Photo: Robert Toenes
(1) Peter Shelton, "bigfootbottle", 87 x 28 x 25", 1992. Courtesy L.A. Louver Gallery.
(2) Terri Friedman, "Sunny Side Down", plastic tubing/wire/beads/water/glitter, 20 x 48 x 360", 1995. Courtesy the Newport Marbor Art Museum.
A friend recently asked me, why should art be concerned with the spiritual? And what exactly did I mean when I described certain pieces as being concerned with spirit? To my own amazement I found it difficult to answer those questions. I guess because my interest in art has always been stimulated by an investigation of philosophy or explorations of concepts like the Sublime, Harmony, or the Void. I have always just assumed an automatic connection between art and spirit--art as a bridge to the realm of the mysterious. Something beyond words, meaning or description. Formalism interested me because of its purism or essential purity. It was Joseph Beuy's exploration of the concept of ''warmth" that drew me to consider art's process as operating on more than one level of meaning.
It was an approach I saw as alluringly investigated yet somehow looking slightly moribund or dated in the abstraction of LACMA's Spiritual in Art show back in 1985. But my dissatisfaction with abstraction aside, the show still made me feel connected--to the art of the 40's, when there were so many artists mining mythology, and Jungian ideas of the unconscious were fresh (the decade is sometimes referred to as the '"mythic forties''); and to the tantric diagrams, mandalas, alchemy and Zen that played a major role in the art making of the 60's and 70's. Each of these metaphysical systems investigate life, not just it's functions, but the ongoing, permeating force of Anima. Artists, not just philosophers and theologians, look for meaning in that force. Art as a process concerned with creating meaning seems to me an obvious tool for the investigation. My friend's question made me wonder if I was increasingly alone in that belief, or if something in contemporary existence had made that search less apparent or necessary to society.
As I started to write this article four announcements for concurrent shows around the Southland hit my desk, each dealing with spirit. That struck me as interesting. Each exhibition title directly links art to a poetic, inner world or an elusive, metaphysical reality: Body, Mind and Spirit, Michael Aschenbrenner: Bones, Rags and Soul, Spirit, or the essentially related Muses. Like me each show assumes a commonly understood, deep bond between art and the spiritual.
But what is clear from the art in the exhibitions is that the references to spirit the artists are making reflect a subtle shift of perspective in art's engagement with the mysterious. Abstraction as a pursuit of deep meaning, or an expression of something vast and limitless seems to have gone the way of all flesh. Connections to metaphysical systems, Eastern philosophy or anthropological signs are almost completely absent. Spiritual systems have been internalized (an apt pun), and the spiritual, it seems, is being sought through the aperture of the body, and bodily metaphors.
Betty Ann Brown, curator of the Muses exhibit, wrote in her catalogue essay that the very word INSPIRE is from the Latin for breathe, meaning to be inhaled or to impel creative effort, or motivated by divine influence. SPIRIT derives from the same word. Modern abstract art was, on a very basic level, an attempt to find deeper and more expanded levels of direct meaning through art as a non-objective communication. An effort to try to achieve what art writer Arthur Jerome Eddy, in the early part of the century, called "the attainment of a higher stage in pure art. . .Pure art speaks from soul to soul, it is not dependent upon one use of objective and imitative forms. . ."
Art however is not philosophy or theology, and the artistic dialogue since postmodernism has become more comfortable dealing in issues of aesthetic or social value than abstraction. Spiritual systems are suspect. Partly that's because many of the occult theories artists delved into in the early part of this century were shown to have fueled politically oppressive systems like fascism by being coopted into supporting notions of Aryan supremacy or nationalistic karma. Further, spirituality is the realm of religion not science--the newest gateway to the mysterious. Sigmund Freud's study of the unconscious effectively broke into the time honored shrine of the unknown creative source, taking it out of the realm of the cosmic or divine, and into the arena of personal and relative mind.
In the current climate artists are no longer valued as visionaries or shamans but only as cultural workers. Psychological and scientific models tend to demand control and tangible results of things unseen or mysterious in order to acknowledge their existence. Along with economics these structures have shaped the contemporary world of the late 1990's. We live in a secular world of rampant materialism and technologies in many ways hostile to human feelings of interconnection, inner necessity and deep purpose. Some art, in order to be re-enfranchised in social meaning in such a world, tries to play to a mass audience. It's a tightrope though, because that audience values scientific models of cause and effect or products of demonstrative merit. When so much of the current critical dialogue of art making mirrors this paradigm, something intangible about humanity seems overlooked.
Even where spirituality is critically recognized, however, it gets a decidedly 90's spin. Suzi Gablik has taken the admitted spiritual motivation of many contemporary artists and forced it through the stricture of the ecological crisis. Her argument is becoming increasingly militant, evolving into a kind of ecological activism where the art's connection to the anima mundi, or animating soul of the planet, attains the troubling proportion of a moral imperative. Much politically active art seems similarly imperative in its direction, but the spirit of art it connects with is less a vast unknown force than the force of social or historical injustice. The result is an art world that feels increasingly inanimate and devoid of poetry.
In the midst of a culture that expects artists to model problem solving on all fronts I search for art that feels alive or suggests Anima. And though it may be mere coincidence, I wonder if the number of spiritually linked exhibits at this moment doesn't mean something. Perhaps a general dissatisfaction with over intellectualized theory, or maybe just a desire to see art that reminds us about the inexpressible. Humans have a demonstrated capacity to feel awe, and art that reminds us of that need connects us to that capacity, as well as the concept of the numinous.
Much of the work with spiritual connection in the current shows relates to the body. Significantly I think, many of the bodily metaphors also relate to basic matter, stuff like air (breath) and water (pulse/tide). It's not an approach found only in these particular shows either. It was also present in Terri Friedman's glitter and bubbling water mandala at the recent Machines exhibit at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Her plastic bucket and clear tubing piece humorously mimed the magic of the circulatory system while wittily humanizing the plastic and machine age.
Peter Shelton's seeping tubing of his thingsgetwet series, shown last year at LACMA, showed with great sensitivity art as the living, creative force. Water in copper buckets and tubing bathed all manner of fragments of human endeavor or presence in a steady, capillary stream. It flowed in unfixed and fluid contrast over every bronzed, very immobile, thing. His other sculptural pieces in the Body, Mind and Spirit show at the Ruth Chandler-Williamson Gallery at Claremont's Scripps College suggested hollow, air-filled interior organs or living-skin containers.
It is the sense of animation, or art expressing the mysterious life force of the body, that infused Michael Aschenbrenner's splinted glass bones with the fragility of life at Pepperdine. It is the sense of perpetual yet incredibly slow motion that make's Connie Zehr's absolutely still, yet pointedly temporary installation, A Woods in the Clearing, so clearly an artwork about the gentle enigma of life's momentum and the finality of death in the Body, Mind and Spirit exhibit.
Life's animation is a force that ends, and delicate wax navel bowls and small balls of string bring home the intangible sense of entropy mired in Enaj Lee and M. A. Greenstein's collaborative question, "What would you like to have happen to your body after you haved died?" in the Muses show at the Armory in Pasadena. And finally, the unexplainable animating magic of inspiration takes a playful turn in the same show with Sant Khalsa's plain water taps that emerge from the gallery walls labeled with names that encourage using art's site as a place to literally imbibe pure clear, tasteless fluids as life sustaining and intangible as "passion" and "inspiration."
This is art using the human body as a threshold to the intangible or to ongoing, living cycles that inspire awe. In itself the micro/macro aspect of the exploration forms its own structure for the metaphoric reunion of human beings divided by Western philosophy and science into disparate parts of body, mind and spirit. Perhaps in this light art's spiritual subtext in this time of secular separation might more rightly be identified as a search for the human Soul.