Sunday, April 5, 2015

On Painting, Gnosis, and Longing for God

Those brief, spontaneous moments, like a sort of blessed balancing act, in which every book one opens provides another key to the labyrinthine mansion of existence…. each new passage continuing a revelation sparked by the last, and all in perfect alignment and clarity with the most important questions of human Being that one is wrestling with right now….

First Thaw, 11" x 14," oil on board, 2015

“…Gnosticism is a kind of mysticism, as the best abstract art is .... (In gnosticism) the true source of existence is the divine; authentic existence seeks to return to its divine source. It is not clear that it can; gnosticism posits a Manichean conflict between the darkness of being-in-the-world and light, the sign of the absolute transcendence of God.... gnosticism is very contemporary, because of the perverse if unconscious feeling of the human as thrown into nothingness/darkness and, if it wants to sustain any sense of itself - any sense of a reason for being - having to reach for “gnosis,” that is insight into the light of God, while falling in the nothingness/darkness of the world….(certain paintings) articulate this gnostic predicament.”

“Gnosticism (and also ART as I see it and hope to practice and embody it in my work) is an attempt to achieve a knowledge which is not simply intellectual or theoretical, “but a knowledge which is at the same time a liberating and redeeming effect … given by revelation … redeeming knowledge which gathers together the object of knowledge (the divine nature), the means of knowledge (the redeeming gnosis), and the knower himself.”

“The urge to gnostic statement is the true inner necessity of authentic abstract art, implicit in it from the start.” (Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art)


“The first step in regaining our embodiment as mediators (artists) is to establish a clear, open connection with our larger, macrocosmic “body,” the earth itself.” (Reggie Ray, Touching Enlightenment)

Late Winter, 5.75" x 7.5" oil on paper. 2015

“Thus there is knowledge for the sake of knowledge, knowledge for the sake of serving one’s neighbor, and knowledge in order to better love God." (Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art)


Commenting on the images in (Sartre's) “Nausea,” Bachelard writes that “Roquentin’s sickness is in the very world of his material images.… Bachelard condemns realistic or intellectualistic explanations” (i.e., like the gnostics, in favor of a different, more holistic kind of knowing). (Introduction to On Poetic Imagination and Revery)


“Painting is an exploratory process. Your job is to investigate, explore, dig into, and the tracks of your process are evidence of clear seeing.” - Stuart Shils

Sun Showers #2, 10" x 8," oil on paper, 2015

The goal of painting is not to render what things look like. (Don't make paintings of things: Make paintings. Paintings are equivalents, new pieces of Nature.) Painting is about visual metaphors for the experience of noumenasymbols of a deeper experience of human being-in-the-world.

High Tide, Rye Beach, oil on canvas board, 2015

“Consider the etymology of the word ‘metaphor.’ Meta (beyond) and phora, meaning to carry: Carrying meaning beyond the literal, the tangible, beyond the grossly semantic, to the self-contained Ding an sich (thing-in-itself, knowable only intuitively) .... Metaphor is the generator, the power plant of music,  just as it is in poetry [or painting]. Aristotle places metaphor halfway between the unintelligible and the commonplace. It is Metaphor, he says, which most produces knowledge. The artist cannot help but agree, nor can the lover of art.” (Leonard Bernstein, Harvard Lectures)

Spring Garlands, 8" x 8," oil on canvas board, 2015

“It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him : then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays, Second Series, 1844)

Sun Showers #3, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 12" x 12," 2015

"It is in moments of Being when man has fount THAT beyond words and thought and has called it Brahman, Atman, Elohim, God, Nirvana, Tao, Allah, or OM which according to the Upanishads includes all names, and other sacred words. In a state of contemplation and union (as Saint Teresa  defines them in her “four ways of prayer”) the knower and the known are one. Ego-consciousness has disappeared: the painter of the tree has become the tree.” (Juam Mascaro, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Dhammapada)


“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” (Simone Weil)

Monadnock in Winter, 6" x 8" oil on paper, 2015

“But now, like a whispering in dark streets/rumors of God run through your dark blood.”

"Now pray
as I who came back from the same confusion 
learned to pray.

I returned to paint upon the altars
those old holy forms, 
but they shone differently,
fierce in their beauty.

So now my prayer is this:

You, my own deep soul,
trust me. I will not betray you.
My blood is alive with many voices
telling me I am made of longing.”

-Rilke, Book of Hours.


  1. Wonderful post Christopher! What is the source of this quote?

    The goal of painting is not to render what things look like. (Don't make paintings of things: Make paintings. Paintings are equivalents, new pieces of Nature.) Painting is about visual metaphors for the experience of noumena, symbols of a deeper experience of human being-in-the-world.”

    1. Noumena - (in the philosophy of Kant) a thing as it is in itself, not perceived or interpreted, incapable of being known, but only inferred from the nature of experience

  2. Hi Deborah! I guess I am the source for that quote - though it's a mashup of things I've gleaned from Stuart Shils, Eric Aho, and Heidegger - I think.

  3. I love the term equivalents, new pieces of Nature. I often say to my students "Nature is one thing, paintings are another. Our job is to make paintings." I also agree with your idea about visual metaphors. Again, great post and wonderful work too!

    1. Yes! Why try to remake what nature has made so well to begin with :-)

  4. This is certainly true of puppetry, too. Why build a puppet for a performance that an actor can perform better? On the other hand (so to speak), a puppet can defy the laws of gravity, does not need a supply of oxygen, can be abstract, or a visual metaphor. A puppet has no life outside of the artwork it serves in the moment of performance. An actor pretends (and beautifully, we hope), but a puppet IS. Thanks for this great post, Chris.

    1. Andrew, that's a really interesting analogy. Thanks for reading and checking in!

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