A New Consciousness (12/2006)
If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things. –Rene Descartes
We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are – that is the fact. –Jean-Paul Sartre
In his most famous affirmation, Descartes (1596-1650) said “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). This is to say that essence precedes existence and humans may doubt existence all they want, but one cannot doubt the thinking consciousness. In comparison, Existentialists reject this theory and assert that the ultimate reality is, according to Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), “being in the world.” In other words, existence precedes essence and humans are given a world to their consciousness. These profound realities both hold weight in their logic but are in exact opposition. Which is correct?
What if we neither deny conditioning factors nor confirm them, giving both essence and existence equal authority and place in reality. Descartes was correct in saying that one cannot will away one’s own consciousness, but the notions of Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl were also correct in noting that consciousness is always conscious of something. If one is to combine these theories, it is concluded that essence and existence must coexist simultaneously in order for any type of reality to play out; there must be interaction between the two in order for a reality to be created and verified. Therefore, the ultimate, most certain reality is not solely consciousness or solely “being”, but it is the product of their interaction.
An agnostic existentialist view prevails. One makes no claim to know, or not know, if there is a “greater picture” in play; rather, he simply recognizes that the greatest truth is that which he chooses to act upon. To know the “greater picture”, whether there is one or not, is impossible for the human mind—or if not impossible, that at least he has not found it yet. Existence is subjective. One can see that a somewhat Buddhist view begins to emerge the further this concept is delineated. A Buddhist view in terms of what is in our hands, and what is out of our realm of knowledge; addressing awareness, and mindfulness. However, a code of ethics, not a religion, is being pursued here, and that distinction should be made clear.
This is primarily important because this new consciousness, agnostic existentialism, is providing an insight into the theory through art, specifically, non-religious art. Yet, it is also that which deals with the sublime. Numerous accounts of contemporary art consciously and unconsciously address the idea of an agnostic-existentialist viewpoint, yet the terminology has barely been discussed and labels and definitions haven’t been provided in words. In order to best substantiate this theory, works addressing essence, consciousness within the world, and existence, are discussed in terms of works of art, the artists which produce them, and the thinking behind the paint. These pieces should come together from all direction to enlighten the viewer.
In Modern philosophy, it is considered that essence is “what-ness” distinct from existence or “that-ness”. In metaphysics, the term is often synonymous with the soul. Having an essence meant that human beings could be placed within a larger whole, a kosmos, that provided the standard for human flourishing. While pure existentialism will emphasize essence as nature, (because human nature does not exist and it is not the agent which determines their fate), the works of James Siena describe an agnostic-existential essence. This is an essence which acknowledges that it has a place within existence; it may not know its place, but is very aware that it has one. The essence is neither controlled by nor is completely free of conditioning factors such as a “greater picture”. As a result, these works are the product of the internal reflection and mindfulness, the ability for one to watch the movement of the ideas and emotions through one’s own consciousness, of the individual.
Siena displays consciousness, whether it be his own or a more general perception, through abstract paintings and lithographs. His networking of delicate intricacies appears random but is sustained with organized structure, contributing to the balance of gravity and buoyancy. Lines never cross, nor break the plane of the actual canvas, so that the subject matter is strictly bound within the edges and never venture into the world beyond its own entity. The unpainterly works manage to feed the viewer a fleshy brilliance and organic lattice of color and line. The densely applied color presents the viewer with a plethora of lushness. It is apparent that Siena directly addresses the internal interworkings of the mind.
Shifted Lattice (Fig. 1) is composed of interlocking red and yellow oxide lines which create triangles enclosing a cerulean blue and misty gray filling. Although the netted lines logically appear flat, they create an eerie space in which they overlay and simultaneously implant themselves in the filling. A hot red nucleus of sorts act as the joint for each segment; neurons with outstretching axons. The matrix which Siena creates indubitably alludes to the biology of the brain. However, they’re too organic and mysterious to just stop there.
Tanagra (Fig. 2) is a much warmer, cavernous, and seemingly morphing work. Siena creates a nebula of dandelion, sand, tomato and colored amoeba-like forms. The surface seems wet, as if it would create ripples like a stone tossed in water, if touched. The stark black contours advance and recede, playing tricks on one’s eye. Siena harmonizes a paradox of bold color and form under elusive conditions. This relationship is not unlike the circumstances of consciousness itself. Essence is very real and very present but resides within a realm of the unknown.
Awareness provides the material from which human consciousness develops subjective ideas about their experience. This is not to say that one necessarily has an understanding, but it does affirm the ability to be conscious of, feel and perceive. Awareness, that which creates reality, arises from the interaction between essence and existence. The works of Walter Niedermayr, Lisa Sanditz, and Esko Mannikko, portray humans within their environment. Although the interaction may be limited, such as the works of Mannikko where his figures are posing and motionless, the sense of wholeness is obtained from the unity between man and world. Actual human bodies are not even present in the works of Sanditz, yet the viewer is very aware of a life force because of the man made structures embedded in the atmosphere of her painting. Most importantly in their works, the locale and inhabitants have equal significance, endlessly complimenting one another with no impending intention of domination. They create a harmony, one unable to exist without both components.
Niedermayr explores this harmony by photographing mountains and showing them at a large scale and often as diptychs or quadriptychs. They’re vast portraits of nature not necessarily at its best, but simply as is. As explained in a review, “his images aren’t romantic landscapes that glorify untouched nature; they always include humans or at least traces of humanity.” The landscape is so enormous that the humans appear as specks on the canvas, yet without them, the landscape would have no significance or presence. The company of human life gives the terrain context. The enormity is partly attributed to the fact that “many of the photos were taken on overcast days so that sky and earth blend into a single field of white.” By doing this, Niedermayr is also joining the cosmos with earth and human life and promotes their accordance instead of their separation.
This accordance also arises from the use of the diptych. His photographs may be of the same exact setting, yet slightly shifted in direction or time. He then collages what is essentially a series of moments to create a whole. Shiga Kogen II (Fig. 3) is a diptych of skiers, snow and trees, and a ski lift where the air is misty and cool. These three elements are human, nature, and the creation of man in nature. The elements come together in a frozen moment where repetition rules supreme. The triangles of the trees, skiers’ legs, and poles of the lift all sing in unison. This moment in time is simple, but incredibly lucid and flowing.
Lisa Sanditz executes the same ability of uniting human existence and nature. Her use of dramatic color intensifies her landscape and awards a sublime quality to the sky. The gestural paint-handling constructs an organic world made of both abstract and realistic form. Embedded within her rolling mountains, stretching desserts, and swirling skies, lay traces of human life. In Tie-dye Sunset Strip (Fig. 4) a van is parked with its lights on, implying that life sits behind the wheel. The dark and heavy ground thrusts the luminous sky even further into the heavens. It is filled with luminosity and radiance, its vibrations emitting and ongoing spectacle of the transcendental. Despite this engulfing force, the viewer cannot overlook the delicate trail of a fence and silhouetted building structure along the horizon which Sanditz laces into the scene. She also includes what appears to be a large painting in the center, behind the van. The canvas looks strikingly familiar, mimicking the actual painting. Sanditz pushes the theme of the transcendental infinite by creating somewhat of a Fibonacci spiral of reality. This perpetual movement suspends the viewer in time, allowing him to rest within the moment, and become integrated with the environment just as the work proposes.
Esko Männikkö displays the epitome of suspended time in his elegant photos of Finnish life and culture. His crisp portraits of the inhabitants of this rich, deep-North landscape are filled with lavish color and texture. Each photo has its own antique frame, most of them found by Männikkö himself, complimenting the rustic sensation of each work. The warming sentiment becomes palpable as the viewer scans over the array of images. He captures a horse’s eye, a chair brushed by sunlight (Kalle, Fig. 5), an elderly man standing on a dock with a large body of crystal water inches behind him (Kuhmo, Fig. 6); precious glimmers of Finnish ethnicity. They project the intimacy of identity defined and secured by the earth beneath the figures’ feet. Their identities surpass the boundaries of the frames though. Viewers are engrossed by the pensive yet serene expressions on the faces of these people. Their passiveness is inviting and honorable, not a weakness.
Simon, Batesville (Fig. 7) captures an old man resting in his home. Suspenders are clasped to his khakis, strapped over his flannel shirt. A milky white cowboy hat is perched on his head, contrasting the vibrant but worn red-orange walls. Pots and pans dangle from the wall alongside of a tapestry of Mary embracing her son. The broom leaning in the corner exudes a solitude similar to the man in the chair. His things and place of being reflect his identity; tattered yet sturdy, humble yet honest. Männikkö effortlessly grasps the harmony of this lifestyle and exhibits the balance of the external and internal beautifully.
One of the most notable styles which Männikkö utilizes is the way in which he displays his works. In a recent show at the Yancey Richardson Gallery, Soho, he displayed the thirty or so photos frame to frame, directly butted up against one another. This created a jagged line, which ran from wall to wall, connected people to animals to villages to mountains. This dark flow of life, bird eggs and colossal sky lines, unites every piece of what composes reality into one continuous line of suspended time and space.
Niedermayr, Sanditz, and Männikkö offer a glimpse of what could be called the sublime, in terms of agnostic existentialism. This is not a heavenly “higher being” of which human consciousness is excluded, it is one that could not exist or be recognized without it. These artists are aware of this intimate affinity and its importance and contribution to what one can call “life”.
To define a world outside subjective consciousness, the concept of alienation in existential terms must be examined. Steven Crowell published an article entitled Existentialism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in which he outlines the notion of alienation. He states that firstly, it is noted that it is only through self-promoted action that the world can then take on meaning, a subjective meaning. Secondly, the world gives meaning to other people besides oneself, consequently proving that the self does not merely define the world, but it is something defined by others in it as well. And thirdly, self-understanding is derived from the world to which one belongs, so interaction with the world alienates one from authenticity. Therefore, the world is constituted of an otherness and yields the self as alienated and estranged.
Now, all of this is strictly existential and is largely based on the anti-Cartesian view of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, but it presents a competent explanation of alienation. With this, one is able to see the separation between self and world and it is worthy of meticulous description so that one may understand the magnitude of the world regardless of human life. “Furthermore, it has also been claimed that a number of elements within Heidegger’s thought bear a close parallel to Eastern philosophical ideas, particularly with Zen, Buddhism and Daoism,” which has been previously stated as akin to agnostic existentialism. The problem arises when Heidegger refutes the concept of consciousness, because he saw it as immeasurable, and subject to multiple interpretations.
Consciousness, however, is what has created art, (not to mention everything else man-made). The works of Julie Mehretu, Sarah Walker, and Sarah Sze directly converse with the perception of existence. They question human existence by providing a portal into alternate forms of reality. This is much more than abstraction; these are proposals of time and space.
Julie Mehretu composes works on paper, using drawing, watercolor, and other techniques to create galaxies of line and form. Shooting beams jut out of an abyss swarming with floating particles and planes. Diffraction (Fig. 8) displays her fantastically scrupulous tracery which roars in silent explosion, encapsulating the viewer in this fabricated time and space. Black, deliberate scribbles whirl in concentrated sections while more ambiguous, unbound forms intermingle behind them. Color is muted, placing the emphasis on the conceptual. This modular landscape goes beyond a well composed series of line and shape; it proposes to the viewer an alternate expanse in which theoretically, one could plausibly reside.
Sarah Walker constructs a similar reality through her audacious and sweeping landscapes. Her biomorphic abstraction is not unlike the paintings of Terry Winters. The linear, multi-layered grid suggests satellite imagery, as if it were an astronomical photograph. Analogous to the works of Mehretu, Walker’s invented worlds insinuate the presence of a very possible alternate reality. Black dot (Fig. 9) is one of many fertile and tantalizing environments that she supplies to the viewer. An ultramarine backdrop generates its own light source in areas of glowing white, and provides a space for red and white piping to circulate throughout the canvas. A large black sphere hovers in the center, clandestine yet apparent, interacting with the woven linear pattern.
In spite of the complete abstraction, Walker creates a three-dimensional topography of swirling debris and architecture. Just as many of the artists discussed accomplish, Walker suspends the viewer in time and space. She is quoted as saying, “I’m looking to construct paintings that are a simultaneous compression of the past, present and future… I’m visualizing the reality of our existence being in many spaces at once.” Walker realizes her incentive to coalesce time and space into one authenticity.
From this portrayal of alternate realities, one can not only verify their own, but begin to pursue the possibilities of the veracity around them. Consciousness is distinct and separate from that which exists outside of essence. However, these artists display an existential reality which is still tangible and no matter how distanced these realities may seem, they are still within reach.
The World of Tomaselli
The intricate and thoroughly detailed photomontages of Fred Tomaselli offer a world of pulsing madness which cannot be resolved in a single glance. He creates an enchanting pandemonium of stars, spiderwebs, mandalas, body parts, flecks of nature, amongst thousands of other items (Fig. 10). These images form a fractured radiance exhibiting everything from flesh and veins, to earthy substance, to heavenly abyss. A large part of this awe-inspiring combination of subject matter is attributed to his portrayal of a psychoactive experience. Vivid patterns composed of over the counter pills suspended in resin, explode and swirl across the canvas. Tomaselli directly converses through a psychedelic dialect, granting the viewer with a succulent and magical view.
This meticulous hybrid of pictures goes beyond the ideas of essence, awareness, and existence alone; he combines them. Expecting to Fly (Fig. 11) shows a man who seems to be falling through space, with linear rays of various glimmers of nature radiating from his center. Tomaselli illustrates the difficult human transition between flesh and mental ecstasy. The array of existent elements come together, revealing the potential to become elements of the mind.
The idea of a subjective existence, a reality in which consciousness and the external world coincide with equal weight and credence, is justified by each of these works of art and the premise of the artists behind them. This world in which we live is not substantiated solely on the notions of Cartesian theory nor existentialist concepts alone; it is the belief of and faith in the fact that one’s own consciousness, his essence, is not only verified by existence, but that his own essence corroborates the existence in which he resides. This philosophy should serve as a set of principles but not in any way function in an intrusive manner. The sole intention is to instill buoyant confidence in subjective consciousness while concurrently reminding one of the vindictive powers of nature. Emphasis is placed on neither that which is known nor what is undiscovered; for it is that tenderness which lies in between in which we live, breathe, suffer, and adore. It is the in between which inspires and galvanizes the most pure and honest acuity into what is means to live.
(Fig. 1) James Siena Shifted Lattice, 2005
(Fig. 3) Walter Niedermayr Shiga Kogen II, 2000
(Fig. 4) Lisa Sanditz Tie-dye Sunset Strip, 2003
(Fig. 7) Esko Männikkö Simon, Batesville, 1996
(Fig. 8) Julie Mehretu Diffraction, 2005
(Fig. 9) Sarah Walker Micographia 1, 2004
(Fig. 11) Fred Tomaselli Expecting to Fly, 2002
 Crowell, Steven
 Cash, Stephanie
 Martin Heidegger
 LaFrance, Adrienne