In the spring of 1984, Byzantine and Renaissance art was permanently searing itself into my subconscious as I visited church after church in Rome and Florence. My college overseas study program in Italy seemed like the logical and perhaps obligatory artist’s pilgrimage I needed to make. At the time, I had very little interest in religion. However, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the saints and angels painted onto fresco or sculpted from marble. Of particular interest to me was the depiction of halos, as if the artists were somehow gifted with the ability to see auras or electrical coronal discharge like Kirlian photographers before there were cameras.
The shrines and temples I visited decades later in China and Japan reminded me of the saints and angels of my youth. The religious iconography was quite similar even to the extent of the revered and holy being honored with halos. Perhaps there is something poignant about humans portraying other humans as special or somehow enlightened with higher consciousness, namely one person’s recognition of another person’s wonder and magnificence.
Kwan Yin (or Guanyin) is an East Asian goddess of compassion and mercy. The name literally means ‘the one who perceives the sound of the world.’ As a Christian mystic, I’ve long been fascinated by Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and eastern thought, especially seeing and perceiving beyond labels and surface appearances. To me, Kwan Yin ultimately represents non-judgment and the ability to see another’s divinity and not their current psychological state or mental activity. Perhaps she serves as a reminder, to be kind to others, for despite our hard outer shells (arising from fear and suffering), within, the breath of God still lingers from our birth. If you can see such a halo in another person—the radiant light overflowing from within—you have gone beyond the noise and heard the faint sounds and murmurings of the world—the hidden world of people and their loves, passions, wounds, dreams, heartbreaks, joys and delights.
In the not so distant past, it seemed to me that most people were generally wired to participate as productive, responsible members of society with the exception of a few misfits that were often classified as artists, creative types or criminals. This would be even more the case in an eastern, collectivist society in which people assume roles like tiny pieces of elaborate machinery. And of course, it must be noted that western individualism is the slightly more yang side to the collectivist yin. I think you’ve heard this all before.
However, technology is doing strange things to us. I can’t help but notice that people are processing—content, stories, media, life—faster, albeit with a considerable attention deficit, but leaving many feeling ill-suited to assume a role as a team player in a corporate cubical farm or any type of life devoid of self-expression. For those mercifully blessed with the ability to conform, patiently check all the boxes required to flourish in academia, industry and save money for retirement, life can be lived out in relative satisfaction, free from the claustrophobia a growing number of people feel, as square pegs are forced into round holes.
One might shrug and simply expect the robots and AI to eventually free humanity from the tedious, boring and practical, but the distress or contentment we feel says a lot about us. This is a pivotal moment for our species as we reflect on what it means to be happy. The melancholy many inventors, artists and innovators have felt just prior to their breakthroughs has been referred to as a type of divine discontent. Misery can serve a purpose, but much emotional pain is a needless form of suffering.
So I ask, will the Internet and social media eventually make the masses so fed-up and despondent that geniuses will inhabit every corner of society like blades of grass? Will emotional imbalance be commonplace? Will there be many van Goghs and Hemingways creating beautiful things and then taking their lives as their thoughts and emotions get the better of them? And what about fame? There might just be too many brilliant people in the near future for anyone to stand out or be honored or recognized. A future of sad, unappreciated amazing and talented people?
The greater question one might ask is how do we adapt to what technology is doing to our brains, to our human genome, the next generation?
Despite all of my phobias, father and mother issues, delusions of grandeur, psychological problems and all manner of foolishness, I’ve come to realize over the years that what the mystics, spiritual masters and gurus have been saying all along might be the perfect bypass for years of psychotherapy. Be content.
The longer version goes something like this:
If you no longer attach significance to so many things, you won’t value those things so much that you’ll be convinced that you need them. When you no longer want anything, you’ll no longer be a needy person. If you’re not needy, you won’t feel the need to be special or interesting, the need for friends, the need to search for some perceived missing piece of your life, or the insistence on fame and adoration. You’ll essentially have achieved emotional freedom.
The ‘crisis’ can be averted. The artist can look at old photos of themselves in beautiful or exciting settings and not be ashamed of the person in the photograph, their minds, turbulent and desperately needing, wanting, desiring, and in essence, ruining the splendor of living. With the crisis resolved, there is only time to create, and not to waste a moment listening to the mind and all it’s negative attacks upon the ‘self’.
When you notice me, Carlos, you’re observing a walking, living, breathing crisis. That’s what I am, and I suspect most of us are. But beyond the shallow identity, the superstructure of the personality and all our psychological baggage is a happy person, filled with laughter and amazement at how crazy ‘I’ really am. This observation makes all the difference, when eliminating drama and realizing how much fun it is to create.
When I first started Googling Gerhard Richter years ago, I considered his blur paintings to be ‘destructive’ (Although Richter is adamant that they are not, merely a ‘balancing’). As I’ve come across many other artists, seemingly ruining a perfectly good work of art by painting abstract over realism, the word, destructive, always comes to mind. The first few times I attempted this, I have to admit, it did get my pulse up a little—the apprehension, I suppose is natural. Why would an artist want to spend so many hours attempting to render a subject realistically, only to obscure it with severe and harsh brushstrokes and paint splatter? In the same way an institution evolves whilst maintaining reverence for the past, sometimes art progresses in more than one direction. Who can deny that the delicate edges between the rectangles of a Rothko painting taught us volumes? Why not revisit Pollack and Pop art? What will we include in our art omelette? Perhaps the evolutionary fossil record of painting will, if you look hard enough, include the love of many muses and the love of many methods.
Luna is wearing a Marie Antoinette inspired costume. It seems fitting to go back in time, in a sense, and consider the rise of Neoclassicism in a painting that perhaps encompasses all of art history. I say this because I’ve never been able to let go of realism as I respond to modern and contemporary movements. The bright, colorful works of Superflat in all that is Pop and Post Pop, the love for Takashi Murakami and Romero Britto, and the destructive renderings of Lionel Smit and Mario Henrique all get processed somehow in my psyche. And yet all it really is—the most profound subject in all existence—a beautiful woman gazing deep in thought, in the manner of Vermeer and Ikenaga Yasunari, or atleast my take on it.
‘Remain’ (Aryuna Tardis No. 2)
Acrylic on Canvas – 30” x 48”
‘Remain’ is a project that I’ve wanted to work on for almost a year. The first painting I did of Aryuna Tardis, entitled, ‘Gimme Love,’ seemed to be well received by the model, but when I asked if she would give me permission to use another of her images as a reference picture for a painting, I never heard back, despite several follow ups. Upon a closer look at the painting, was she displeased or upset with the rendering or proportions? Was she secretly adamant that I never paint her again? Oh, the angst and drama! I checked my measurements and found to my dismay that I had made the distance between her nose and mouth ever so slightly off—maybe a sixteenth of an inch. Such tiny miscalculations are major catastrophes in portraiture. Oh well!
But after many months, I decided to ask again. Aryuna, who is Russian—and I’m not sure how good her English is—responded: Hi! Sure! followed by five heart emoji. Game on, I thought.
Underneath all the technology, the radiant displays and electric colors of our online profiles, social media presence, friends, friends and more friends we’ve never even met —underneath all the sharing, posting, commenting and ‘likes,’ underneath all the things we admit and all the things we hide, all our loneliness and insecurity, successes and failures, exaggerations, and moments of laughter and pain, there is somewhere underneath all those pixels, the image of ourselves we try so hard to create, ordinary people living in boredom, an almost unbearably beautiful boredom.
This second version of Layla Ong is very similar to the first except for eye color, green halo and angle. (Photographer, Lenne Chai, was kind enough to allow me to use her work as reference images) I think the influence of Japanese woodblock printing is even more apparent in the lines, and perhaps, flatness of the painting. There’s also an Art Deco feel to it, nothing intentional, just how things look to me afterwards.
Working on two large panels, I find that the color and detail are quite satisfying, but not so much as a jpg on a device. I suppose it’s the same as writing music to be performed at a stadium as opposed to a smaller venue. (Ever watch David Byrne’s TED Talk: How architecture helped music evolve?) I wonder how artists paint enormous murals on the sides of buildings. Anyway, I was in the mood for a larger work and another portrait of Layla—now on to something different… maybe.
I finally got around to painting the full size version of Layla. As much as I tried to create an exact reproduction, when I put the smaller preliminary painting on watercolor paper next to the large canvas, I noticed that there are striking differences. Even with taking careful measurements, the slight variations in proportions and contours produce a completely different mood and expression. I added a halo in this one, using a more subtle blue than my previous bright green attempts.
As I gear up for my book release event (at a local comic convention), I wonder who’ll get swallowed up into the maelstrom that is my new graphic novel, Spiryts. I’ve been giving away Spiryts as a free e-book online. The downloads by faceless pop culture bibliophiles is oddly satisfying, knowing that my story and illustrations are imprinting themselves onto the collective retina of many.
But of most interest and consequence to me is the decoding of the mystery itself. Will someone with an undiscovered gift for cryptology—or simply the visually oriented—crack the codes quickly and easily or will people be baffled long after I’m gone? —Preferably, somewhere between the former and the latter. For there must be a sweet spot of viral attention that will lead to some good being done in this world, for I assure you, raising awareness of subject matter is half the battle and this is most definitely an example thereof.
Spiryts was ten years in the making, begun in 2008, with artwork that served as an instrument for me to explore the unknown within myself. I’ve had all that time to allow the subconscious and waking mind to ruminate and piece together what it all means. Using the Japanese story, Urashima Taro, as a thread to weave together concepts, the narrative unfolds with hidden and sometimes not so hidden text and imagery.
Read the story first as perhaps a work of surrealism, but then go back and comb over the archetypes, symbols and metaphors, using all at your disposal to delve deep. Leaf through the paperback and use Adobe Acrobat to zoom in on the online pdf file. Compare what you find with photos, videos and anything posted to my website.
Spiryts was not created for the sake of being strange and impossible to understand as one might guess with the Voynich manuscript or the Codex Seraphinus. Neither is it a treasure hunt like Kit William’s Masquerade, although there’s much to search for and consider in a geographical context.
If you reach the first level of discovery, the deciphering of the language of ‘Otohime,’ don’t be frightened or disturbed by the revelation at the end of the book. There is safety in numbers. Band together with friends, family and possibly law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Hyperbole? Well, who doesn’t love a good mystery?
Like a Yayoi Kusama infinity room, Aya’s reflection in Urashima’s heart, goes on forever. And so does the thirst for answers.