There are several essays available online exploring the question of what constitutes “visionary art” (Here is one by Lawrence Caruna and here is another by Alex Grey). For the sake of our discussion here, I’ll add an abbreviated definition so we can have a point of departure for the conversation to follow and the topic I explore in this essay: the WHY of Visionary Art – why do the artists who undertake this style feel it worthwhile and what place might it serve in the world.
What is visionary art?
Visionary art is, I think, an approach to creative work that reflects personal archetypal experiences of the world at large. This reflection couples – and this is incredibly important and vital – the artist’s own inner world and its dynamic interplay of emotions, archetypes, spiritual understandings with a broader world view exploring a particular idea or experience. It is neither a painting of a thing or simply the absolute abstraction to a point where ideas no longer apply. Instead, the best works of this type are a marriage of both inner and outer, the real and the abstract, the surreal, the mystical, and the dreamlike. This interplay can create or invoke a sensation that, when successful, is like a wordless dialogue between the inner formless world of the viewer and the inner formless world of the artist. The artist shares a vision – and idea – a perspective – of the world, their place in the world, and their understanding, in a sense, of where we as humans are or aspire to be in that equation.
Why now? WHY visionary art?
Every epoch asks, I think, the same questions: who are we? why are we here? where are we going? Every age of art has dialogued with these questions using the means and ideas of the time. The artists of the Renaissance responded, after a fashion, saying ‘we are three dimensional beings, caught in time and space, arrived at from various perspectives, and telling these stories that mirror our archetypal struggles.’ Which is to say: the art was exploring various shifts in perspective (visual perspective in art was pretty much non-existent before that time) and using that perspective to illustrate the stories that we’d been telling ourselves over and over again. As we trace the history of art, we can see various ideas evolving over that span of time.
Fast forward to the early 1900s and we see another major shift in creative approaches when artists, freed from the bonds of story-telling and reality-mirroring – both by the burgeoning industrialism-fueled upper class and the advent of the camera – dove headlong into entirely new and different approaches to art that began with studies in how we see – a la Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism – to the explorations of the inner world – Surrealism, Abstract art, Minimalism, and so on.
While there’s a significant contingent of contemporary creatives that have continued to rehash the ideas already laid out by countless abstract artists that have preceded them and another equally significant contingent that reformulates the ideas of abstractionism while adding elements of our current zeitgeists and visual narratives (the digital, the glitched, and so on), there’s an entirely other school of thought that has run with the progressive idea seeded originally by Kandinsky and Dali and Max Ernst that, between the strict cultural narratives and their absolute dismantling to the point of meaninglessness, between the realist representations of reality and the abstract line and form studies, between the base and the utterly mystical, between the painterly and the graphic representation there is a point – an idea – a state worth exploring – that seems, when given the proper time and space, to offer a suggestion of who we are and/or who we can be – as people, as cultures, as momentums and the results of those explorations offer a kind of signpost or mirror or point of contemplation for the state of humanity at large.
On the microcosmic, the artists who bend themselves to this task, tend towards very personal explorations that result in pieces that are as much product as process, following the threads and lines and forms of the conscious, subconscious, and superconscious – internally and externally – to the most ultimate vision they can possibly express. The resultant piece, offered to the world – and at its most successful – hits a nerve as a point of reflection (“reflextion”) in those who see it – as one can find in the copious responses of those who have taken the time to contemplate them.
It our era of pop culture icons and watered down entertainment, it is easy to dismiss such paintings as these as too complex, that they linger too long in the forms and the layers – for surely the artist could have said the same thing in fewer lines, color, shapes. Who has the time anyways for contemplation?
But a great work takes all the time it needs to arrive at a worthwhile conclusion and to dismiss a piece as such is to discount both the reasons for the creator’s investment in those explorations. The works that we are talking of tend towards a kind of holographic relationship amongst the parts within the image. Each part is relative to each other part and, in it’s finest moments, no part can be discarded without dismantling the whole. Each element, like the finest of stitching, require a certain care and craftsmanship that lets one experience of the whole – like experiencing all of the movements of a symphony – allowing the true transmission of the ideas within the piece.
Why should it worth exploring?
These paintings tend to be explorations of some facet of this human experience. This is a necessarily spiritual or mystical exploration because, at that place where we lose ourselves, at that point where words no longer have meaning, we merge with something wholly other and yet, wholly ourselves. In this process, we are dialoguing about an experience of a part of our reality that simply ISN’T – that isn’t tangible thing or object and has no words or direct sensations to describe it even if we have ideas and words that can suggest it such as joy or grief or agony or awakening.
While there’s obvious abstraction within the work that method alone doesn’t provide enough dialogue – enough points of departure – with the internal world. Instead, each piece becomes an exploration of a mood or a perspective with just enough points of departure to draw the viewer along on the visual journey. These pieces are meditations on an idea. They are a song an artist plays over and over as they steer the piece to the ultimate most final conclusion they can possibly muster.
This is the whole journey of the visionary artwork. Such works use some known concept of our human experience as a point of departure and, at their best, they travel a clear path through various facets of that experience to the highest and noblest aims they can possibly surmise. The most authentic of these pieces strip away the ‘trying to express’ and simply find the sweet spot between the representation and expression of the thing and the actual experience itself.
What value does this have to the world?
The reason this is of value to the world is that our stories are constantly evolving. Our ideas of who we are and what we are doing here have shifted dramatically over centuries. No longer does the bulk of humanity believe themselves to be living on a flat disk at the center of our universe, placed there by some benevolent creator dictator, and so on. Our understanding of our nations, our races, our borders, and our socio-cultural myths continue to shift dramatically. Even more importantly, we have, over the past several decades, been constantly reassessing our understandings of our physiological beings at the cellular, microscopic, and atomic and subatomic levels. Our relationship to the world has constantly been changing too – from our relationship to and our understanding of our impact on the environment to our relationships with this (still relatively new) digital world. We can add to this a quickening of the media and advertising machine that seems to know our every step and which ad to play and when.
It’s exhilarating and maddening and, it seems, leaves little time for contemplation. It is our arts which ask: who are WE in this?
This is the conversation that, at it’s very least, Visionary Art attempts to engage with and, at it’s best, can be – if not an answer – perhaps a signpost, a roadmap, a light along a road which can, at times, seem dark and troublesome.
So we return to the question: why Visionary Art?
Visionary Art speaks to a part of this human experience in a way that nothing else does or can. The best works in this style will last far into the future, celebrated as grand achievements and grand visions of our human potential and this experiment known as humanity.
The responses from the public – across social media feeds and elsewhere – often say something akin to the fact that the artist has painted or created a thing that the viewer feels, senses, or has desired to be or see. In this way, this kind of art becomes a part of our human dialogue that no one else is having, filling a void that no one else is speaking to. It dialogues to our highest human ideals and the varied layers of self that desire communication but, in our current cultures, don’t have words or myths or, at times, even a voice.
We are constantly telling ourselves new stories of who we are and why we are here. These stories strip away the walls of the politics of identity, intermingling symbols and motifs, color spectrums and patternings from around the world without any one or the other being more important than another. Nurtured by the vast amount of information available at our fingertips and the growing sense that borders are merely arbitrary lines in the sand, this kind of globalized and democratized pastiche from which something altogether new has arisen, offers a broad vision of humanity, of where we are going, and why we are here in a way that has never been seen before on this planet.
This Saturday, July 7th at the Hive Gallery in Los Angeles is the opening of a show called “Tiny Visions”. Alongside the pieces below are works from Violet Divine (my amazing wife), Martina Hoffmann, Allyson Grey, Radhika Heresy, Dan Cohen and a bunch of others (maybe two dozen other artists?)
Small (tiny) paintings like this allow for a kind of intimacy of the experience. One can imagine it at 4 or 5 feet tall but instead they are these delicate little portraits of dream-like ideas and core moments.
4″ x 4″
7″ x 5″
5″ x 5″
In the Beginning
6″ x 4″
6″ x 4″
I had the pleasure of sharing some thoughts about art, nature, and humanity on InsidetheRift.com
“There’s no time for ego games or marketing plans when it comes to art making. It’s just art. It’s you and your chosen materials and your vision, your inspiration. You have to cut through all of the mind-games if you want to make something really wonderful.”
“I painted picture upon picture in keeping with the impression made on my eye in a moment of heightened emotion – painted the lines and colours that remained fastened to my inner eye… By painting the colours and lines and shapes I had seen in an emotional state – I wished to recapture the quivering quality of the emotional atmosphere like a phonograph.”
– Edvard Munch
This. A painting I make is based upon an impression made upon me by the experience of an emotional state. It is to be seen as if listening to a song.
A question I received from a fellow artist:
“I want to sell my images; I have portfolio books, am a shameless self promoter; gallery experience; trade show experience – all I want to do is paint. Who should I introduce myself to? What advice can you give me please?”
We toil away over our work, hemming and hawing, getting it wrong until, finally, we get it right. Eventually, there’s a moment when we’re pleased (or as pleased as we will ever reasonably be) with it. And, at some point, we call it finished. We get it photographed. Framed, maybe. Hang it on our wall. Or maybe we put it in the closet with all the others that didn’t quite make the cut for the wall because there’s only so many walls. Then we begin a new one and the cycle plays out all over again.
We post it to our website, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr (maybe? Do people use Tumblr?), and probably some other social media platform I know nothing about because technology moves faster than I do. We tell people it’s for sale. We make prints. We do all the things right that people tell us we are supposed to do in order to market our product, our art.
And yet, and yet: more often than not, people aren’t banging down the door for it – even if we feel we made the god almighty ever lasting this is it right now VISION of our lifetimes.
What to do? The truth is: I don’t have any advice that you haven’t heard or read elsewhere.
Personally, I come back to the same thing every time: zero in on what the art is and go from there.
What I mean by that is: first and foremost, you have to focus on the making. It has to go beyond ‘making content for the sake of content’ and into ‘expression of experience’ or ‘journey of discovery’ or something like that. Even if it’s ‘I’m making this for my sister’ – we have to tap into a deeper place that gives it a sense of meaning. What is it about? What is its reason for being? What brings the sister joy? Can we imagine her thrilled face? What about the love we might feel in creating something for someone? And so on. And, somewhere in there, we sink or rise to the deeper or higher level where we’re just doing. But it’s those motivations and intentions that can get us there and help us bring our work to a place where it really shrines.
I think that a work of art thrives when it resides in that nameless faceless something that is the creative force. There’s a dissolution of self that drives great art. That spark that arises, the joy, the real life and verve of a work comes from that dissolution into the flow of the creative act.
So we start there. We HAVE to start there – with the creation of the work. One can’t think about marketing a thing until the thing is made. Only when you’re done can you think about how to sell it. Only when a piece is finished do I start thinking: How can I frame the idea? How does this fit into the dialogue of art and artists and life around me?
When we are finished, only then do we have a product, some content, something to really build a meal around. See, it’s an artist’s job to not just create ‘content’ – after all, anyone can write another click bait article about ten ways you can make better art (I couldn’t believe reason #5 was so simple!) – but to really create something that sings from one’s soul to another in a real authentic sort of way requires a different approach.
But back to our finished work. What then? Well, it’s different for everyone. For instance, where I see my work, how I want to reproduce it and market it, may be different than what you want to do with your own work. The note you’re playing, the song your singing, etc – it’s all unique to each of us and, in our hearts, what we feel is a sound use of it is different for everyone. It’s hard for me to say “Well, next you go print it on X thing and then sell them in Y outlet” or something. It doesn’t work like that.
Instead, what I can say is this:
Think about who you are painting for. What do they want? What can they afford? What’s the highest price? What’s the lowest? Maybe there’s multiple tiers to that group you might call your target market. What turns them off? What turns them on?
From there, you start targeting those areas. Is it pillowcases? Cool. Go figure that one out. Is it festivals? Ok. Explore that one.
Here’s the thing thought: you have to be able to sleep well with your choices. What I mean is: everything we do has an impact. Every product, every piece, every reproduction. To me, the means of production is just as important as the product. I sit with different things and think: can I stomach that? Does it feel good? When I wake up at 4:30 am will it churn around in my mind like a grain of sand stuck in my craw? How will I feel working with this person? Producing that product? I find that navigating through all the myriad possibilities with that sort of “sensation guide” as my compass, helps me hone in on exactly what I want to make and create.
This isn’t to be confused with some moral compass that deems others wrong and you right. This is simply learning to steer our own ship in a way that engages not just that excited mind of ours ready to leap at the next great opportunity but also our own more idealistically guided self. I think that it’s safe to say that we want to guide ourselves towards things that really feel good for ourselves and others.
But some caution: there’s so many times I got super excited about someone’s big project, some new idea, some awesomely-exciting-it-needs-to-happen-right-now-opportunity. Then it didn’t come to pass. So a lot of energy goes into DOING without results. The key here is to focus our goals with our needs with our creative drives so that there’s less running away on the heels of a shiny new offer. I look at it as if they are these ever expanding circles.
Those circles work like this:
First there’s us. We identify ourselves as ARTIST. That’s it. Own it. You’re an artist.
Then the next circle is our work. It’s the extension of ourselves. And it goes in every direction.
This circle has a sub-tier (in fact, the sub tiers, extensions, and so on, expand in every direction) and we have to always take it into our considerations. This sub-tier is our expenses. How long did that painting take? What was your rent? Your mortgage? Your water or electric bill? So there’s the ‘amount going into sustaining this machine so I can create’. This is something to always keep in mind because the following tiers all relate to this as much as the work itself. (Think about this sub-tier as the foundation that is holding up the ‘art’ tier).
In our ever widening rings, our next ring is our online presence, vital in this day and age, which we have to think about before we even start trying to sell anything. Who we are, how we frame ourselves, how we shape our identity in the world. Only once we’ve established that have we created a groundwork from which to traverse into the next ring.
So now we get into the selling. There’s maybe some kind of prints. Great. Maybe we mass produce some product and they are sold through some chain store. Cool. Maybe this. Maybe that. But it’s what you’re doing and your website and your facebook reflect you in a way that speaks to that market. Maybe you found a good flow going to festivals through the summer. Nice. Maybe you have a consistent gallery presence. Awesome. One way or another, you have to think about your own rhetoric: how you color the world that frames your work is as important as the work itself.
Now, maybe none of those outlets ever will truly pay the bills. This is the culture and world we live in. And we, as artists, have to learn to live with that. But you know what it takes for each piece (like I mentioned earlier in regards the foundation under the art creation teir) so take that into account as you sell your work.
Now, I am as stubborn as they come about my resistance to doing anything other than art making. It’s a choice I’ve made and sometimes it pays off. Other times, I’m wondering how it’s all going to work out.
Then some new stroke of luck. Some other thread, long dormant, bears fruit or an ongoing discussion finally turns into a paycheck. The older I get, the more of these proverbial irons in the fire I have because those seeds have been getting planted for years and years. And, in the meantime, I just keep doing my work.
And that, in the end, is the truth: You just have to keep at it and keep making and nurturing your work as much as you keep making and nurturing those connections.
Just like you, I worry, I fret, I stress. I go back to art making. I go back to my garden. Even when I worry and fret. But every day, regardless of the ups and downs, I make, I create, I go back to the studio.
Admittedly, my self today is different than the seat-of-my-pants 24-year-old self. That self had no idea about nurturing connections. It was day to day, minute to minute, even tho I was going to live forever. Funny how that works, eh?
So here we are today, plugging along, continuing to weave together ideas, threads of relationships, creative fire, building something that sustains.
Who should you introduce yourself to? No one you probably haven’t already met. And the others… well, you just have to keep putting yourself in front of people because sometimes there’s that one person… And that one person makes all the difference.
What advice can I give you? Don’t be afraid to be creative. As we are creative in our work, try to be creative in business, in life. Take pride in what you do. OWN it. BE it. LIVE it. BREATHE IT. BELIEVE it. And keep at it.
The more you keep at it, the better you get and the better you get, the more you will believe in it and the more you believe in it, the more others will as well.
This painting is made in collaboration with Layla Love, a photographer and human rights activist. The painting is part of a show in NYC titled ‘Rise of the Butterfly‘.The show aims to raise money and awareness for issues around and the ending of sex slavery and human trafficking.I have a small blurb accompanying the piece. It reads:
There’s no pretty way to say this; no way to look away or ignore it. This: a painting born from the sweetness of my studio, speaking to and of unfathomable human despair. But here it is. Here it is. And that despair cuts through it like an absence of light in a clear sky. Yet without casting light into those dark spaces we can never heal our culture, transforming that absence, awakening each other again to the dance of interconnectivity, creating beauty. And I believe that, in the end, there will be – and always be – beauty.
It was a hard painting to make: the reasons for its existence are disturbing, to say the least. So where does one find inspiration for such a piece? I think it starts with finding gratitude and beauty in one’s present moment and then turning that gaze to where there the light is absent.
“A New Perspective”
15″ x 22″
A collector of my work, Eben Pagan, commissioned me to paint a portrait of him in my style. I don’t do a lot of portraiture so I enlisted Violet’s help and we worked together on this painting. She is more adept at creating from real life than I am. In that way, we tend to meet in the middle as my approach generally builds up from abstraction.
Eben is quite a thinker, parsing different ideas and concepts through his mind in a really brilliant manner. The resulting piece is intended to portray the lens of the mind contemplating a flower and the various ideas and associations around that- colors, shapes, etc. He loves the blues in my work and had requested that I stay within that spectrum, so it was a good piece to paint in tandem with “Only Love Can (Reign Over Me)”.
His response? “I hope I can live up to this vision you’ve painted of me.”
Interested in discussing a portrait? Contact Me
A preliminary word first: art is not made within a vacuum but is a part of the paths of our lives. This piece about the painting “Only Love Can (Reign Over Me)” is a sensitive and vulnerable bit of writing, and you should know in case you have sensitive vulnerabilities of your own that some challenging topics that involve my wife, Violet, are discussed. But, lest you think I betray her confidence and expose her innards without concern, this was written with consent and in conjunction with her. The best remedy for shadow is to bring it into light. – MD
I began this painting in September 2017 and called it finished in March 2018. At the time I began it, the blues and clear focus felt like a good next step following “A Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds”. But then the fires hit all around us (we live a couple hours north of San Francisco) and our air was awash in smoke, the light was ever orange-gold, and everything was on edge and chaotic and burning. Suddenly cool blue didn’t seem appropriate even if it felt trite to say so.
At the time, too, we’d taken in a bunch of cats that our neighbors abandoned when they moved a few weeks before. One of those cats, Mu, who Violet had rather fallen in love with, was seized by our neighbor’s dog and killed. They both – the cat and the neighbor’s dog – somehow got into a fenced off portion of our yards that we powerless to access, but it all happened right in front of us. It was brutal. This would be in and of itself rather tragic, but she had already been in the trenches of grief and depression. There had been a lot of loss in her life recently and it’d been building, draining, challenging: Four very close family members and a friend all within a year or so, all in tragic ways. This sweet new kitty had been a bright spot of hope, and his violent death rocked an already distressed boat and she tumbled even deeper.
Meanwhile, the painting was on the proverbial back burner, but prominent on the wall of my studio. I kept looking at it: this messy and incomplete vision of beauty that seemed so distant and burdened. This sense of wonder was surrounded by despair.
Everything hurt all the time.
Yet, I kept seeing – or trying to see – this painting as her in one of her highest forms. She sat for my reference photos, after all, as she frequently does, even though it’s never really the intention to paint her specifically. Violet is a powerful woman, this amazing force in my world. She has a wonderful way of seeing everything all at once like no one else can. And she can take it all in and find relationships, memorize moments, and she manages it pretty well, for the most part. So we’d have our arguments as all couples do and it’d be this pool of sad and I’d come back to this painting that didn’t even seem to be about anything anymore. It was supposed to be a vision of clarity yet everything felt so unclear. So raw and vulnerable. Nothing made sense.
For me, it felt overwhelming – all these responsibilities (mundane things like mortgage and bills but also the person who is keeping things moving forwards. The one whose “turn” it is to be UP) and desires (personal goals and dreams and needing inspiration but also in business or love or spirit) and emotions (and all the rest) (not to mention the general state of the world) (gah!). All the while, Violet struggled through this ever deepening pit of despair while I was left simply trying to stay afloat.
Through all that, I wanted to build this beautiful vision for her so that when she looked at it she saw some aspect of herself. She’d modeled for my original photos after all. I wanted it to inspire her the way she inspires me.
You see, the paintings I make create a backdrop to our lives – these ordinary and yet extraordinary lives that we lead. They reflect it all back and become points of departure, growth, and intimacy. It was challenging sometimes to go back to this painting when there’d be strife or despair and I’d be left feeling like I’m wringing light from painted diamonds.
And so that became this painting: it is simply me lifting her, you – all of us – up as best I can to the highest vision where we’re left without form in a space of light reflecting light.
Looking for a title, I’d been calling it “Rain” for a long time, referring to it as “That Rain Painting,” Violet had used the word “Reign” at one point in our seemingly never-ending discussions of titles, and I recalled ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – a song by The Who – and though I’ve not been much of a fan or follower of The Who, I found this bit of writing from Pete Townshend regarding the song in the context of the album to be relevant:
“Love Reign O’er Me refers to Meher Baba’s one time comment that rain was a blessing from God; that thunder was God’s Voice. It’s another plea to drown, only this time in the rain. Jimmy goes through a suicide crisis. He surrenders to the inevitable, and you know, you know, when it’s over and he goes back to town he’ll be going through the same shit, being in the same terrible family situation and so on, but he’s moved up a level. He’s weak still, but there’s a strength in that weakness. He’s in danger of maturing.” – Pete Townshend (From the liner notes of Quadrophenia)
Going back to October, November, I was having conversations with Violet about her ruminations on suicide. She’s no stranger to it, having lost her best friend and first love that way when she was young, and then just recently her closest cousin in July. Depression is so very real and they were heartbreaking conversations. Conversations that left, in the back of my mind, a lingering worry of leaving her alone for too long. It is frightening. It was all the work I could do to stay focused. Committed. Moving forwards. Staying on top of the bits and pieces of our business, our home, our lives and also maintaining some creative flow and focus.
I suppose there was a moment – perhaps for each of us – between one maelstrom and the next – it’s like the eye of the storm – the pause of the pendulum – when everything is still and perfect – everything is floating, falling, cascading – frozen – you stop going in one direction and decide to go in another – it’s a sleet of diamond daggers and you’re on fire and your head is exploding but in that moment everything is perfectly balanced, in sync, and in a moment’s time the light passes through it and you hear that note, that melody, that reminder and in that moment we catch our breath, we lift our heads, we open our eyes again and say I AM. Here, I am.
In those crystalline moments of realization, when we see everything so clearly – when it’s all just light and shadow, contrasts weaving in and out of each other, ebbing and flowing together – there it is; there is life. We can keep our heads hung low but, really, I think, it’s love that anchors us, makes us look up, that causes us to open our eyes. To see. I think that only love can do that and it is some spark within us – this unquenchable fire – that is ignited again. And again. And again.
I wonder if anyone at an art show in 1900 said “O, look, ANOTHER painting of a woman at a bar.” There’s SO many paintings of a woman at a bar. Woman drinking at a bar. Woman sitting at a table near a bar. Then, sometime in 1945, Max Ernst comes along and says, “Hold my absinthe” and he paints ‘The Cocktail Drinker.”
The reason I mention this is you might look out on the artistic landscape and say: o another profile of a face, another soup of abstraction, another… and so on. But these paintings become the visual language of our current times. Out of those, arise a few particularly noteworthy pieces and we use those in the future to guide our understandings of ourselves.
In the case of ‘another painting of a woman at the bar’ we have Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”:
Renoir’s “Moulin de la Gallete”:
Gauguin’s “Night Café at Arles”:
Don’t forget Van Gogh’s “Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Café du Tambourin”:
And so on. You get the point. It’s a motif of the time. What is the time we live in today? What do we try to understand through our art, our repetitions, our motifs and visual languages? This is what gets asked fifty, a hundred years down the road. This is the ever evolving story of art.
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