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.
If people talk about my art in the future, they will probably, at some point, mention the clouds. So before possible future critics extrapolate on my intentions, I’d like to share some thoughts on the subject myself – that is: the abundance of clouds in my paintings.
Because there is definitely an abundance of clouds.
If you are a modern-world living human it’s relatively easy to get ‘far’ from nature: to get somewhat removed from the sensation of the cacophonic stillness of the woods, the burbling silence of the brook, the majestic silence of… everything. With little effort, we instead get pulled along by the white noise tunnel vision world we live in – just trucking along to our human minds and their human contraptions, living in our paved over, concretized cities where ‘nature’ takes the general form of trees trimmed, coiffed, and hacked into submission, the squared off lines of neatly manicured lawns, bushes and hedges in perfect ordered rows, and so on.
But soaring overhead – clouds. Clouds are wild. Clouds exist even where other wildernesses have been subsumed. Clouds are the wind and the water and the earth and the sun all getting together and making love. Those massive formless vaporous shapes. Cumulus clouds alone can extend 40,000 feet into the air (that’s over 8 miles!) (true fact!). Reflecting the landscape, clouds echo the roll of the hills and the proximity of a body of water. Their swirls and eddies are the wind whipping through. They are ever changing from long lazy sweeping spirals to towering ominously beautiful thunderheads.
Clouds: they are no shape but every shape. These massive bodies of crystalline water vapor are every color all at once, reflecting, refracting, dancing about. From a distance they can seem to have a fine edge but get up close and the edge vanishes. Yet, for all that mysterious formlessness, the average cumulus cloud is equal in weight to 183 full sized Asian elephants. (That’s about 1.1 million pounds for those who don’t know the average weight of an Asian elephant which is about 6,000 lbs.)
Imagine that column I might paint – disappearing behind an eight mile tall – million pound cloud… That’s a reasonable scale from which to begin. It’s not so big that you can’t comprehend its scope but not so small that it disappears behind the cloud.
And yet, we too are clouds. Clouds of thoughts and ideas coming together and trailing away again. Clouds of molecules dancing about. We are clouds of forces woven together to form this identity we call ME. And then – that ray of light passing through the hole in the clouds – we stop – or at least glance up – in wonder: is this is the heavens shining down? Is that what enlightenment might feel like? Look like? That is the image we’ve painted since, well, who knows… since forever.
But clouds: I am a daydreamer to the core and when I look to the sky, there are the clouds arcing overhead. Or rumbling. Or weaving. And so on. I’ve been daydreaming for as long as I can remember and, in all that time, while all sorts of things around me have changed – even the trees around me these days are different than those I grew up with – the clouds… the clouds have remained.
Clouds, lacking edges or clear definition, even when they seem so solid, are like dreams happening with in the no-thought void of interdependencies. They twist and twirl, forming all of the shapes all at once. When I look at the clouds in the sky, I’ve never given much thought to what they might be. Instead, I see them as they are: bursting, broiling, sweeping and swirling – just passing through the sky – tumbling onwards, forming and reforming, a perfect example of what it is to be.
I will leave you with this – some of the final lines of the Diamond Stura have echoed in my head since I first read them many many years ago:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
A frequent question that is asked of me: where does it come from? What inspires me?
Violet reminded me that the etymology of the word ‘inspire’ is rooted in the word ‘breath’ and that ‘inspire’ is a way of saying ‘breathing life into’. So the question really is ‘what breathes life into my work?’ Where do I find the momentum – the life – to keep putting brush to canvas? Everyday I wake I think about those paints, those colors, that question.
What keeps me going?
To answer that question, I have to begin with another question… one of many.
As, perhaps, every painter has asked: what is there left to paint? And why? Why do I want to paint that or this or this other thing? What makes it interesting? What makes it necessary? Why is it worth pining for, wracking my body over, eating, sleeping, and dreaming about?
It begins with questions and drills down from there.
What does it feel like? What does it taste like… smell like… sound like? What is the sensation of the thing – here – in this tactile world we exist in? How does it cut or how does it nurture? Does it need to cut? If so, where? And why? Does it dance? Can we dance with it? If so, where and why?
Will I love it? I mean, truly and deeply the way I love myself or my wife? Will I love having created it? Will I love that it is created? Will I be proud of it? Will it dig deeply into the soul of the world and be one more facet of that source of reflection?
And, if it is to be as it is sometimes where it is to be something that is there simply to be beautiful – like a flower or a dewdrop or a cloudburst – then what? And why? How does it fit in my work and what else am I feeling? Is it a salve for hurt – because in this world sometimes, salves are necessary for wounds – or is it merely a distraction from something that, while taking more work will, ultimately, be more rewarding? That is an important question, too. There’s a lot of ideas that come and go. There’s a lot of easy ways out. I think we, as humans, need to be vigilant of ourselves in that way. When do we take the easy way out? When do we start repeating our own patterns because that is what gets the reward, gets the adulations, gets the proper response.
I could just paint lots of lovely sunsets and that’d be that. And maybe I do. But there’s people already who do that and they do it well so I don’t feel this world is missing any sunset paintings I might make.
If it’s going to be a big piece, it needs to have a reason. It MUST have a reason. And the reason doesn’t start with a statement. It starts with a question, an inquiry, a digging deeper into the soul of the matter – into the heart of the thing. That’s where we find something of value – a note that sings rather than simply murmuring along with the rest of the maddening crowd.
Businesses run on products: product conception, product development, product sales, product redevelopment, and so on. Products products products. If we are not buying a product then we are producing a product or selling a product or discarding a product in order to replace it eventually with another theoretically superior product. These products are largely made for two reasons: to make money for the creator/sales person and to satisfy a utilitarian need that some aspect of our human existence has necessitated. Sometimes that aspect is basic: a shirt to protect us from the cold, shoes to protect our feet, etc. Other times – and this is often the case – the need goes much deeper – products are bought and sold to satisfy a desire to be attractive, to be beautiful, a desire to reflect some part of our perceived identity, and, most importantly, a desire to be loved. In the end, it seems difficult to decipher the difference between ‘basic need’ and ‘desire’.
Artwork, at its purist, at its most whole, is born from the desire – an inner urge – to create. It is the desire of self-expression and bringing something new into the world. That urge drives us forwards – compelling us to always do more – because that which we have already made is never fully satisfying.
From this act of expression arises a piece of work which, if we can let go of the need to show people up, or prove ourselves, or tout our skills, or impress our friends or loved ones… if we can let go of the desire to make a new product, fill up our own shelves… If we surrender instead to that creative flow and just drown ourselves in the act then the work which arises from that pool is a thing of beauty. It may be nightmarish. It may be the heavens unfolding. It is the all and everything. It is, at that point, an act of love.
Art in and of itself is not a product. It can go on products. It can be housed with products and ultimately, it does become a commodity. But in its fruition, in its blossoming into the world – it is merely the act, the creation, the vision. And so when we sit down to do our art, that creation should not be a means to an end. It is not the basic utilitarian urge driving it. It is not and should not and CANNOT be done as a thing merely to make money. Thinking ‘how much am I going to make from this piece?’ merely serves to limit its expression. We put it in a box with a set of conditions and value structures that our brain is constantly folding over it and and we will forever consider: have we put ‘enough’ in for the value it is supposed to have? True art making is an unconditional act.
There is the myth of the Starving Artist. The artist does not starve because he or she is afraid of “work” or because no one is buying his or her paintings. Sometimes, and I have been this artist, the artist ‘starves’ (or at least is thinner and hungrier than most) because everything other than art making seems purposeless. The artist doesn’t wake in the morning saying ‘o how much money I will make today.’ Or ‘I will do a good job and my boss will like me.’ Or ‘I am quickly moving up through the ranks, maybe I will get a raise.’ Everything else is merely feeding the ability to return to art making. So we nudge things along sometimes in order to create enough space to do our work and surrender into the Act.
There is no end product. All art is ever only the detritus being HUMAN. Art is the expression of living. Of breathing. Of seeing. Of one’s own personal vision. Art speaks to and from this act in some way (and this is ultimately why art can be valued so highly but we’ll get into that another time…). Ultimately, though, the end product is the Self Which Has Created The Work. That is Art as Path.
We artists, we often do just enough to create a space for ourselves and hope that everything else will fall into place, just as it does in our work. This is why it can be difficult sometimes for artists, on their own, to also be marketers and promoters and sales people and so on. It is a business to run that fills up the schedule.
Give us things! People ask. Market to us! Because then we’ll know how to choose what is best!
In a world that is constantly pushing consumption with a thousand and ten flashing ads, how do you stand out anymore? How do you even share your creation?
So we go back to square one: art as an act of love. It will shine through. It may take time: the first painting, the first bit of writing, the first moment… May slip under most radars. But then there is the second, the third, and so on. You are playing a symphony all on your own. It takes time for others to pick up on that tune. It takes some patience on your own part.
As a symphony, however, it’s best to learn to play all the instruments. Think of your art as the lead violin. It is, anyhow, the instrument that sings – the one that all of the other instruments are framing. Perhaps the web master hat is the oboe and the accountant hat is the kettle drum and the archivist is the cello and so on. This is learning to play your art and all of those hats as a symphony together, rather than as separate components.
However, this still brings us back to the actual creation of the thing. I have sat with business leaders and motivational speakers and all sorts of people. They tell me the steps I can take to build my email list and get more Facebook followers and create affiliate programs and so on. All of those steps continue to define me as a product, a commodity, with an ideal, a soundbite, a public image, easily consumable and digestible for this fast paced world we are told we live in.
And all of these steps always look to me like they lead away from sitting with the vision, this raw unfolding thing.
I consider this painting on my easel. It is a painting commissioned by someone. Certainly there is a desire for them to be pleased with it. Of course I want that! But I can’t let that be a driving force: ‘gosh I hope they like this! I hope this reflects the value we have ascribed to it!’ And so on. There are all sorts of thoughts that arise: how many hours am I putting into this? Is it enough? Am I working hard enough? All the stories and the product outcome and the chatter and nonsense. All the self-image and ego and drama and dreams and clutter – detritus of a consumer culture that echoes through my psyche from countless ads, commercials, social norms, and societal structures and, who knows, is maybe just part of the human experience which I am working through in my own way.
Would I make this for nothing? For no return? There are projects I engage in like that – where the cycle of returns has a different value structure. But in the end I do have bills to pay and rent and phone and all the other trappings of modern life – not to mention dreams: owning land, a home, etc. And my time is of value and I’ve spent hours practicing and practicing what I do. And, in the end, I have a thousand other paintings to paint. So we create value systems and we give to each other in exchanges in order to support growth: in ourselves, in others, in the world.
Because of exchanges like that, people say that it’s money that makes the world go wrong. I think that’s incorrect. I imagine that it is love that makes our world go round. Without love, we are useless empty shells, consuming, never-endingly consuming. We are just some more product creators, at that point. Yes, the world will go round, but without the love, it will be a greyer place. Without love, I could never bring this painting on my easel to the place it wants to go – to the place I want it to go. Even if this emotion of ‘love’ is in our imagination – even if it is merely a story I have made up – a feeling conjured up as a reflection to a thing I can call ‘not love’ – then it is, to me, the worthwhile driving force I have found. This love of creation, A love for others. A desire to bring love into the world. Even just the sensation of dancing with the creative act – this sensation that, followed, seems to conjure up, for me, my most ideal self. When I turn away from the canvas, it is what drives me to be more compassionate, to make smarter decisions, to care for others, and to give of myself.
There is only and can only ever be the present moment when making a piece of art and, to find that core passionate creative force – to create from that place in the making of our art – whether it be painting or writing or baking bread or driving a truck or helping others in whatever our paths may be – and whether our work be light or dark, sweet or otherwise – enables us to create something that ultimately feels like a worthwhile pursuit. I imagine that a thing made from a place of loving-kindness is ultimately more nourishing, more valuable, more beautiful than it would be otherwise. It may take a while for the world to catch up to you. You may sit in silence, alone and wondering who hears, but to have played that note, that instrument, that symphony will, ultimately, allow you the happiest life you can imagine.
Were that the place from which all things were made from, I imagine we would have a happier and healthier planet.
Study for ‘The Battle of Tetuan’
This little painting – it’s about 7″ x 9″ – resides in the Dali Museum in Figueras, Spain, in an over-packed room filled with art and oddities, almost disappearing into the surrealist melange. You would be excused were you to overlook it.
It stopped me however because, in it’s miniature stature, there is no room for muddling about. The paint looks like it was just laid on – in drips and dabs – in a beautiful effortlessness. That the final layer of just laying the paint on (whatever layer that is I don’t know – it just happens at some point or another) is this lovely and beautiful thing. When others see it, it feels exactly like that: effortless.
A wash. A glaze. Dab dab dab of paint. Ease.
Dali’s mastery is at work here is in the layering of the paint on the brush, the dip and swirl of the strokes with little to no thought, the casually graceful ease that it exhibits. It is like a perfectly zen little painting (for all of it’s horseback dust-stormy chaos).
In my head I often go back to this little painting as a point of reference for my own work: a great painting should feel effortless. There shouldn’t be a sense of muddling about and, if muddling about is required, that should look effortless too.
“The true painter must be able to patiently copy a pear while surrounded by rapine and upheaval.”
– Dali from ’50 Secrets of Master Craftsmanship’
There’s much to be said for the value of doodling. I’ve probably even said a bit of it already. I think so much importance is put on the idea of ‘a finished drawing’ that it’s sometimes possible to loose sight of the looseness of the spontaneous flow. In fact, the specificity of a ‘finished drawing’ (as if it’s this grand eloquence) can cause one to over think what one is setting out to do.
When I make a drawing of a painting I’m going to create there’s a lot of, well, doodling that goes into those first intimations of the image. When an idea comes to me it’s never a fleshed out thing. It’s sort of like a big broad brushstroke over my mind that says ‘something like this.’ Then what follows is: a lot of scribbles, dashes and dots, lines and curves, of trying to understand my lines, my motives, my reasons for making it.
On top of that gets added the symbolism: the story around each thing and why it needs to be there. That is sort of an added layer on top of the experience of the thing itself. Deeper down – there’s simply a drive, a desire, a strong urge for the thing. And that, I think, is the thing to follow. Everything else becomes ‘too much thinking’ and only serves to subdue get us back into our heads and out of our… Everything.
This is where a looseness comes in – a softness in the approach (even if it’s fierce and visceral. No, especially if) and allowing of oneself. I think that, with every piece of art, there is an initial spontaneous experience of the thing: an inspiration, a flash, an idea – that broad brushstroke. The initial sketches that follow should seek to capture that spontaneity. Often, in those first explorations, it’s a bit of a blurred idea. It shimmers on the horizon of my imaginations. I am only just tasting it – getting the first hints of it. It’s like a new relationship – it’s so exciting. And I capture a curve, a composition, a sense of scale.
But then, with time and exploration, I get to know it. All it’s nuances and quirks. The places that don’t line up with my vision. The pieces that feel awkward and unaligned. Like a relationship, if we force it, it gets uncomfortable and it implodes. It doesn’t work. So we need to go at it with a measured grace, a sense of space, a softness, to explore the hows and whys of the thing and see if it doesn’t want to be – or is trying to be – something else all together.
Making Art is a relationship and when we get involved with it, there’s a need to allow it to be it’s own experience, it’s own expression, outside of what we want it to be. And it is difficult. Relationships aren’t easy to maintain. And making art is the same. It takes work, perseverance, and dedication. But the inspiration is the fact of what it can be, what it has been, and what we get out of it. It’s what keeps us going. It’s what keeps me going.
I’m not all that stoked with most of my paintings while I’m working on them. They are a mess! They are unfinished and coarse. It’s like we have to work through our stuff. But I’m patient with it. My early drawings for a piece tend to be haphazard, unclear, and, often, not quite right.
So one needs to be able to allow for looseness. For sketches to be just that – sketches, ideas merging into each other, and ourselves losing ourselves in the process. And then, of course, the trick is to carry that ‘losing yourself’ through the entire process: from sketch to drawing to painting.
What I’m getting at is that, when you are starting out trying to get an idea onto the paper: be patient! Allow yourself new drawings, experimentation, and exploration. Play with the basic dominant shapes before you try to tackle the details. Visualize the big picture… feel it out… then try drawing sketches of the dominant movements and ideas…
Here’s a gallery of some of the drawings I made for ‘The Myth of Freedom’. There were other drawings but they were even messier. Little rectangles with wheels drawn in them, trying to visualize the curve I wanted. It takes me a long long time to transition from a drawing to a painting.
In any case, if you are in the midst of trying to get your idea out – your feeling – your visions – and they aren’t quite right: don’t give up! Breath! Be patient! There’s no retreating from that edge!
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