Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Here's a painting I made a few months ago of Angela that I like quite a lot.  It's a pretty accurate drawing, and I like how the light falls on her back, leaving her face and neck in shade.  I like the glazing on her neck, cheeks, breasts, and arms.  As I've noted before, Angela is a lovely young woman whom I first knew when she was a student at the University where I teach (never a student of mine, I must add, and this was ten years ago). 

I've been thinking more lately about Jung's notion of the anima and what it's like to be a man.  To reiterate, in Jung's conception, the anima is a feminine (or perhaps just "female") image in the male unconscious that takes the part or perhaps even "is" the soul.  The anima appears in various female guises, and my understanding is that the guise she adopts changes with one's psychic growth.  The first and most potent of these guises is the guise of the maiden - the intoxicatingly lovely young woman.

I have had a number of dreams that I can only describe as visits from my anima.  There's a young woman in them, and I am deeply and profoundly drawn to her - there is a feeling in these dreams that I can only describe as pure love and completion.  She is the missing part of me, and I am the missing part of her.  It doesn't matter - nor do I remember - exactly what happens in these dreams.  All that matters are her and me and that we have found one another.

As I've said in a previous post, one of my main reasons for painting is the foolish one of my quest after my anima, my soul.  What I really want to "capture" in my paintings is that lost part of me.  I find in painting that I do catch something, but the most poignant harvest for me is simply the knowledge that I will never catch her this way.  Sometimes I feel like I am catching glimpses: "there she is, that's her!"  And then the glimpse fades, and I am left shaking my head, resting in the restless mystery of my lostness and aloneness.  "No, that wasn't her - that wasn't her at all."

We silly, poor men can get lost in these quests.  The mistake we make is in ever thinking that our animae can ever be found out there in the world.  There really are beautiful women to look at, but they are just people, not that spiritual part of us that we long for.  We can look at the beautiful women, but our job is to take back that beauty and see it as part of ourselves that somehow we have projected out.  Let the woman be herself; let me be me.

In painting a lovely young woman like Angela, I come to see her for the person that she is, not the person I project onto her, which is exactly right.  Painting helps me to do this work; but I know that where it will leave me is where I need to be, in a state of holy longing.

It's hard being a man.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Asta Bañana

For years I didn't eat bananas.  Who could not eat bananas?

Their mushiness bugged me.  All mushy things are dangerous.  How easier it is to eat a crisp corn chip, whose boundaries are sharp and clear, than it is to eat a pool of mashed potatoes.  The mashed potatoes smear all over the plate, shattering the illusion of their separateness from your broccoli and your pork chop.  Mushy things are scary.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas says that dirt is a boundary phenomenon: "matter out of place," I think is how she puts it.  There is something in us humans that longs for clarity of boundary: this is me and that is not me.  This longing is rooted in our symbol systems.  Language gives us an "I" that we can carry on glibly believing is separate from everything else.  And then two possibilities occur when boundaries get annihilated, as in eating, lovemaking, or (dare I say it) painting: either ego-catastrophe or ecstasy.

I'm in favor of boundary-annihilation.  In fact, I think we have no choice ultimately but to accept it.  The ultimate rejection of boundary annihilation is anorexia: a symbol-illness bred by the terror of the mingling of the me and the not me.  Obsessive-compulsives are all screwed up about boundaries as well.

But we are not just our "I"s.  Our boundaries between "us" and the "outside world" are illusory.  I am a weird commingling of cells, microbial organisms, the food and air I take in, the ideas, symbols, and images that construct my understanding of the world.  I am really just an expression of this world and ultimately of this universe.

Painting the bananas put me in mind of my long-held banana-phobia.  Now I love bananas.  It was fun to capture their yellow and sculpt their brown spots.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More on Phenomenology

Here's a 20-minute sketch of Juanita I painted just last Wednesday at the Sebastopol Art Center.  I enjoyed painting this pinup-like pose.

There is a phenomenology of the body just as there is a phenomenology of autumn leaves.  This is one of the miracles of painting.  In our society, the body is, to put it mildly, overdetermined.  It is so heavily laden with meanings, with interpretations, with roles it enacts that it in itself is hardly there at all.  I submit that the body is such a mystery to us precisely on account of this fact.  When we see a body, we do not actually see the body: we see everything we project onto it.  Of course the "we" here is our culture; we ourselves do not generate these multiple meanings.  The result of this mis-seeing is that we are always looking for the real body underneath its many meanings.

Here is a statement of faith: in painting, it is possible to get past these overdeterminations and back to the body as it "really" is.  I recognize this statement for the mystical position that it is.  I can only cite as evidence my experience of painting bodies.  At the outset, I find myself variously reacting to the body I see before me.  Sometimes I am excited, sometimes I am bored, sometimes I am admiring, sometimes I am frightened or "turned off."  But as I paint, my inner landscape changes as I paint the outer landscape of her (or his) body.  My pencil and watercolors sculpt the form of the body, and as they do so they get interested in her.  They see things that my first eyes didn't see.  In noticing exactly how the left leg angles under the right, how the breasts fall back into her shoulders, how the shadows sculpt the form of her rib cage, my painting self sees her anew, and then sees her anew again.  

Invariably what's left ultimately is a respect for her (or his) own individual grace and beauty as it really is, beyond everything that my culturally tutored eyes are trained to see.

Juanita said that reclining poses are great, except you do run the risk of falling asleep.

Some More Still Life

These are some leaves I gathered in my yard about a month and a half ago, at a time in my life when work was just killing me.  To put it mildly, with my election to a major faculty governance position in my regular day job, I find myself INVOLVED.

Painting the leaves was a leap into faith: faith that there is more to life than the hurly-burly we live in during our workaday lives.  We humans are incredibly good at creating universes of signification.  Sometimes we go so far as to die for them (witness religious martyrdom, genocides, etc.).  But leaves just grow, change color, fall, and become mulch: not so bad a fate.

Painting is sort of phenomenological.  Phenomenology is that branch of philosophy (or is it psychology?) that tries to see human life in terms of these deeper realities.  It asks, "who are we when we strip away the net of significations and see ourselves as natural beings, as part of the landscape, as it were?"  The colorful leaves are in one sense infinitely more "real" than the campus wrangles that I have to tend to are.  And yet those campus wrangles are also equally as "real" as the leaves - meaning just part of the life that is on this planet.  It's hard to put this into words.

One point that phenomenology makes consistently is that human beings are first and foremost part of nature.  In fact, phenomenology doesn't really privilege humans over any other part of nature.  We are all one.  When I painted the leaves, I painted my brothers and sisters, I became them.  That's putting it a little grandly, but that is the point of phenomenology: helping us fracture the fiction of separateness.

I like the painting OK, too.  It was fun to try to capture those colors.