to hell with solemnity and proper art

Artwork by Michael Leunig

 

In his scrumptious essay Regressive Painting and the Holy Fool, Michael Leunig  – Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet – speaks about the way our brilliant ideas often act to sabotage true creativity, leading us into frustration and disillusionment. But all is not lost, he suggests, for our temper tantrums can be the portal to the domain of the holy fool, and that’s the source of our authentic creative expression. The following is a short extract from the essay, which I posted recently at the awakened eye blog.  

It could go something like this: the painter might begin a piece of work with high hopes and set forth with an interesting or brilliant idea in mind, but all too soon the painting begins to fail, the idea collapses and ambition starts to sour.  The transcription from the intellect to the canvas is looking lifeless and artless, and the painter is starting to feel despondent.  It’s not working!  How often it is that the mind and the hand have lost touch with each other.

The painter redoubles all efforts but this only makes things worse and regression is happening as dismay and disillusionment set in.  Soon enough the painting is in a miserable mess and everything is in disarray. It looks awful and the painter is emotionally heavy with self-doubt and disappointment.  The worst has happened, the situation is lost and the painter’s ego is peeling away.

Little is it understood but at last the painter is breaking free, albeit a free fall – into a disturbing state of not knowing.  The regression deepens, reason has fled while tantalizing and delinquent infantile impulses are felt: the petulant desire to destroy the painting and get rid of the evidence; the painful reminder of inability and failure.

At this point one of the noble truths of creativity may begin to emerge: ‘disillusionment precedes inspiration and growth’.  So instead of abandoning the failure as many would, the artist recognizes an opportunity to be free and play about casually or recklessly in the ruins; to experiment and throw all cautious technique, all self criticism and high standards to the wind because now there is nothing to lose and nobody is watching.  Before long the painter has forgotten the failure and becomes absorbed in the anarchy of spontaneous gestures and spirited whimsical play.  The holy fool and originality are at hand. The artist is painting unselfconsciously and with happy abandon – and somewhat like a child.

To hell with solemnity and proper art; the joy of discovery is all that matters now; the unprecedented textures, the way the colours have by chance smeared into each other: beautiful startling subtleties and unimagined miracles small and large to delight or shock the eye.  And so it proceeds until the painter is staring in fascination at this revelation that the hands and impulses have created in a state of regression; a state that could not have been planned or organized – but simply happened when ego and ambition had sufficiently crumbled.

– Michael Leunig, Regressive Painting and the Holy Fool


I realise that many readers of this blog also subscribe to the awakened eye (nods and waves to you) and have probably read Michael’s essay.  But for those of you who haven’t, do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in his writing about creativity, authenticity, playfulness, wonderment, beauty, the holy fool, plus a selection of his whimsical artworks. Here’s the link:

on losing the plot and regaining the world of the holy fool

A couple more quotes – I can’t help myself, these are so cool…

The artist needs to know how to lose the plot
– how to not care and how to not know –
and how to actually enjoy that freedom
and understand what a blessed revitalizing state all of that mess can be.

The most joyous painting is not done for the art world, it is done for the inner world; it is a self delighting other-worldly thing – a getting lost in regression and solitude; a sub-literate, semi-delirious way to be with the spirited little fool in the depths of one’s being for a while – there to invent one’s art freely, and there to find enchantment, infinite surprise and the bright wondrous question ‘What is this?’

http://www.leunig.com.au

Michael Leunig Appreciation Page on Facebook


A Leunig post from the archives, 2010

artist, leave the world of art!


Michael Leunig, Holy Fool - Artworks

Holy Fool, Artworks, by Michael Leunig


 

every maker knows the feel of love

 

Every maker knows the feel of Love.

 

It’s the upsurge of

JOY

in your heart
when your gaze falls upon
your makings,
the makings born of an innocent mind

{ BEGINNER’S MIND }

and finds them pleasing.
And you wonder where they came from,
how they happened;
you listen closely as they whisper their story,
the story you had no intention
of telling – indeed, you never knew
until now, until your hands
tentatively, tenderly birthed its expression

IN THE DARK

 

And if your makings have no toe-hold
in the art market…?
Perhaps it’s all the better.
Then you know you’re on your true way,
(not merely a clone, a follower of fashion)
immune to the bleating of the corralled sheep
who claim to know what “real art” should look like.

You stand in your authenticity,
honesty,
impeccability.

You find you don’t mind
that your makings hold no commercial value,
have no relevance to the commodified art scene.

 

You know only one thing matters:
your devotion to

LOVE

You smile at your makings; you nod
knowing that regardless of the titles you gave them
their true name is Love
and they are part of a series that has no end.

 

Every maker knows the feel of Love.

 


Miriam Louisa Simons, Refuge Robe

 Refuge Robe, acrylics, pastels, metallic pigments, loose textured canvas, steel gauze
Private Collection. An offering made for dear friends who gave me shelter during troubled times.


The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
Carl Jung


I play with color: I love the subtle way it moves and the mystery of its interactions. I love tonal gradations.

I play with texture: I love the way texture reveals light, creates form.

Since color and texture are the agencies of light, I guess that means I play with light: I am a lover of LIGHT.

What is the feel of your Love? What do you love to play with?


 

salmon-mind and stream-ing

 

Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.

Ohara Koson: Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e

Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”.  I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises.  Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.

Can creativity be taught?  Can “awakening” ever be an experience?  These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.

My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.

I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage

It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative.  One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past.  I know where I’m going; it’s easy.  It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while.  I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway.  It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you.  You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it.  And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.

I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg

Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown.  It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar.  Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product.  It has no pedagogy or curriculum.  There are no maps of the territory.  The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

~

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso

So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist.  If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.

Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream.  And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream.  Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books.  There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.

Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields

If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow.  Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.

Adopt salmon-mind.  Make your way upstream.  You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.

Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn

How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs.  We’ll sink.  The Source will reclaim its own.

Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible!  It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there.  It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)

Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.

Until salmon-mind set it free.

I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.

~

Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.

~

Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll

 


* My series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.


Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910


From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson


Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world

Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.


 

eaves-dropping on nature

 
Beginner’s Mind: some personal observations on the art of observing, from naturalist Thomas Eisner.
 

"eaves-dropping" on nature - Thomas Eisner

 

How is it, I am often asked, that I make discoveries? I always feel a bit awkward about answering the question, because I do not have a particular method. The truth is that I spend a fair amount of time looking around. I already knew as a boy that if I wanted to see things happen – if I wanted to win the revelatory lottery of nature – I had to buy a lot of tickets. So it was in my youth that I formed the habit of taking exploratory walks, whenever possible and as often as possible, for the sole purpose of “eaves-dropping” on nature. Naturalists thrive on such walks, driven by curiosity and the hope of witnessing chance events. Taken at face value, such events may not amount to much. But they may “connect” to what you already know, to previous observations stored away in your memory, and thus take on added meaning. There has to be a constant readiness to make such connections. Every tidbit of new information, no matter how trivial, has the potential of amounting to more than a speck of colour. Properly assigned to the pointillist canvas that constitutes your inner view of the natural world, the new speck adds dimension to the vision.

… I have been extremely lucky in having nature reveal itself on occasion through chance events in my presence. I can remember as if it were yesterday witnessing for the first time Utetheisa being cut from a spider web, or Chrysopa dressing itself as an aphid, or Ammophila carrying a “flower,” and I yearn for future occasions when I may again be granted unexpected glimpses into the workings of nature. One of the great joys of returning to your natural haunts time and again, is that you have the opportunity of grasping the broader image. Observations tend then to become cumulative, to be evocative and revelatory in ways that are not possible until you begin to feel at home in the area. For the naturalist, in fact, feeling at home means having achieved a biological appreciation of a region.

– Thomas Eisner
For the Love of Insects


and then along came Lu

 

Miriam Louisa Simons: detail from scroll - Lu

Lu,  220 x 220 

Detail from scroll  (980 x 355)
torn khadi papers, stainless steel gauze, acrylic paints
lurex threads, textured canvas, ceramic tile fragment

 

I dug out my Zen and Taoist texts, poked around online encyclopedialand, and found that Mu and Ku are Japanese words with – to the uninitiated – apparently similar meaning.

Mu: lit. nothing.  Space, emptiness, clearness, transparency.

Ku: lit. sky, space, mouth.  Three-dimensional void, sunyata, emptiness.

Wu is a Chinese Taoist word.  Lit. not have, without.  Commonly used to indicate not-being, creative quietude, letting-be.  Not too far out of step with Mu and Ku, it seems to me.

Then I looked up Lu.  Unsurprisingly it’s a shortening of Louisa, and guess what?  It means famous warrior and light.  I don’t know about the warrior bit, but I love the light.

And I love the way my work teaches me all I need to know.


a kakemono called ku