A Universal Presence

George Inness, Landscape Study, 1882, 15.75 x 21.75

The great spiritual principle of harmony- harmony in form, harmony in color, the general harmony arising from the relation of things to one another, and the relation of parts to parts- must be considered, and, as far as possible, realized by every artist in his work. No man can be in pursuit of studies such as these without finding it necessary to refer back constantly to the principles of his own constitution as a human being, of his relation to life and society.

George Inness (1879)

George Inness believed in the integrity of the artist’s vision. The role of every artist is to tap into the emotional nature of sight, the overarching harmony of vision that ties existence together and, by its very nature, makes us human. And not just a baseline of our creatureliness, but an elevated humanity- us at our very best. The artist holds a certain “unity” within himself that is emotionally charged. The moment he is engaged in his work, the artist becomes a receptacle of emotional content received from without, combined with his emotional state- conscious or unconscious. This heightened receptivity prepares him to recognize content that is calling for expression.

This unity of vision, or what Delacroix called a “largeness of effect,” allows us to see the underlying harmony and uniqueness prevalent in ordinary objects as seen in nature. If a painting holds this unity in stasis, the painting expresses a feeling of recollection, the personal presence of both the artist and the viewer. My individual experience is felt, and with every flick of my brush, the viewer sees me at work, meditating on what I have discovered. I am present, like Whitman in Leaves of Grass, Song of Myself,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

Walt Whitman

There is also a universal presence-ing, a primordial sense of “Being” that states, “it has always been so!” Although I am painting my momentary experience, I am merging it with a feeling of wholeness that encompasses more than right here, right now. This is a collective memory, a shared memory that we hold within ourselves where we can say, “yes, this is true,” without ever pointing to a direct, physical experience in time. This primordial sublime attunement, when held in play within the image, gives that image a visionary quality, a lasting taste on the tongue, an image suspended within our personal memory.

Judith Reeve, The Crossroad, January, 20″ x 30″, oil

The artist holds this universal presence and their individual presence through their sensual application of paint, the calligraphic marks of technique. When done well, there exists a point of tension and a point of release within this approach. The point of tension might be the accurate rendering of form and color, a heightened feeling in the focal area. The point of release might be a vague dissolution of spatial area, a softness of focus, or a dissolving into mystery. Both aspects are held in balance through a give and take, creating movement and engagement, drawing the viewer in, and causing him to reflect.

Art is a representation of life in the form of a new and distinct potencey. The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy, but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions of a personal vital force, that acts spontaneously, without fear or hesitation.

Inness (1879)

Rockwell Kent embodied this ‘vital force,’ both physically through his arduous adventures in Alaska and Greenland and through his paintings that speak of man’s existential placement within a world of Neitzscheian potency. But what Kent struggled with was leaving the ill-defined as such, that which can’t be delineated outright.

I think the effervescent similitude required to hold together this point of tension and point of release is the most difficult to convey. To allow space for the undefinable, which Inness expressed as “that which hides itself that we may feel after it,” is contrary to our materialistic and scientific mentality. Allowing mystery to coincide with our lived experience, that which we can’t exactly put our finger on is immensely difficult. But as artists engaged in the practice of image making, it is our struggle to define, and yet not quite define, what we see, allowing space for a hidden presence. The story of this struggle becomes the painting itself, held as a gift, not a commodity, to the world.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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