On Risk and the Attentive Mind, Part 2


As an artist, one must push oneself into the unknown, beyond what is comfortable, and always be on the edge of what one thinks one is capable of. On that narrow edge beauty and truth reside. It is a vital and dynamic place. It is the place of “wildness” within oneself. When I say wild, I mean it in the way the 19th century spoke about “dark Africa” or Terra Incognita- vast tracts of land that had yet to be explored and made known and in many ways, made subject to man. It was beyond contemporary consciousness.  Thoreau refers to wildness as that desire within that needs the unfathomable, the mysterious, that which is far greater than oneself and will always remain unknown and impenetrable. ”

” Our life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness…we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomable by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast titanic features…We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander… (Thoreau)

Man cannot live an expansive existence without this ever present immensity. Man desires depth. One needs to hold onto that wildness to make sure one remains open and unencumbered, where profound experiences within the soul find their place in the world.

Federico Garcia Lorca had his Duende, what he called the black depth which he gleaned from Cante Jundo, Spanish song with ancient roots. This Black Depth, this soul moving expression of will and desire that calls the listener or more clearly, recalls the listener to his true identity- an existence of depth and profundity. Lorca felt that this recalling had become the responsibility of the poet and artist. It was the artist task to dig down to this underground source that connects us to the” soul of the world”, as Carl Jung referred to it, and adopts us again as its child and reinstates us into an existence of profound engagement. It allows for the sacred.

But what is the sacred? It is a word that many are reluctant to use. Sacred is something that is given profound respect. One considers it holy, something that defies immediate definition. It is something that remains a mystery because one cannot use rational means to unlock its meaning. It will always remain impenetrable. Man has identified aspects of the natural world as sacred- holy mountains, natural land marks that align with the seasons or stars, the deepest realms of the ocean etc. These natural  phenomena are analogous to man’s innate desire and longing for depth and connectedness to what otherwise will always remain mysterious. Just because I know that that mountain is granite and that it arrived during a previous ice age, does not explain the awe I immediately feel when I gaze at it at twilight. Its very existence calls one back home to an existence of profound meaning. Modern man’s greatest suffering is a lack of meaning. This is why Lorca felt it the true responsibility of the artist to recall it once again and make it conscious. Because unconsciously, whether we want to admit to it or  not, life has no meaning unless one can feel the Black Depth (Black, meaning unfathomable vastness). When it is recalled, one inherently feels it without explanation. Art makes it recognizable.

One instinctively realizes that a wild animal contains a power that its domestic cousins no longer possess. Look into the eyes of a leopard and one immediately feels fear, wonder and awesomeness residing there.  It is an incomprehensible darkness that is ever present in those eyes and a link to a raw energy that is vast. When man co-existed in the same forest with such creatures, he feared and worshiped them. But this raw energy enveloping the pre-dawn world, also created a need for a heightened attentiveness allowing man a deep connectedness to the world. D.H. Lawrence called this type of man the “living” man. A soul that was confident, attached and made whole through the world and in the world. Art expresses, “it is so” and is the pathos of  a living , breathing, activated man. Living with risk allows for this heightened awareness to develop to a high level. When one knows that one’s life is held in the balance, one becomes acutely aware of everything. Risk sharpens us. Living in a “heightened” state, one becomes more sensitive to things and occurrences. More details are revealed, emotions are sensitized, intuitions are believed, images are made known to the receptive, color has power and one begins to trust one’s own feelings.

Art cannot be produced without this heightened awareness, without a feeling of risk. One needs an attentive mind to see how all these things fit together and create a new whole in the form of image. Charles Baudelaire believed in correspondences  where nature, people and relationships pointed to a language of veracity that the poet and artist could speak. That secret language of all things spoke in  “fits and whispers” and revealed to the initiated(artist) a new vision of wholeness that could unlock a world of mystery and beauty. The painter, Eugene Delacroix believed that,

 “The figures and objects in a picture, which to one part of your intelligence seem to be the actual things themselves, are like a solid bridge to support your imagination as it probes the deep, mysterious emotions, of which these forms are, so to speak, the hieroglyph, but a hieroglyph far more eloquent than any cold representation, the mere equivalent of a printed symbol…it is a thousand times more expressive when you consider, independent of idea, the visible sign, the eloquent hieroglyph itself which has no value for the mind in the work of the author, becomes in the painter’s hands a source of the most intense pleasure- that pleasure which we gain from seeing beauty, proportion, contrast harmony of color in the things around us, in everything which our eyes love to contemplate in the outside world, and which is the satisfaction of one of the profoundest needs of our nature.” (214)

Risk allows a lacuna where imagination can impact our world. As Edna St. Vincent Millay reflects,

“My candle burns ay both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends-

It gives a lovely light!”



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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