symbolist, where the shell is a symbol
for something else. And Bob was not strictly a symbolist. He was a realist, painting mostly still lifes, things that represent themselves. But he’d arrange the objects in ways that suggested deeper mysteries and connections. This puts him in the realm of the Fantastic Realists, as well as the Alchemists. This shell is teaching us something very special, and whether we can understand the teaching or not makes no difference, for the image enters us and changes us (and therefore, the world) nonetheless.
This is a just a taste of what I can draw from Persephone. It is not meant to be fact. Honestly, I can imagine Bob probably just liked the shell and thought it looked pretty next to the drapery. He said once that his dealer told him never to talk about his work at parties because its simplicity disappointed buyers who wanted a “deeper” meaning. Bob was no good at feeding ego-trips. “Enlightenment is the Ego’s #1 disappointment.” Instead, he just offered objects occuring within his perspective.
1 This idea is from an essay by Ken Wilber called “To See a World.” Anyone interested in art interpretation needs to read this. Essentially, (Using Jean Gebser’s well known stages), an artist in a magical stage of consciousness will paint magical objects (early cave paintings, children’s art, etc.); an artist in the mythic stage will paint mythic objects (angles, gods), existential stages will see and paint existential objects (lonely figues, cars, machines, oppression), and so on. Therefore, the stage of consciousness of the artist needs to be taken into account for an accurate interpretation of the object depicted. The postmodern (or pluralist) stages see a world of surfaces, without value or meaning, and here you get art like Andy Warhol, which someone said showed us all “The speed of shallow.” Past the deconstruction of postmodern consciousness is what Gebser called Integral consciousness, which can reconstruct value and depth, and it’s safe to say that Bob was definitely at a high integral stage (his classes often involved a tour of all four quadrants, touching on pre-modern, modern, and post-modern truths, integrating science, religion, psychology, etc. His worldview was an integral worldview, founded upon multiperspectival fullness, including and integrating all the great truths of human knowledge quests. Therefore, this shell comes from (and should be considered as a possible representation of) an integral worldview. Religiously, Bob said he was a practicing Gnostic. And anyone who is interested in what that might mean will have a great time figuring it out. wikipedia rocks.
But Bob did sometimes paint mythic objects like angels and saints. Artists operating from a higher-than-mythic perspective can re-visit (or be re-visited by) these mythic images, such as Mary or Jesus or Buddha, but usually most mythic art, as Wilber points out, is symbolic of the prerational, mythic, and magic realms (a confusion of which is still rampant in spiritual circles).
2 For those of you who forgot the myth, one day, as Persephone (daughter of Demeter and Zeus), was gathering flowers with her friends in a meadow, the earth opened and Hades, god of the dead, appeared and carried her off to be his queen in the world below. Her mother was so sad that she forbade the earth to put forth life. So all that year not a blade of corn grew on the earth, and men would have died of hunger if Zeus had not persuaded Hades to let Persephone go. But before he let her go Hades made her eat the seed of a pomegranate, keeping her bound to the underworld. So it was arranged that she should spend two-thirds of every year with her mother on and above the earth, and should pass the rest of the year with Hades beneath the earth. Hence, we get the seasons.
Her name, according to www.babynames.com, means something like "bringer of destruction." Interesting, yes?
What many people don't remember is that Zeus and Hades actually conspired together to bring Persephone into the chaotic underworld. Persephone was guided by both sides, above and below, to transform into the source of both life and death on earth (Remember, she is responsible for the seasons). Her unchosen predicament, brought about solely by other forces, left her suffering horribly, but also, upon returning to earth, brought her happiness and celebration beyond belief. In this way, her story represents the necessity of change and suffering in this life. Nobody chooses to suffer. Persephone did not choose to be kidnapped by change and taken from her comfortable life. But that disruption, that suffering, makes way for new life. In other words, Persephone represents the painful death and rebirth process, which is necessary for growth, happiness, compassion, and spiritual awakening.
Bob once told me as we were debating whether peace was possible on earth that, from a Gnostic perspective, without chaos, war, and suffering, individual growth is impossible. That is why it is built into the system. And the only reason individuals can grow and evolve is because the collective is in turmoil. So is peace even desirable? Of course it is, he’d say, “but let's not forget that its opposite is also necessary.”
By naming this painting Persephone, maybe he was intending to tease these ideas out of the viewer, as if to say “Remember the story of Persephone, and rest with the perfection of it all.”
Here is more from Siddhartha (related to viewing this painting.)
“He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the
first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the
world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was
blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the
river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid,
all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical,
and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening
one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow
and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for
the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of
Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer
a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances,
despicable to the deeply thinking Brahman, who
scorns diversity, who seeks unity. Blue was blue, river
was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha,
the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was
still that very divinity’s way and purpose, to be here
yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Sid-
dhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were
not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in
“Siddhartha learned something new on every step of his path, for the
world was transformed, and his heart was enchanted. He saw the sun
rising over the mountains with their forests and setting over the
distant beach with its palm-trees. At night, he saw the stars in the
sky in their fixed positions and the crescent of the moon floating like
a boat in the blue. He saw trees, stars, animals, clouds, rainbows,
rocks, herbs, flowers, stream and river, the glistening dew in the
bushes in the morning, distant hight mountains which were blue and
pale, birds sang and bees, wind silverishly blew through the rice-field.
All of this, a thousand-fold and colourful, had always been there,
always the sun and the moon had shone, always rivers had roared and
bees had buzzed, but in former times all of this had been nothing more
to Siddhartha than a fleeting, deceptive veil before his eyes,
looked upon in distrust, destined to be penetrated and destroyed by
thought, since it was not the essential existence, since this essence
lay beyond, on the other side of, the visible. But now, his liberated
eyes stayed on this side, he saw and became aware of the visible, sought
to be at home in this world, did not search for the true essence, did
not aim at a world beyond. Beautiful was this world, looking at it thus,
without searching, thus simply, thus childlike. Beautiful were the moon
and the stars, beautiful was the stream and the banks, the forest and
the rocks, the goat and the gold-beetle, the flower and the butterfly.
Beautiful and lovely it was, thus to walk through the world, thus
childlike, thus awoken, thus open to what is near, thus without
Pictured: “Persephone” by Robert Brawley, “Sofia”(detail) by Alex Grey, “Milkmaid” by Vermeer, “Judith” by Botticelli, “Iris”, “Autumn Leaves”, and shells by Georgia O’Keefe, Shells by Ernst Haeckel, and some other stuff.
Posted by David at 2:42 AM
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