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Some Thoughts on Visual Art as a Process

By E. Thor Carlson


I like to tell stories with images, some based on truth, some fictitious. I play cache-cache, a process of hide and seek, to delight the viewer with visual surprises, as well as to instruct. My pictures, drawings and other works are unrealistic representations with a quality that is almost hallucinatory. I treat the landscape, architecture or figure schematically, devoid of atmosphere in real time, seemingly impelled by some hidden source. I do not arrive at this effect casually. I use conventional images in an unorthodox way to achieve effects of unreality so that a sense of urgency is conveyed to the view - this is not slavish illustration - for I disassemble and rearrange the elements of my story in a sophisticated technique that chooses visual ideas which will most enhance my representation.

Characteristic of our century, originality is often expressed as freakishness and constant change is thought to express originality. I have "leapt from one unique style to another", often changing from one media, such as painting, to tapestry weaving or sculpture, in order to tell stories that cannot be analyzed or explained logically. What matters to me is the subconscious message, for I believe that, if a work of art needs to be explained, then it probably is not a work of importance, and what I prefer to do is to Tapestry Flowers by E. Thor Carlsoninfuse new life into very old symbols to bring to the future ideas that are relevant to it without sacrificing the past. I often use themes from legend or scripture as a spring-board for the transfer of archetypal information which is essentially non-logical and appeals to the feelings and intuitions. Sometimes I simply report what I see.

There are two realities. The first is Physical material reality, which is perceived by the body. The second is the Immaterial or psychic reality, which is perceived in the mind only. We have then, Concrete reality and Immaterial reality. A work of art can give one the appearance of the other. It is able to associate them and blend them.

Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime, said, in an interview, "A work of art can prove nothing in fact, but it touches the soul profoundly".

We respond to this profundity when it is genuine in any artistic performance; visual, oral, physical or tactile. It also includes Architecture and both Prose and Poetry, in their written form. What follows is my perception of the visual art process in drawing, painting, sculpture and fiber, which I know best through my own experience.

I preface this with a thought or two from Thomas F. Mathews, art historian, in his book "Clash of the Gods". This is a story of the displacement of the ancient Greek and Roman pantheon with the impact of Christianity and, in particular, images of Christ.

He writes about portraiture. Images of Socrates, Plato and other philosophers were done while these men were still alive or just recently dead, and were described by those who knew them and are probably accurate images. He then remarks that there is no contemporary description of Jesus. Images of him are pure Tapestry Head by E. Thor Carlsonprojections in the psychological sense. That is, inventions corresponding to what people need or want from him. The enormous variety of images of him are the immediate consequence of this. But, once "imaged", Jesus becomes what people picture him to be.

Images are dangerous. Images are not neutral; they are not just stories put into pictures. Images, no matter how discreetly chosen, come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories, no matter how limited their use. Often images overwhelm the ideas that they are supposed to be carrying or dress up, with respectability, ideas that in themselves are too shoddy to carry intellectual weight. Images not only express convictions, they alter feelings and end up justifying these convictions. Eventually, they, of course, invite worship. One cannot write history without dealing with the history of images, and of no epoch is this truer than the fourth and fifth centuries (and it also can be said of our current era, with the plethora of visual images justifying the most puerile and frivolous ideas, in a manner that justifies them as a way of life). The Torah and the Koran forbid images of God.

Visual art, however, is abstract. In actual fact, the brain stores our visual impressions in abstract impulses, often in different parts of the cerebellum. (Even in brain damage, we may not lose total visual memory). We quite literally see with the brain, not the eyes. Image making is a right-brained activity and the artist often induces the "Alpha State" when doing this art. Time slips away along with other activities such as hearing or eating. Often if the process is interrupted, it is very difficult to recover the feeling which produced these images.

One should remember then, that in a drawing or painting as examples, we reduce the three dimensional world that we perceive as reality onto a two-dimensional plane on paper or canvas.Bug Weaving by E. Thor Carlson This is true of total optical realism as well as the most stringent abstract image. Some contemporary physicists even suggest that this total optical reality may be an illusion and that the abstract image may be closer to the correct one.

Over the centuries, many cultures have developed interesting conventions to depict the two realities. Much of it abstracted into simple images of the natural or supernatural world. Importance was indicated by size. The king was bigger than his subjects. (Young children still do this; the dominant adult is drawn bigger than the lesser folk). These abstract images indicate to the viewer how one should feel towards them and are psychic realities rather than objective observation.

For about four thousand years, the Egyptians used a system of stylized image-making to depict the human figure. The head was shown in profile with the eye delineated as viewed from the front. The shoulders, too, were frontal but the arm and hands were often seen in profile. The feet were turned in profile to best show the foot. (Try drawing a foot from the front view and understanding will dawn). Their sculpture did not do this. It showed the figure as it is, in the round, but very stiffly erect staring straight ahead without any turning to left or right, whether sitting or standing. The queen was often much smaller, only as high as the calf of the Pharaoh's leg, indicating her lesser position.

The Greeks started with this method of depicting the figure, both in painting and in sculpture, but they soon began to give the figure a feeling of movement and action. The Greek's styles were first archaic (as the Egyptians) then became more realistic but still simple, in carving or painting. During the golden age of Pericles, usually referred to as Classic, much more realism was evident, full of fluttering fabric and pose, but the style was still restrained and refined. Finally, during Alexander's time, images of humans became full of overblown operatic movement, with much unrestrained emotion yet done with great technical skill. (The Greek word for art, "Technos" actually means "skill"). Most styles of Western art followed this pattern of development: first, archaic, then accomplished, followed by classic and finally decadent/romantic. With each new style (including modern art), we observe this pattern repeating itself.

In oriental art, in Japan, China and India, distance was suggested by placing things higher in the picture plane (the rectangle enclosing the design). Most of their sculpture, though handled realistically, was of dragons or other mythical animals, spirits or gods that exist in the mind of the believer. Often the tree, the mountain, water and the tiny human figure were included in a landscape design. Many ritual designs, such as the mandala, have a circular center divided into four parts and surrounded or Embroidery Cross by E. Thor Carlsonenclosed by a series of linear squares. They were used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual and depicted psychological reality. They are considered to have healing power or to connect with or evoke spiritual power. These are often destroyed after completion to prevent contamination or to send the “good karma” into the world. The Native Americans have a similar ritual when doing sand paintings and ritual dances all for healing purposes, which are destroyed at the finish of the ceremony.

In the medieval world, many conventions suggested psychic reality. Gold leaf backgrounds indicated that the event was taking place out of earthly reality in another world of heavenly space. Holy or saintly folk (in many cultures) were indicated by the use of a halo, often golden. In Christian art, a circular halo indicated New Testament characters and a square or triangular one for Old Testament folk. Mary and Jesus were often totally enclosed in an almond shaped (mandorla) halo, radiating golden rays of light. Very specific colors were used for various objects and clothing to indicate identity to an illiterate public in order that they would know who was whom in each work of art.

Perspective, though used by the Romans, was forgotten and was rediscovered in the late Gothic age again and re-entered works of Western art. Developed by Giotto in Italy in the early Renaissance, it has come to dominate western art for centuries. It was not until the advent of Japanese prints and African masks into Europe in the late 1800s, that abstract images began again to be a style generating phenomena for professional artists. Folk art retained the older non-perspective ways much longer. Some, even now, are the dominant images of many cultures. In the 1800s, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement, both in Europe and in America, revived much of the medieval and folk tradition. The impressionists were interested in light and often abandoned the classical approaches that were still taught in the official schools. They were not interested in total optical observation, however, and stressed the momentary effects of light. The invention of the camera put portrait painting out of business for most artists and has had a lot of influence in the present pre-occupation with realism. Much contemporary work is based on slavish translations of camera images into digital images and onto canvas for a few additional daubs by the artist, and has even been utilized in polychrome works of sculpture. This literalism is appealing to a certain mind-set and in my estimation amounts to "busy work." (It is clever, but is it art?). In addition, it only approximates a reality caught in a single moment of time. In a certain sense, it lacks "soul". It does not speak in archetypal images. Interestingly, many so-called primitive peoples depict images of animals and humans in their totality; both their insides and their outside, in a single image. Examples being Australian aboriginal art or the art of the Native Americans, especially those who lived on the northwest coast.

Children do not understand perspective and, at first, depict objects as they know them to be when they draw or paint. A chair has four legs of the same length. It sets on the floor which is the bottom of the paper. The sun is in the sky at the top of the paper. We can trace the evolution of man's visual imagery through childSmall Tapestry art. Their spontaneous art production follows the history of image-making since earliest times. This image-making often stops and is abandoned with the advent of puberty and the "I can't draw" syndrome. At this time, starting about age twelve, total optical depiction of ideas seems to them the only way to produce images, which they cannot do easily, so art is abandoned. Often these same young people can be lead back to art production through other media such as the fiber arts or ceramics, for self-expression, which then stimulates image-making again.

The many that do continue without faltering are perhaps able to hold onto childhood longer. Often, mature artists are quite child-like, especially in their delight at image-making. Intuition is such an important ingredient in art that many artists cannot explain how they produce their work or what it means.

Having observed all these facts, the abstract image, then, is just as legitimate a form of expression as is a realistic image. Working in the abstract forces attention to color choices, shapes, lines and proportions (that can be harmonious or not), to create moods, feelings and sensations that are not scientific fact-finding or, perhaps, to depict far-out theory in physics that is not yet provable. Brushwork or other surface techniques can express movement or texture. Surfaces do not have to be on a single flat plane but can move in other directions. This is especially true of mosaic work where light can be reflected in new ways by moving the light source as the image is viewed or setting the small tessere (tiles) at different angles to the viewer.

Art and image-making is a process of self-discovery for both the artist and the viewer. It leads one to new concepts of reality or spirituality. It is a journey. It is a vital and often overlooked part of our social fabric, particularly here in America. It can express, in images, what written words cannot. It can have social impact and immediacy. The viewer is as much a participant as the artist. It is a partnership, an adventure. It defines our community, our culture, and our world. It can celebrate the past, the present, or the future. (Some physicists believe these three co-exist). It communicates in a language that is universally understood.

We say that art works are creative, often relying on intuition as opposed to scientific fact-finding. But, creativity is meaningless without discipline. Scientific discipline without creativity is equally meaningless. Art is all that survives most previous civilizations. Their technical and scientific achievements are usually lost and have to be rediscovered. The techniques that produced this surviving art also have to be rediscovered. We seem to have to rediscover the wheel over and over again.




Carl Jung, the late Swiss Psychologist, put forward the concept of "archetype", in that he felt that certain images occur over and over in many cultures, through many decades; that these have a meaning that is understood intuitively rather than through rational deduction. Dreams and works of art contain hundreds of such symbolic thought forms. A sign points a direction, an archetypal symbol stands for something else and is a metaphor. Much of what I understand of my own "visual dream" artworks is the result of reading the collected works of this wunderkind. I discovered him in the late 50's and corresponded with one of his associates, Dr. Jolanda Jacobi, for many months. I began to understand what an artist is really doing.


E. Thor Carlson, Newport, New Hampshire, 2007


Tapestry Mosaic Cross by E. Thor Carlson


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