The Abstract Unconscious In Painting David Parker

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Eye of Faith, David ParkerThe Abstract Unconscious in PaintingDavid ParkerThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties1

“ it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world areeternally justified ” (Nietzsche. F. 1872)The Abstract Unconscious in PaintingI will begin by stating that, for me, what takes place in the studio, andsubsequent reflections on the activity and its outcomes, appears to be deeplyconnected to a vital personal need to engage in some form of highly altered stateof mind. Such a need is curiously demanding and inevitably complex in terms ofpotential meaning - being intensely bound up with formal visual issues andimaginative responses to the developing image.What is becoming clear, as my experience and conscious understandingdevelops, is that both process and product appear to be driven by inner (perhapsunconscious) needs - needs that are essentially manifested through highlyconcentrated perceptual fantasies. Such fantasies on face value seem to be, ineffect, what I will call “hermetic constructs” - having no clear symbolicconnection to the external world as such or, apparently, any shared culturalconnection beyond the obvious one of earlier experiments in modernistabstraction.In this sense the work appears to be, in practice, intensely introverted –perhaps even bordering on the autistic. That said, the imagery does seem to carrya level of aesthetic meaning and value, a value rooted somewhere other than anyassociations that might be made with shared, externally validated, sources ofrecognition. What then perhaps needs to be addressed from the outset, concernswhat such implied inner needs might be, as it seems that these needs drive theinitial intention to physically create an image and to act this out imaginativelythrough a highly specific process of change and development.The images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties2

The Contemporary PainterLet me begin by considering what I believe to be the greatest challenge to acontemporary painter living through an age of increased technology andindustrial mass-production. Never before has a painter had to navigate throughsuch a diversity and multiplicity of images as those currently available to aglobalised visual consciousness. Therefore, what strategies might a painter adoptin the attempt to provide an aesthetic space - one that points us somewhere otherthan that which is circumscribed by the familiar and instantly accessible? This isof course assuming that the initial intention is stimulated by a desire to findeffective ways of visualizing authentic expressions of the human condition.Either, such diverse imagery can be manipulated and reconfigured in order toreveal a potential meaning through deliberate quotation, parody or evenabsurdity (as much post modern art has demonstrated) or one can reject all suchreferences and turn to some form of inner imagery generated through free-formprocesses and chance occurrences.Artists have, of course, long used such processes in order to tap into andliberate imagination. In Art and Illusion (2002), art historian Ernst Gombrichdiscusses such processes at some length within his chapter “The Image in theClouds” referring to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the English landscapepainter Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) both of whom advocated the developmentof imaginative landscapes from inkblots, stained walls or uneven coloured stones(Gombrich 2002 pp. 154-169). Many such approaches were also heavilyemployed within both Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism in order to engageand stimulate creative imagination.The images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties3

For the contemporary painter, looking for a way to engage imagination inorder to reveal what might best be described as an inner landscape - one thatlargely avoids drawing on the use of pre-existing visual models - it is necessary toadopt a strategy that manages to successfully avoid simply repeating past,culturally absorbed, modernist forms of expression. Any such repetition wouldsimply weld the imaginative space of the work to a pre-existent historical point,thus negating any potential contemporary meaning. In effect, the potency of suchan image would be compromised by its literal connection to a given historical andcultural index. What then is needed is a method that engages imaginationthrough an active and open-ended process, one that adopts strategies andtechniques from the past but one that also attempts to push the development ofthe work formally and aesthetically into potentially vital forms and structures.Figure 1 Untitled, David ParkerThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties4

In my attempts to do this, keeping actively and imaginatively involved inthe space of the painting is crucial – avoiding any conscious desire to close downthe imagination too soon by tying the imagery to overtly obvious figurativeexpressions. In this respect, my paintings effectively grow from this pressingneed to try and find a way to re-imagine such an aesthetic space – one that doesnot overtly embrace references to culturally validated sources and yet is capableof carrying meaning and value at an unconscious level. Implicit in this approachis the assumption that psychological life is structured around two modes of being,one conscious and the other unconscious. As Freud has shown us, by definition,what is unconscious is not directly available to consciousness. However, bothFreudian and Jungian psychologies suggest that what we experience inconsciousness is inflected with and shaped by the unconscious and thataddressing the needs of unconscious life can be fundamental to aestheticappreciation.Starting from this premise, my painting is an attempt to imagine my waythrough the labyrinth of unconscious form production. Lines, marks, colours etc.begin life without meaning or context and these are slowly and painstakinglybrought into consciousness and formed into a structural matrix - one that aims toreveal and integrate unconscious complexes with highly structured consciousassimilations.On reflection, the paintings appear to contain both personal and transpersonal aspects. The imagery largely avoids direct reference to “things” and yetseems to be informed by subliminal experiences of said things. The compactedand fragmented space does not encourage the eye to settle in any one space or onany one form, rather, we are stimulated to move in, out and around the space in aThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties5

trance-like, hypnotic state, akin to daydreaming – a suspension of ego perhaps asthe dream image takes hold and draws us deeper into other worlds.I am interested in making paintings that have the potential to act asgateways to those aspects of psychological life that remain largely unrecognizedor suppressed from ordinary consciousness. In this respect, for me, they areimages of transcendence in the Jungian sense i.e. capable of raisingconsciousness by integrating this with the unconscious and its archetypalfoundations.Painting and PsychologyClearly, I am drawing into this analysis certain key concepts frompsychology in order to elucidate my understanding of the practice of painting andit would perhaps be helpful to the reader for me to make clear how I use theseborrowed ideas in this context. Before I do this, however, I wish to make it clearthat, for me, the actual practice of painting is not in itself structured aroundpsychological theories – I do not make paintings that simply illustrate Freudianor Jungian ideas or images. Such psychological ideas do of course provide aframework in which to explore meaning theoretically, but the activity andlanguage of painting will essentially always remain discreetly beyond anypotentially reductive interpretations and, for me, this is its strength.As an empirical and essentially plastic medium, painting follows its ownlaws - laws that provide imagination with a material basis in which to expresswhat is, in effect, a state of constant “being” and “becoming” for the active psyche.There is a clear parallel here to Jung’s active imagination – though this iscritically embedded in the materially based activity of painting. What psychologyprovides for painting is a reflective mirror, one in which we can study, at aThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties6

distance, the movements of imagination as it works on and through the practicein relation to both the individual and the collective psyche. In order to do this, itis necessary to try to unpack the usefulness and appropriateness of these keyconcepts in psychology in order to see how these might map onto a deepertheoretical understanding of the potential meaning and value of painting.Conscious and Unconscious in PaintingConscious and unconscious are concepts used in reflective thought inorder to understand what moves and conditions our inner lives. So, it would seemadvantageous to begin by exploring more specifically the meaning of theseconcepts and their relevance to an activity like painting.To my understanding, the terms conscious and unconscious refer toconditions or states of mind functioning within the psychic structure as a whole.This being so, if consciousness consists of the mental contents that a givensubject is able to grasp with a measure of reassurance regarding their temporalperceptual apparatus, i.e. place immediate experience in relation to availablemodels of reality, then the unconscious embraces all those mental contents thatremain slippery, uncertain, multifaceted, yet seem to be commanding, vital andfundamental to an experiencing psyche. Logically, we can deduce the existence ofunconscious modalities from our inability to provide a consistent, rationalaccount of all that affects us intellectually and emotionally; hence the need forsymbolization and, as Jung shows us, the symbolic points to the, as yet, unclearor unknown.In relation to painting both as process and product, what we think and feeland the intensity of aesthetic engagement, is proportional to the depth of itsunconscious content, and by implication, its imaginative texture - that whichThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties7

cannot be fixed in meaning and yet is capable of moving the viewerpsychologically away from the temporal (human) present and towards theuniversal (divine) or archetypal constant.Culturally, and in a different though related context, this state of being inthe world is discussed in the work of Mircea Eliade in his Myth of the EternalReturn (1954/1991) in which he discusses ideas on ancient man’s relationship tothe world as cyclical rather than linear in perspective. Such a view of the worldfollows a model based on repetitions of the same archetypal constants –constants that, at a cosmic level, take us out of human progressive time and into asupra-human or divine state of constant repetition. Eliade (1991, p. xiv) is carefulto explain that he uses the word archetype in a different way than Jung, but I’mnot so sure that there really is such a difference regarding the implicitpsychological meaning. Eliade states that by “archetype” he is referring to archaicman’s models for his behavior and institutions - that they are “ ‘revealed’ to himat the beginning of time, [that] consequently, they are regarded as having asuperhuman and ‘transcendental’ origin ” (Eliade, 1991, p xiv). Eliade states that“ [he] was not referring to the archetypes described by Professor C.G. Jung forProfessor Jung, the archetypes are structures of the collective unconscious.”(ibid). I am therefore suggesting that the meaning of archetype is perhaps at rootthe same even though Eliade stresses a different meaning.Contemporary perspectives of Jungian and post-Jungian psychology showthat a move towards the archetypal suggests a move towards the imaginal –towards the primacy of imagination and its images and away from linear,directed thinking as expressed in the prosaic language of discourse.The images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties8

Imagination and the ImaginalMy use of the word imaginal comes from reading post-Jungian psychologyand the work of the Islamic scholar Henry Corbin. As I understand it, there is aclear dissociation of the word “imagination” from mere unreal fancy or fantasyand any associated negative connotations. Roberts Avens (2003, p. 38) sitesCorbin (Corbin 1972, p9 cf.pp.7,15):Henry Corbin, arguing against the equation of “imaginary” with“unreal,” emphasizes that in the Islamic tradition, the world ofthe image, the mundus imaginalis, is a primordial phenomenon(Urphanomen) situated as an intermediary between the world ofthe senses and the intelligible world. The mode of being of thisworld constitutes its own “matter”; it “is” exactly in the way inwhich it appears. The comparison, regularly used by the Arabicauthors, is the mode in which images appear and subsist in amirror (Avens 2003, p. 38).Avens goes on to quote Corbin (1972, p9 cf.pp.7,15): “ The materialsubstance of the mirror is not the substance of the Image The substance (ofthe Image) is simply the ‘place of its appearance.’ ” Further, Avens points us tothe roots of Western Romanticism and Coleridge, in particular, for furthercomment on the primacy of imagination in the understanding of a truly “real”perceptual relationship to the world. He notes that “ creative imagination isessentially vital, which for Coleridge meant that it is a way of discovering a deepertruth about the world ” (Avens 2003 p. 18).The images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties9

Now, for the painter,each moment of the act ofpainting provides theimaginative “place” for theappearance of the image andthis place changes constantlyas the painting develops.Therefore, the materialsubstance of the painting andits subtle relationship to thepainter, unlike a mirror,contains the imaginativeFigure 2 David Parker in the studio.space. A painted image, as afree agent of potentialmeaning, is intimately connected to, and projected by, its specific materialproperties - being an extension of the painter’s psyche - and in this sense it is avery concrete manifestation of imagination. In this respect, it is likely that apainter occupies a space similar to that of the alchemist – a topic I have discussedin more depth elsewhere (Parker 2008). Imagination, then, is perhaps critical toall life affirming relationships with the world including, as Hillman shows us, allthe messy, painful and disturbing aspects (Hillman 1975/92, pp 55-112). In theact of creation – in this case painting - imagination moves through many varietiesof experience stimulated by the marks and colours and their organization. Attheir very best, such experiences promote deep psychological responses capableof raising consciousness by signaling, in Jungian terms, the archetypal core ofThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties10

being which, having an unconscious source, contains profound significance in itslong term impact on the subjective psyche.Abstraction in PaintingThis brings me back to the title of this paper and a key aspect of thisinquiry – the use and meaning of the term abstraction in relation to painting andthe unconscious. The term abstraction in the context of modern and postmodern painting (and using the word at its most basic level) simply denotes anypainted image that has either:(a) no representational elements contained within it as intended subjectmatter or(b) recognizable and intended representational imagery that has however,for formal and/or expressive reasons, been manipulated, distorted andexaggerated in order to better convey a particular psychological andemotional relationship to the act of painting and the human condition.It can be seen that neither of these simple descriptions are really sufficientto describe the full content and meaning of the generic term abstraction sofurther elaboration is necessary. An added complication is introduced by thetendency to bracket together the words representational and figurative withinmuch art criticism.Wilhelm Worringer in his pioneering and hugely influential workAbstraction and Empathy (1908) argues that representational art derives itsaesthetic from mans self confidence in relation to the objective world asperceived in nature – for example, as seen in Ancient Greek or Renaissance art.Conversely, abstract art (for Worringer typified by Egyptian, Primitive orModernist Expressionist art) signifies an inner insecurity in relation to theThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties11

natural world and a desire to seek spiritual sustenance and transcendent states ofbeing through the formalizing and configuring of another world - one of nonnaturalistic and absolute purity. In effect, his argument stands on theories ofpsychological security and insecurity in relation to an indifferent natural world –indifferent simply because what happens in the world beyond the human is, in itsindifference, deeply troubling unless mediated and mitigated by ritual acts ofaesthetic transformation as seen within both art and religion. As Nietzche showsus, “ it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world areeternally justified ” (Nietzsche1993, p. 32).Worringer’s thesis isthat abstraction refers to allart expressions that are nonnaturalistic – includinggeometric stylizations (e.g.Arabic) as well as figurativestylizations (e.g. Medieval,Byzantine). His generalthesis can also be applied toModernist experiments inpure abstraction as seenwithin the work of keypainters such as WassilyFigure 3 Things Not Seen, David ParkerKandinsky, Piet Mondrian,Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko. According to Worringer, what seems to befundamental to the urge towards abstraction in general, in this case in relation toThe images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws.Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties12

the plastic arts, is a desire – perhaps even a compulsive need – to access andhence find a measure of psychological security and wholeness via an inner imagerather than an outer image. Such an image does not have its roots in the directlyobserved natural world - Worringer writes, the urge to abstraction is the outcome of a great inner unrestinspired in man by the phenomena of the outside world; in areligious respect it corresponds to a strongly transcendentaltinge to all notions. We might describe this state as an immensespiritual dread of space (Worringer, 1997, pg. 15)Worringer suggests that rationalistic developments in consciousness –meaning in particular the Greco-Roman foundations of Western thought:“.pr

David Parker . The images in this paper are strictly for educational use and are protected by United States copyright laws. Unauthorized use will result in criminal and civil penalties 2 “ it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified ” (Nietzsche. F.

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