Maine and the Visual Imagination

Judith Reeve, “Immense Sea”, 2018, 20″x30″.

“The Artist is engaged in a spiritual activity whose essence consists in the precise delineation of reality, which is revealed to the visionary Imagination.”

Rockwell Kent taken from William Blake

This quote hangs on the wall of my studio and it clearly expresses my approach to painting. Kent, who traveled and painted the Arctic landscape, exemplifies Blake’s concept. Kent’s landscapes go beyond merely depicting the vast open spaces of the Arctic but embody an imaginal element that speaks to the viewer about our own existential place on earth. He places humanity in the realm of Zarathustra (see Kent’s, Wilderness).

But Kent’s paintings do not negate in any way what rose up before him. He places man precisely in reality and is true to his experience of the moment. But what makes the work remarkable, is that Kent allows freedom for the imagination to occupy that same place as the visual reality before him.  Both can exist simultaneously and each can have a voice in the image. Kent’s passion for the North, particularly Greenland, comes from the immensity and expansiveness of that place unmarred by man. It is a place of solitude where the imagination can easily find expression.

Judith Reeve, “Great Head”, 2018, 20″x30″.

Is it even possible to find that balance of isolation and imaginative freedom now? I think every artist has that place somewhere where they feel the expressive possibilities of both worlds- the depiction of reality within the natural world and a place of visitation for the imagination. In my own experience, the sea provides that space of immensity, expansiveness and acts as a portal of an imaginal vision seeking it’s imprint upon reality. It is the very reason I travel to the coast of Maine as much as I can. It is a retreat from my normal, harried existence and an immersion into another realm removed and yet a more concentrated experience of reality.

Judith Reeve, “Surf”, 2018, 20″x30″.

The sea is a symbol that has effected painters and writers of America. They have qualified the sea as a medium in which we see our true existence amplified. I often think of Melville’s, Moby Dick, and how the whale symbolizes those deep, unconscious realities that we only have a mere intuition and feeling of. But it is these realities, the spindrift surfacing deep from the sea floor (Rumi), that gives meaning to our existence, creates a longing to know our place in the world, that cannot be suppressed. Ishmael needs to get to sea because he has lost touch with his inner self and if he remains on land his longing will be too great to bear. His inner life will be annihilated under the superficiality that consumes much of our daily existence.

Judith Reeve, “Approaching Storm”, 2018, 16″x22″.

So, this year, I present to you my Maine coast paintings as a way to meditate on the beauty of the sea amid an imaginal vision seeking to call us back to ourselves, back from the brink of forgetfulness.

Judith Reeve, “Rocks Before Great Head”, 2018, 16″x22″.
Judith Reeve, “In the Mist”, 2018, 16″x22″.
Judith Reeve, “Wave Shadow”, 2018, 6″x8″.

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Immensity and the Largeness of Effect

The juxtaposition of immensity and movement make the ocean an ever dynamic subject for the artist.

Image of Rockwell Kent
Rockwell Kent from Wilderness: A Journal of a Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920.

“Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and movement.”

Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire goes on to express that all great works of genius contain an element of ‘immensity’. Immensity has very little to do with the actual size of a work but with  that interior feeling of vastness combined with a sense of fragility. The image astonishes us and “…entails a nervous shock…” producing something like fear, that this sublime moment shall pass and I will fail to seize hold of its nature. It is a moment of recognition that this very immensity I experience in the image resides simultaneously within myself. There dwells a correspondence and a ‘sympathy’ which allows my being in its wholeness to complete the image. The image itself has been waiting for me.

Last week, I reread “Wilderness” by Rockwell Kent which combines images he produced in Alaska with his daily journal entries on Fox Island during the seven months he spent there with his 10-year-old son. In one entry he describes a woodblock he is carving. It contains vast mountains and a rough sea. He spent several nights carving it and deliberating over its form. He ends the entry by saying that it is only two inches square! Multum in parvo– Immensity held in a small space.

“There are moments of existence when time and expanse are more profound, and the sense of existence is hugely enhanced.”  Are not the images that we find truly moving descriptive of these moments? These images may not contain great or historic events or unbelievable places or profound personalities, but are most often an ordinary commonplace. “In certain almost supernatural states of soul, the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its Symbol.

When I reflect on the child portraits of Robert Henri, especially the late Irish portraits, I find immensity there. Though ordinary children, he expresses an ‘immensity of soul’ combined with the fragility of childhood, so time bound and fleeting. Henri expresses this immensity with all the potentiality of the child which time destroys as the child matures. This is something that we too have been a part of- our own childhood and the memories of that time and our own latent potential in youth. The immensity expressed in these children reaches out to us and we find our place there.

Are there some painting techniques or practices that can assist my images as I search for a feeling of immensity in my work? I look to Delacroix as my guide. A strong composition and the evocative use of color can lead you. The suppression of detail combined with a preservation of the masses as well as a quality of incompleteness adds to this feeling. It must also not be too objective, but needs to contain an element of the ‘self’ or personality of the artist as well as unconscious or ill-defined material. There is also an element of movement. When Baudelaire describes our fascination with the sea, it is movement that also captivates us. Delacroix achieved movement through brush stroke as well as the use of complements and colored edges. Henri achieved movement through the compositional use of color where there is a constant and subtle adjustment in color and tone to move the eye around the image. There are others as well. These are just some of the tools in the artists’ toolbox. But first and foremost one needs the eyes to see.

I love the obscure French book, Mt. Analogue, by Rene Daumal, in which the characters of the story find that there is a hidden world in our very midst and that it only takes their willingness to engage that world in order to enter upon the journey. The journey itself takes place under the guise of a commonplace, a sea voyage. But it is this initiation that will inevitably lead them to Mt Analogue. I believe having an open mind and heart will create the ability for one to see with a greater awareness the imaginative potential and vastness latent in the commonplace. Immensity of soul, of lived experience, will inevitably lead to a feeling of expansion within the image.

All Quotes from, Charles Baudelaire’s, Intimate Journals, trans. Norman Cameron, 1995.