A Gathering

“The more you walk this road, the farther you are from the ordinary ways of society.
You may see the truth, but you will find that people would rather listen to politicians, performers, and charlatans.”
-Deng Ming-Dao

*

I’m struck by the difficulty we have sticking to the basics. Continually struck by our insistence on increasing complication at the expense of living with complexity. We spin-out plans and tune the details of our elaborate procedures, remaining deaf and blind to the lack of any vital foundations for our actions and intentions, our expectations.

I keep feeling the unease of the young boy I once was. Surrounded by frantic activity as the adults who were taking care of me strove to do this or that while oblivious to the madness of their actions, considering how they never even questioned the great gaps into which our lives were falling. I still can feel my hand pressing against the hood of a taxi braking hard to stop as my mother rushed my little brother and me across the busiest avenue in Lisbon against the light.

This feeling of unease – an unease as obvious to me even then as their obliviousness – persisted and formed a foundation for a chronic depression which has only lifted in the past decade. Some fifty years after that particular incident….

I cannot help but see the same upside-down quality in everything that surfaces in this culture of ours as we strive to rush against the light. We want to solve all these problems. Yet we insist there’s no time to slow-down and find out where we actually are before rushing off.

Painting, as with any practice, is a constant reminder that there is no elaboration. Only the basics ever matter. No proud intention or eager expectation of a particular result will ever get you anywhere beyond a weak hash of things that can only delude you so long as you are pushing ahead lost in your projections instead of looking with fresh eyes at what is actually there.

There is a surface. Colored goos. Some brushes or knives or sticks. Or even just your fingers. At each moment as you make something happen on some part of the whole everything is constantly changing. So often what at first appears to be a lack in one part is actually remedied by changing another. There is a certain progression – in the sense that one thing follows another, not that there is Progress!™.

At first there is a freshness and almost unlimited possibility. Then there are stages of confusion and false starts and wished-for but unrealized consolidations. At some point the lights begin to go on. That’s how it feels to see what had been a jumble of marks and colors and shapes and values transformed into the beginning of a sense of light and space. Not separate. Together. A space infused with light. The marks no longer standing for themselves. They hold form and light and depth. There are facts.

At this point the actual painting – what this particular painting will be – has begun to take form. Actions now come from a certainty – like the one Jeff points to here. The unspeakable and unspoken nature of the act of painting is tangible at this point. We approach the canvas knowing that the brush will do what needs to be done without any need to plan our movement beyond holding this kernel of certainty until we begin to act and then opening our selves to embrace how the unfolding action affects and effects a further transformation.

This kernel of certainty may be what is meant by faith. Faith, as opposed to belief. Faith as an opening to what-is. Belief as a walling-in behind our illusions….

At these moments most often we find that what has happened is an intensification of the realization of some other part of the surface from the area we just touched. As we step back our perception absorbs a dynamic of transformation. Something happens that takes time to find its consolidation after we have acted. There is a movement – something akin to the life we hear was there in the artifacts in King Tut’s tomb when they first broke the seals after so many millennia of suspension.

Sometimes as time passes that life bleeds away – as it did when the fresh air began to oxidize the contents of that tomb. But even this is just another transition; as the film accommodates to what has been applied; as the oils harden; as the paint becomes more translucent. After a certain critical point the painting begins to strengthen as if it were a skin healing after so many intrusions and traumas.

Titian saw the surface of a painting as a skin. His skin. The Flaying of Marsyas has his own old gray head. A self-portrait as a skin peeled from its body.

There is in this a sense of how a painter can feel it is his/her skin that is being torn from our own flesh to create the work in front of us. I cannot help but feel another sense of a painting’s skin as a living skin. One that responds to what is done to it and one that can come to life. For Titian too I suspect. After all, Marsyas is flayed alive by his satyr persecutors, but Titian’s painting is not merely a representation of his withering skin. It is a living skin of its own. One of the most vibrant and vital paintings ever.

At this point a painting is done. It is a living thing. But none of this is a process of elaboration. At every point all I can do as a painter is repeat one of the infinite variations of applying a smear of colored goo and watching to see what has happened. For every intent there is an expectation and both need to be forgotten before I can even see what has actually happened. At no time do I know what will be there in six months or a year; after the surface has stabilized and the skin has found its equilibrium.

Painting is always a matter of sticking to the basics. It is more about recognizing the health of its fundamentals than reaching for some far-flung goal. Whatever actually might be accomplished can only be accomplished by letting go of any illusions of control. The surface is ruthless. It shows anyone – at a glance – whether it has been abused by an Ego or treated with respect.

Painting holds us to this discipline; but what about more pragmatic occupations? We insist on building a working life – for example – without considering any of its foundations. This brings us to the point we have reached. We strive to succeed while the means to this end sow destruction near and far. We have all these half-measures. We attempt to do business-as-usual under various new guises, expecting a fresh gloss will somehow offset the incoherence we insist on perpetuating. All because to do anything else would take time, be too hard, too late….

“…you will find that people would rather listen to politicians, performers, and charlatans.”

We can be overwhelmed by the distracted and even hostile reception any deeper questioning is liable to bring down on us as we reach out to share what we’ve found. As the eager return to the same-old-thing. As some new distraction leads us down the same old paths.

“Ritual is deliberate action, preordained, a form of communication and a way of developing a desired frame of mind. It is a way of being present in the moment but because you are doing prearranged words or actions, you do not have to think much and it frees your mind, your self, to immerse in the thing, the thing which has meaning and import to you.”

Onething via Well of the Galabies

This wonderful description of ritual points to a way forward. The purposes of ritual have long interested me. Beyond the cynical disparagement of the false-sophisticate there must be value in ritual. It comes into being in every human context. Its sources in animal behavior are there to see every time a dog turns three times before she lies down.

How do we slow down the urgency of desire and expectation?

By engaging in ritual.

As with the acts involved in art-making; the preparation of our tools and materials in craft; when we accept the inner-workings of a ritual as a valid focus of our attention we can “immerse in the thing….”

This post’s title, A Gathering, points at another aspect of this question of finding our way and not only finding our selves, but finding each other. In a ritual like Qi Gong much of our work is internal; but it is best done in a group. Doing it together, sharing the ritual as much as the exercise or the meditational aspects of the Practice, creates a common ground. We build a rapport in the most direct manner possible: through shared repetition, through the shared sacrifice – no sacrifice at all beyond the choice to do this instead of chasing after something else.

Within this rapport is an opening. A recognition and a re-membering. A gathering together in a shared respect for the basics. A gathering upon which we might build. Building as a painting comes to life instead of merely engineering a simulacra.

All that child I once was wanted was to have these considerations recognized as valid, have some modicum of responsibility accepted. For the dissimulations and avoidance-measures to be dropped for once….

This is still all I ask. Of my self, of those around me. To be adult requires it. The child knew that. I cannot forget it.

We lie to our selves and each other, insisting that what children need is to be protected, shielded, cocooned from peril. No matter how we dissemble the child recognizes the peril anyway. What they ask is to have their concerns taken seriously. At the bottom of these concerns is the challenge the new always throws at the old: To question their ways and not simply repeat them as habitual reactions in a never-ending cascade of unintended consequences.

Ritual is not habit. It is the Anti-habit. Slowing us down so we can see the cracks between what-is and what we expect. Slowing us down so that we can recognize what is coming into being as the implicit becomes tacit. Slowing us down so that we may meet the moment and create a living response instead of a dead reaction.

Shared ritual allows us to do this together. We gather. And in gathering we may join together in broader responses that come into being as a result of our gathered, shared strength.

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8 thoughts on “A Gathering

  1. The meaning of Gathering here is different and larger than I remembered it. Ties in with ceremony and dialogue.

    “Letting go of illusions of control”; “forgetting” intentions and expectations; giving up the “incoherence we insist on perpetuating” — this surrendering to uncertainty — hints maybe at a “negative space” of a different dimension. In other words, not merely an empty part of a canvas that calls heightened attention to colors and shapes in other parts of the same canvas. There may be an aspect of “negative space” that is not part of the usual canvas or horizontal push and pull of thought.

    We can call it “proprioception” or “the whole” or “silence” or “beyond thought”, but all of these splash another metaphoric/symbolic mark back on the canvas of thought.

    Wheras the “ritual” you’re referring to here is an actuality, not a symbolic representation, not a rote strategic maneuver. This ritual is a physical knowing, which takes place in a negative space that is not mere metaphor. It seems we might not know the difference between metaphor and actuality until we “immerse in the thing”, in the “fact”. And this is proprioception.

    Without proprioception everything just seems like semantics. When semantics is negated, we immerse in the thing. Proprioception is how we move through a negative space?

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    1. This is getting somewhere!

      But before going on I do want to clarify what negative space is within a painting. It’s a bit of a long story….

      First, a painting is a visual field. This was at the heart of the Moment of Cubism John Berger wrote about and I riffed off of in a series of earlier posts, beginning with this one: https://horizonsofsignificance.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/on-bergers-the-moment-of-cubism/

      Cezanne discovered that any mark we make on this field acts as if it is distorting a membrane. Pushing in at one place pushes the adjacent area forward, and vice versa. This is done by hanging marks/brush strokes in space and also by juxtaposing warm and cool colors. In this way the field/membrane is energized. It also means that there are no isolated portions of the surface of a painting. Every part is related to every other part. Every action affects the whole. This is how the visual field of a canvas can come to life.

      This is also how painting keeps us attentive to the fact that everything is in everything. That everything exists in relation to everything else. This is the context for negative space. In our interactions with our perceptions of our visual world we do not just see objects in an invisible space. This is an abstraction supplied by the mind. The visual equivalent of Ego separation. In our perception we would not see objects at all if not for their relation with the space around them. Our perceptual field is immersed in this whole, a gestalt.

      In this way it’s not accurate to say that negative space is “merely an empty part of a canvas that calls heightened attention to colors and shapes in other parts of the same canvas.” Negative space is a discipline, a form of proprioception of how perception works. – This insight is at the heart of Phenomenology and all that came after it.

      This doesn’t “negate” what you’ve written. If anything it makes it stronger! By removing a redundant step. Negative space is a form of proprioception already! And then what you said after that goes on from there!

      As I’d hoped, this dialogue is bearing fruit. From my perspective I wouldn’t have come to the realization that negative space is proprioception without what you wrote. Then beyond that we have all that you’ve built upon this!

      Looking forward to how this resonates with you!

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  2. OK, I think I have a clearer picture of what “negative space” means in the context of painting. And I think I see strong correlations between that and “negative geography” in the context of consciousness.

    The interesting thing is that ego consciousness (both in the context of painting and in the context of learning about itself) misses the mark on this kind of “negative.” If I’m hearing you correctly, in a painting willfulness tends to leave its fingerprints all over negative space. Ego can’t fathom — can’t enter — negative space.

    Likewise, most everyday consciousness exhibited in society has no humility, no sense of the limits of thought, no sense of any realm in which thought is negated. So ego is constantly leaving its dirty fingerprints all over metaphors (conclusions in Berger’s terms?) that should merely represent doorways into a negative geography. Starting points of a new kind of intelligence.

    For instance, words like God, silence, “beyond thought”, Negative space or geography, nowhere, meditation, wholeness, emptiness, void, and on and on. These terms are all forms of negative space. To ego-driven they are just concepts, semantic distinctions, intellectual coins that they can be knowingly exchanged in intellectual conversation, wagered in arguments. To ego-driven thought these words don’t seem particularly “useful.” They are abstract and intellectual, having no relevance to daily life.

    But to a mind that is proprioceptive, these words represent a kind of “event horizon” — a point beyond which thought is negated, dissolved. The significance of these words, is, therefore, from this perpsective, earth-shattering. They are like the signifiers of a kind of psychic black hole. Thought is destroyed trying to touch them. A new way of understanding is born at that horizon.

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  3. Not destroyed, wrong word. In a way it’s destroyed, but only in trying to touch it. It’s available in the positing, rational context, but unavailable any more in that negative space.

    By they way I used to try to speak of this inability of thought to touch this whole negative “hemisphere” as aphasia. And I forgot that you wrote an essay called “aphasia.” I need to check that out again.

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  4. OK, I was using the term from Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The word refers to a linguistic incapacity. I think what I really want to use is “hemispheric neglect” from the Sacks book. And this hemisphere connects well to geography. I’ll try to bring this out in the next blog posting, not yet started, but stewing.

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  5. Also (and I’ll stop and wait after this), I don’t mean to make such a strong divide between negative space (painting) and negative geography (learning about itself). Obviously, I’m seeing now that painting is deeply immersed in this same process of learning. There really isn’t much difference.

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    1. Jeff,

      It’s been great to have you thinking out loud here.

      The tide goes in, the tide goes out. We need to push things apart to find distinctions. Then we need to pull them back together to keep from being reductive.

      They are the same process. But before this series of investigations that wasn’t visible in the same way it is now.

      Thank you.

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