AN ALL-INCLUSIVE PRESENCE
Basic intelligence demands that the common desire for happiness be tempered by both the willingness to see the reality of human existence and a concomitant reluctance to escape this reality through any form of self-deception. Because if happiness is the fruit of deliberate myopia, then it is not happiness but a form of depravity, and as such bound to end in disappointment and sorrow, and not just for ourselves, but for others as well. When one opens one’s eyes and mind to the world created by human thought and desire, it is impossible to miss the extent to which humanity is still shaped and tormented by division, conflict, and sorrow. The perception of how little happiness there really is, and of how much suffering results from the reckless pursuit of opposing forms of psychological security and pleasure, is in itself an indictment of cultural and psychological separation in all its forms.
Even for those of us who are comparatively better off from a material and social point of view, every day seems to bring new difficulties and threats. Life is far worse for those directly affected by the chronic distress and privation of economic exploitation, war, and political and religious subjugation —often just a constant struggle to stave off disaster and death. It is not an exaggeration to affirm that at this point in history, just about every human being alive is experiencing very real tension and insecurity stemming from the convergence of a whole host of interrelated, and as such largely unmanageable, psychological, political, economic, demographic, technological, epidemiological, and ecological variables. In looking beyond the particular descriptions, interpretations, and illusory projections of reality that infuse the members of particular groups with a common identity and some (mostly false) sense of security, one is struck by the actual levels of stress, violence, hardship, and sorrow endured by nearly everyone alive.
There is nothing new in the presence of suffering, and its perdurability proves that there is something terribly wrong with the way we humans live and relate to one another. What we are determines what the world is. The mental distress and relational disorder experienced by every individual alive at any given point in time is cause and effect of the fragmentation and disharmony characteristic of the species as a whole. Perhaps more shocking than the chronic failure of the human mind to bring about sanity to itself, and thereby order in inter-personal relationship and peace in the world, is that this failure is hardly a matter of general and preferential concern. We have become so tragically accustomed to the isolation, conflict, and sorrow of our existence, and so addicted to particular ideological delusions and occasional experiences of physical and psychological pleasure, that we hardly ever manage to get our heads out of their respective holes in the thick sand of what we each privately know, believe, think, and covet. Human affairs have always been disorderly, unjust, and violent, and what keeps them that way is our personal unwillingness to come to terms with the self-isolating and self-serving character of our own claim to separate and secure existence, and the bellicose atomization of the species that endlessly flows from this absurd claim.
We are deeply conditioned to protect ourselves psychologically by disregarding or misconstruing much of what is actually happening in our own minds, in our interactions with others, and in the world at large. Unsurprisingly, this general disconnection generates the psychological, political, economic, and ecological reality of the species at large. We separate the conflicted and sorrowful world in which we live from the mind that keeps creating it, because that is how each one of us protects the illusion of separate psychological existence. Each particular fantasy of existential uniqueness (each one of us and them) is a constituent part of a general disavowal of the unity of the human species, and a concomitant rejection of the even more astonishing fact of its presence within the seamless flow of the cosmos. At every moment we chose to ignore life as a whole, simply because it does not fit neatly and conveniently in our respective mental categories and preferences. We do not realize that in refusing to see ourselves as fundamentally an integral part of life, we reduce our presence to the self-projecting mental accumulation of limited cultural and biographical experience that determines both our separate identities and our conflicted and conflicting hopes (and fears) regarding the future of this identity. The most intimate and potent reality for each human being lies then, not in a life shared in common, but rather in an exclusive collections of memories, claims, loves and hates mechanically striving to improve itself in mental and chronological time. As a result, the entire edifice of human society keeps being built and rebuilt on this inherently unstable foundation of isolated personal being and false progressive becoming. The remembrance of who “I” have been, the present idea of what “I” like and want (and dislike and want to avoid), and the never ending effort to reach who “I” am supposed to become, are all intense enough to obscure the actuality of life as a whole and create hell on Earth.
The destructive disorder that envelops the world at every point in time is the ever self-renewing consequence of a fragmented and deeply flawed system of thought that finds a willing perch in every brain. Since each generation is born into and educated by the fractured psychological and cultural reality created by thought, we remain for the most part unaware of the conceit of existential separation to which we subscribe unaware of its tragic consequences. While alive, we take our particular instance of separation to be the very ground of our mental existence, and when we die, we do so in the same relative isolation. This, even if we have all along attempted to buffer the fear and sorrow of death with the belief that the last exhalation is but a portal granting this same “unique” being the continuity and the ultimate realization that is its most cherished desire. Entire generations live and die within this system of tribal and self-centered thought, and the same farce marches onto the future propelled like a cancer by its malign instinct for division and survival.
The sting of sorrow has forever made human beings question the reality of a general sense of separate existence, but this questioning has generally taken place within the framework provided by thought, and therefore remained insufficient. We would like to change ourselves, but all we are generally willing to do is enact slight and gradual modifications of how we think and how we live, and all we manage with this pretense is to remain essentially the same. Security, happiness, and continuity in separation is what we really want, even though the uncertainty and vulnerability stemming from our competing desires and common alienation from life forces us to endlessly struggle against ourselves and others in the foolish hope of retaining or attaining some largely illusory measure of exclusive status and fulfillment. We may have some obscure sense that the better life and more comfortable consciousness we all independently project onto the future is bound to fail or disappoint us and do violence to others. However, we also feel that this is preferable to losing the presumed right to achieve, often enough by any means necessary, a fantasy of personal realization in this world or in the one we may conveniently imagine is next. It bears repeating that our sustained identification with a given psychological and cultural/historical context, blocks the wide embrace of life that is the birthright of simple attentive presence. Personal memory, and within it the imprint of different forms of cultural ideology, desensitizes the organism and dulls the mind, thus largely blocking from sight the falseness and very real consequences of indefinitely asserting, defending, and projecting our respective acts of progressive separation. What is essentially a mental habit of self-projecting isolation, keeps firmly in place the unnatural but nearly universal phenomenon of tribal and egocentric consciousness with its inevitable conflict and sorrow, and its insane craving for exclusive relief.
A fragmented and rigidly conditioned consciousness lives in a permanent vicious cycle, the endlessly abortive attempt to overcome the lack of depth and stability intrinsic to an illusory sense of unique identity and independent existence. We seldom bother or manage to see that the imagined future of greater certainty, pleasure, and status with which we each would like to remedy the insecurity of the isolated self is highly improbable given the ruthless competition and the delusional character of psychological projection. Even when realized, projected idealizations of ourselves cannot help but be just slightly modified reiterations of the same constitutionally insecure consciousness these projections are meant to overcome. Given that memory is the source of the future projections that undergird everyone's sense of identity and purpose, it is not surprising that in the larger context of human society and after thousands of years of presumed “progress,” we continue to experience life as a species-wide battle fought over exclusive privilege or plain survival. Contradictory and unrealistic personal (and tribal) ambitions interminably struggle against one another, thus compounding the original insensitivity, confusion, and despair that have all along characterized the fragmented human mind and its action in the world.
If this admittedly sketchy portrayal of the human condition is accurate, and therefore likely to be readily corroborated through a direct perception of fact, then only one relevant question remains, and it is this. Is the life experience created by identification with a particular set of exclusive cultural and personal memories and projections our only possible reality, or is there an entirely different mode of (human) existence, one not entirely based on experience and thought? At its most explicit and intimate, this vital question compels each one of us to find out by ourselves if there might be a space and depth of being that more truthfully expresses our shared humanity with its gift of awareness and its cosmic presence. Anyone who takes up this challenge must do so knowing that it implies losing the familiar reality (both, mental and interpersonal) of a separate personal existence. For what would be left standing if whatever one may have experienced, learned, and craved after (in terms of politics, religion, nationality, race, gender, age, social class, occupation, wealth, recreation, character, personality and physical feeling), was no longer trusted with properly defining and sustaining one's being?
To be more specific let us ask who is left when one is no longer a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Zoroastrian or anything else of that sort? Who remains when all traces of national chauvinism and cultural ethnocentrism have been discarded? Who survives no longer seeking self-righteous sanctuary in any form of political allegiance —right, left, center, or extreme center? What is it not to be identified with any position in the spectrum of sexual or educationally induced preference? What occurs when one's occupation is merely a function, a service rendered in exchange for basic sustenance, but never a means to the procurement of status and extravagant privilege? What is it to be so familiar with the common foibles of all human beings and all the many actual and possible divisions and subdivisions of social, economic, and cultural standing, that there is no longer identification with any shade of skin pigmentation, or any form of social, generational, educational, occupational, or consumerist pedigree? What is left of one when an acute awareness of the pettiness of personal experience and knowledge puts both in their proper and humble place, deflating as well any desire that would seek a future of greater and better experience, increased knowledge (specially psychological knowledge), and more refined belief? What remains after what one had always regarded as “my” body is suddenly seen as inseparable, not just from the landscape, food, water, and air that sustains it from moment to moment, but from everything else in existence, manifest and non-manifest? In a nut shell, what is the outcome of not being any ”thing” physically and any “one” psychologically, and consequently of not having any intention of becoming something else, or any fear of failing to do so? Is this outcome a growing loss of control and reason that can only end in madness? Is it death, or is it perchance sanity and freedom granted by the irruption into the mind of the intelligence and virtue of life itself?
The question of the significance of being human is irrelevant if posed as a choice among alternative point of views, each offering a different but equally predetermined answer. However, the same question is immensely powerful when it comes from the perception of the fragmentation and general alienation from life exhibited by the entire system of self-centered thought based on experience and ideology. Being wise to the irrationality of the cross-cultural system of exclusive mental identification, this perception sets resolutely aside all existing forms of contradictory meaning giving form and endurance to the same separate self. The actual meaning of the human presence within life lies in the impersonal character of this sudden realization of the fact and consequences of self-isolation. In other words, insight into the fundamental nature of the human condition implies the emergence of a mind free from the conditioned and divisive self that has forever suffered and created suffering for others.
Whether secular or religious, particular theories and plans promising to improve our lives and minimize or eliminate suffering are not, and will not ever be, good and sufficient. This, simply because they do not take into consideration the facts of our general alienation from life, our secretly or blatantly conflicted psyches, and our antagonistic separation from one another —all stemming from a general phenomenon of exclusive psychological identification. This tragic oversight allows the continuity of conflicting personal narratives and cultural ideologies, each with its own methods, and all rigidly determining the pursuit of exclusive security and pleasure through particular ideas about self, life, and death. Tribal and self-centered thought cannot possibly come up with definitive solutions to all the problems it has itself created during thousands of years of struggling to sustain itself in its multiple and contradictory tribal and personal incarnations. Simply put, the problem of conflict and suffering that alienation has created cannot ever be solved by competing ideas leading to improved forms of the same alienation. A clear awareness of the sterility of this traditional approach, is in itself the irreversible collapse of all predetermined ideological and psychological forms giving identity and willful duration (a sense of manifest destiny) to the separate self.
Time is not involved in this perception in the sense that it is not related to the mental representations of the past, present, and future that make up the separate self and articulate its thinking. Without the falling aside of previous experience, present efforts, and future projections —without the absence of prejudice and predetermined motive— a full insight into the human condition cannot occur. The perception and consequent dissolution of the self-isolating, time-bound trappings of personal consciousness, opens the mental space necessary for a keenly attentive presence that in its wise unknowing is as inclusive as life itself. Awareness of life as the totality and of undivided awareness as life, is the only viable solution to all our problems because it is not restricted by experience-based narratives and the deadly secular and religious fantasies of opposing ideologies.
Sure, mere consideration of the possibility of losing most of what one has accumulated during a lifetime of experience, formal learning, and striving, feels dangerous, even insane perhaps. However, such feelings are to be expected, they are part of the self-protective conditioning of the mind. However, there are human beings — and you may well be one of them— who despite fearing the possibility of their own demise, still feel irrevocably called to question their personal and cultural blinders. Whatever you may still think you are, and whatever you may still be dimly hoping to achieve or avoid in the future, may no longer be strong enough to hold back the seemingly reckless demand to find out who you really are. Not who you habitually say you are to yourself and others, but who you are in and by yourself. That is, who is it that lies beyond the mental association with a given set of memories, things, experiences, persons, feelings, and ideas that are not intrinsically you. If you ask this question with all your heart because you are keenly aware of conflict and suffering in yourself, as well as in others around you and in the world at large, you will inevitably come to see as well that interpersonal friction and mental pain and the conceit of an on-going separate existence are one and the same.
To be coherent with all that has been said above, the collection of images that follow must be prefaced with an unequivocal warning about its limitations. Like any other similar attempt to provide some semblance of what lies beyond the conditioned human mind, it is bound to disappoint. No one can issue a valid and useful description of an existence beyond self-centered separation, and much less a viable mental bridge —some sort of discipline or method— guaranteed to cover the infinite distance between a psychologically progressive “someone” and what may be cautiously referred to as the ground of being or the plenitude of life undivided. All that is licit to expect from this admittedly inadequate set of images is sincere encouragement to question personal consciousness to the ultimate consequences or, to put it differently, a heart-felt invitation to venture away from the familiar and into what may lie beyond all attempts and forms of representation.
The most important thing to understand about these paintings is that, for the most part they are found images, and not deliberate, premeditated creations. True, the same person who has the concerns and perceptions expressed above is the one responsible for weaving, laying, and dragging a net clearly intended to catch something of the human form and its insertion in life. However, the specific catch resulting from his rather wild fishing expedition is well beyond anything he could have ever come upon if he was merely relying on his capacity to conceptualize, project, and realize. I dare make these images public because I feel that there is something very real staring back at us from them. Namely, a sharp semblance of our authentic and common presence coming in and out of form along with everything else that, like us, also lives in relationship, ages, and dies. Ourselves then, but ourselves so vulnerable and so nakedly merged with one another, other aspects of our immediate world and the totality of life, that what is really being presented is a humanity free of the division and conflict intrinsic to personal narratives with their fixed identities and their wished-for private destinies. In announcing, however darkly, not just the possibility but the actual fact of undivided life, these paintings may help at least some of us to see and therefore to live utterly beyond what at any point in time we may think we are and are destined to become.
You will see in many of these images, and hopefully by extension in life itself, how the habitual distinction made between figure and ground (particular being and general existence) blurs to the point of disappearance. What looks like the surface of a human body is also the inside, bones, organs, and muscle tissue. What looks like a landscape is also a human being; and what looks like a human being is the landscape as well. The plant and the beast are you and I, and us, them. In their small way, these paintings announce that what truly matters is the undivided and therefore unthinkable movement of life —a movement that in seamlessly containing our presence (and our eventual disappearance) negates psychological separation along with all its attendant labors and sorrows. The isolated self is unmasked as the illusion it is, a cartoonish abstraction created by thought and sustained by habit and unreasonable desire, but an abstraction dense and opaque enough to blot out the light of truth.
Some Notes on Technique
Although this approach to painting is based on a combination of disparate variables and a generous allowance for random occurrence, there is someone enabling the process and therefore curtailing its randomness to some extent through a variable measure of artistic intervention, and of course through the prerogative of choosing what to keep and what to discard. The intervention of the artist on the results of the random process is more evident in the earlier paintings and is mostly concerned with making an image already detected, more evident and intelligible to the viewer. Over years of trial and error, and as the process revealed its intrinsic potential to generate meaningful images, its human catalyst has learned to stay literally out of the picture. An overriding interest in movement as the ground from which form emerges and into which it disappears, and a literally blind trust on the materials and forces utilized, was enough to produce interesting and sometimes startling paintings. As a convenient if not altogether necessary by-product of the lack of directive participation and the importance given to the unrestrained flow of liquid, these painting are largely monochromatic. The exclusion of this variable merely accommodates the need to simplify an already complex mix.
The technique itself consists of moving a differentially mixed combination of pigment and medium with a set of different tools over opaque or translucent surfaces capable of recording the actual flow of their dynamic mix. An electric heat gun contributing airflow and temperature to the painting process, became over the years the most important of the different tools utilized to push paint around.
The first body of work to emerge from this approach (between 1993 to 2004) consisted of relatively small original paintings done strictly on an opaque and not very absorbent substrate (usually thin clay-coated board) and using mostly acrylic inks. A second body of work realized between 2004 and 2013, resulted from the decision to paint mostly with Sumi ink and on glass rather than paper or board in order to overcome the persistent limitation of scale inherent in the use of the same method on opaque substrates. Most of the images in this book were culled from work done during this second period. Having been a photographer all my adult life, and since 2004 one with access to the digitization of images, I eventually came to the realization that if I were to paint on glass instead of opaque substrates, I would be generating high definition transparencies that could then be digitized and printed in a variety of sizes. (As you look at the images contained in this book, please imagine how they would look if you were seeing them in the scale for which they are really intended, which for the latest paintings may be in excess of 4 feet in their shorter dimension.)
The digital conversion of original paintings made on glass not only solved the problem of scale, but also enabled cleaning to some extent the messiness intrinsic to this approach to painting. The intermediation of the computer also permits nearly unlimited a-posteriori editing work on the digital files derived from the paintings, however as mentioned before this type of intervention has been gradually limited to the conversion and cleaning role outlined above.
Once a painting is finished, it is carefully placed on a flatbed scanner that will read the thin and highly detailed emulsion left on the glass plate by the actual movement of ink and water traveling across and around its surface under the fiery breath of the heat gun and/or the pull or push of other tools. The size of the glass plates has grown over the years in accordance with the scanning equipment at my reach. The earliest paintings shown in this book were made on 4 x 6” plates. The most recent crop come from 9 x 11” plates and it shows in their high definition and smoother tonality. The digital files that result from the scanning process are generally positive images, the equivalent of a film transparency. In a related process, the painted glass plates are treated as though they were film negatives and contact printed or enlarged onto silver gelatin paper in a traditional wet darkroom. I am still working on still another method discovered a couple of years ago that allows a direct transfer of the ink emulsion on the glass plates onto art paper, thus producing monoprints with a rather beautiful surface quality.
In a painting approach that antecedes the work with ink in both opaque and translucent substrates, I move oil paints on rigid and carefully prepared substrates, but do so employing tools other than the heat gun due to the weight and toxicity of these pigments and their mediums. I have included reproductions of two of these oil paintings in this book because of their thematic kinship with the work done with ink. You will be able to readily tell them apart from the rest because they are full color photographic reproductions of the paintings. They are also the last to appear in the book.
There you have it then, the great profusion of line, form and value you see in these images comes from the nothingness or emptiness that characterizes all the component elements of the painting process described. The opaqueness of Sumi ink, the transparency of both glass and water, the basic formlessness of air flow and heat, and the way in which the person facilitating the process intentionally stays out of it as much as possible by focusing on the logistic demands of the process rather than on desirable pictorial results. I leave to you the consideration of the relationship between the strictly material aspects of the painting process, the pictorial results, and the particular way in which your eyes/mind decipher these results.
The impersonal creativity of hot air, ink, and water made visible in these paintings has helped me become aware of the insurmountable limitations and inevitably painful struggle of an entity that being isolated by what it happens to know and think is, for the same reason, also permanently divisive, needy, fearful, and conflictive. This perception has persistently invited me to lose myself without fear in the mystery of an undivided life. Again, this book is merely a printed extension of this same vital invitation. Only the message conveyed is important, the paintings and the painter/messenger who happens to be delivering it are both irrelevant. If you happen to find that it is not properly addressed to you, not clear enough, or in any other way unworthy of your trust, simply look for it elsewhere, anywhere. The embrace of life is all-inclusive, common to all, and although not readily apparent, ultimately unavoidable.
This is a first special edition comprising only two copies of An All-Inclusive Presence, hand-bound by the author. The prints were made in the studio using Archival Epson inks and Red River’s 68lb. UltraPro Satin paper. They were subsequently mounted on articulated pages made of 100% cotton, pH neutral, Stonehenge art paper. The book block is held together by five wooden posts, and embedded in the linen lined cover of each book is an original painting made on glass, similar to the those from which the prints in the book were made. (The ink emulsion of these paintings is protected and made more evident with an added layer of golden acrylic paint.)
This edition follows a large unbound prototype of the same book housed in a clam shell box and finished in 2011.