Everything suggests that there exists a mental vantage point (point de l’esprit) from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the heights and the depths will no longer be perceived as contraries, —Andre Breton, Second Surrealist Manifesto, 1929

For nearly all of human history, the world was enchanted. As material and rationalist values have gained in pre-eminence, however, spiritual values have declined […] Once uprooted from the world of symbols, art lost its links with myth and sacramental vision […] that is able to “see” the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material. —Suzi Gablik, The Disenchantment of Art

The secularization of modern art is a phenomenon that we rarely consider or question, immersed aswe are in the scientific, pragmatic, rational (for the most part) society of twenty-first century America. The recent resurgence of religious fundamentalism, however, suggests that the human psyche in its complex depths refuses to be lulled by mere tolerance and prosperity. The recent hostile takeover of state by church demonstrates a deep need apparently going unfulfilled in our go-go market economy, unmet even by the dispensers of sanctimonious corporate balm. Contemporary art in general is not much better, merely manifesting the corporate/scientific bias of our highly organized and professionalized society and failing to prove an alternative or adversary vision. Gablik: “Modern mass culture has tried very hard to avoid the moral and spiritual aspects of human living, and affluence has become the major alternative to religious renewal,” resulting in an art that is “bureaucratic and managerial in form.” The work of Julia d’Arcy stands apart from this same old art-school novelty, however, returning us at least momentarily from our hectic keyboards to Gablik’s enchanted realms, and to Breton’s mystic (Freudian, post-Catholic) resolution of opposites, where the particular and the universal, matter and spirit, converge and interpenetrate.

Such independent thinking is threatening, of course, and easily misconstrued by sophisticates and the unintelligentsia alike. Leo Tolstoy argued in the late nineteenth century for an art that would communicate (‘infect’ is his word) religious feeling to everyone, regardless of wealth, an art beyond “artificial and cerebral” “simulacra,” and mere “art amusements. “Good art,” he opined, “is always understood by everyone.” Such go-for-it frankness is refreshing, especially in the rarefied realms of art discourse, but Tolstoy’s radical notions led him astray: he condemned nearly all art made since the Renaissance, excepting only a few painters of peasants, most forgotten today (though the better ones deserve revival). His goals were noble but unrealistic. Had be been more knowledgeable about the artistic developments of his day, he might have escaped his own feudal Christian dogmatism.

Expressing religious feeling in a rapidly industrializing world was actually the impetus for much modern art, as Robert Rosenblum asserts in his Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. The symbolic landscapes of the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich convey, irresistibly, awe before nature’s beauty and power, and contentment at man’s place in the cosmos; without depicting God or angels literally, Friedrich infects us with his own quiet piety. Blake, Turner, Constable, Carus, Runge, Palmer, Van Gogh, Munch. Hodler, Ryder, Nolde, Kandinsky, Marc, Hopper, O’Keefe, Klee, Ernst, Feininger, Sutherland, Mondrian, Pollock, Still, Gottlieb, Dove, Newman and Rothko also aspire to religious or transcendental feeling, according to Rosenblum’s reading. Carl Gustav Carus, a disciple of Friedrich, envisioned “an Erdlebenbildkunst: (that is, ‘pictorial art of Life of Earth’) […] a close and passionate scrutiny of natural phenomena imbued with sense of supernatural mysteries beyond the changing surfaces of the most humble terrestrial events: the blossoming of flowers, the slow changes of natural light, the movement of clouds, the cycle of the seasons.” Our current sunny bias toward Schoolof- Paris formal analysis, Rosenblum asserts, sells short the ragged emotional heart of these non-French, non-Catholic fogbound northern mystics. That mysticism has now become esoteric again, discernible only to art bookworms, obscured by our societal predilections for culture over nature, irony over devotion, fast over slow, and glib art world spiels over the more or less unworldly artists’ intransigent demands for focused attention.
To become immortal a work of art must escape all human limits; logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.

Everything has two aspects — the current aspect, which we see nearly always and which ordinary men see, and the ghostly and metaphysical aspect, which only rare individuals may see in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction. —Giorgio di Chirico

Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of late-afternoon arcaded city squares, deserted but for a few shadowy silhouetted figures, white marble statues, silently puffing locomotives, and incongruous oversized props, conjure in us both anxiety over and nostalgia for an unreal (but greater-than-real, i.e., surreal) hybrid of past and present. In Werner Haftmann’s words, “Any inanimate object, seemingly withdrawn into its solemn steadfastness, could affect human emotions. Any old thing, forgotten in a corner, if the eye dwelt on it, acquired an eloquence of its own, communicating its lyricism and magic to the kindred soul.” D’Arcy’s drawings conjure a similarly evocative poetry, but more lyrical, and nature-centered; instead of cannons, artichokes, rubber gloves, and starfish impaled on candlesticks, she has chosen as one of her primary motifs, as O’Keefe did, as Ensor did, while imagining himself aged 140 — the skull. The human head bone has a distinguished résumé in art, from prehistoric magical burial practices, through medieval personifications of death in Bosch, Bruegel, and Holbein, through seventeenth-century moralizing still-lives, through Picasso and Golub (who, incidentally, to a fellow artist’s cool, formalist analysis, expostulated: “It’s a SKULL, goddamn it!”). D’Arcy joins this tradition and yet moves beyond anthropomorphism by using nonhuman skulls, namely, those of the ancient Chelonian order of turtles. (Their ancestor, the twelve-foot-long Archelon, swam through Late Cretaceous oceans two hundred million years ago, 199 million years before we primates stood up on our hind legs and started making pictures, so perhaps we should curb our hot-blooded mammalian hubris.) Clearly, d’Arcy is transfixed by these skulls both as natural esthetic artifacts and as symbols of the human/animal life cycle. White and conical, with eye-holes and delicate feathered hems, they suggest small trick-or-treaters in angel or ghost regalia — and perhaps Guston’s KKK hoods, as well. Reflected and doubled in the transparent sedimentary horizontal bands or registers, they become organic diamonds, fossils, hieroglyphs, and even luminous Rorschach inkblots. In Baja Passage, an army of them rises up in phantom formation before us, each lovingly delineated, some transparent and even crystalline, with each of the “sacred forms” individualized, yet as fixed in relation to the others as if specimens pinned to a board. The poems accompanying d’Arcy’s drawings help elucidate her subjective, poetic response to nature, providing viewers written verification of what we visually intuit: “A communion of souls […] Together, and alone” or “a soul’s passage as it moves through the horizon of immortality,” the drawing’s polar landscape of silent portent. In Requiem: Death of a Species the white skulls appear again, but now embedded in a cave wall made of scales or plates; gradually these scales merge into and open onto a plain of cracked mud. A few turtles struggle beneath a baking sun centered in a logarithmic spiral, that naturally-occurring mathematical progression governing the growth of new planktonic animals —living marine dodecahedrons and tetrahedrons— and delighting old shore bound Pythagorean mathematicians. While skull, scale, carapace and plastron (dorsal and ventral shell) make striking imagery, d’Arcy humanizes inanimate elements as well, weaving recycled manmade and plant elements together into her pantheistic tapestry. In Whispers of the Heart the iron grillwork and rusted fallen rosettes of an abandoned cemetery invoke for her the “long forgotten missionaries” and “unknown artisans,” the “ghostly devout” whose energies pervade the place. A finial from the baroque ironwork takes on a militantly ecclesiastical, protective aspect, like an enraged bird, or a sword hilt come alive (topped by a small angelic figure), while roses peep out from the apertures in a placental membranous sky. In Missionaries and The Chalice small crosses and even an angel or putto appear, rudimentary and latent, within the predominating transparent cubist facets, the swirling, sublimating Art Nouveau (wurmstil in German, worm-style) vapors and tendrils, and the surrealist exploded planes and plunging perspectives. Finally, The Poet presents an organic metaphor for “imagination, creativity and intellect [...] The trinity of the creative process.” A seed germinates in the dark (earth? water?) and shoots buds into a higher, light-filled realm. It also resembles a potted plant with its crown of foliage, or one of those severed Orphic or Johannine heads from the symbolist art of hundred years ago, beatifically triumphant and transfigured. This floral bundle of sensation is surrounded by what appear to be protozoans or perhaps immature shrimps or cicadas; they’re turtle vertebrae, themselves germinated in the nutrient-rich artist’s imagination. In Borges’ story The God’s Script the narrator, an imprisoned Aztec priest glimpses each day (as his conquistador jailer makes his rounds) the jaguar in an adjacent cell. He divines the divinity in the patterned fur and decodes the message that his god Qaholom inscribed in his creations: “I imagined my god confiding his message to the living skin of the jaguars, who would love and reproduce without end, in caverns, in cane fields, on islands, in order that the last men would receive it. […] I saw infinite processes that formed one single felicity and, understanding all, I was able also to understand the script of the tiger.” D’Arcy’s lyrical nature mysticism may not be what we as a culture think we want —capitalism exalts the reptilian hoarding of treasure, after all— but going a bit native and acknowledging that we inhabit and comprise “one single felicity” might be what we need. DeWitt Cheng 2005


It all started when…

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