I've a few (apparently) disturbing paintings hanging in my office. There was no malicious intent; no attempt to unsettle. One, a gift from my mother, no less. A second by one of my favorite artists and sometime teller of children's stories, Leslie Watts. A third, an innocent enough purchase at a Gallery auction (as in 'I love my . . . ' -- how could there be any malice in that?). And a fourth, by the same Ms. Watts, soon to be retrieved from its (tenuous) wall space in local gallery and Canadiana emporium, Village Studios -- to
the evident relief of the gallery owner.
My first inkling that I may have inadvertently covered my walls with the artistic equivalent of projective tests came from the somewhat indignant and challenging comment of a client some years back. To wit, 'how could you hang a picture of a bloody, drowning horse in here -- of all places!' Hmm. Hadn't noticed that myself until you pointed it out. But then I sit with my back to it -- all the better to unnerve you (again, evidently). The artist, a palette knife specialist, had abstractly rendered the B.C. forest scene at right, placing centrally a splash (oops, there I go again) of red in the otherwise dark (and sombre?) tableau. Alerted to the double duty being served by painting, I began to collect 'interpretations' in the years since. To be sure, the 'horse' has 'surfaced' a few more times, along with a wounded swimmer, a sunburned grasshopper
-- and a number of other, generally 'dark' images.
Then there's the 'Cellar Steps' (at left). Painted largely in gray's and black's, the image attracted me largely for the nostalgic resonance it triggered in me, so similar was the scene to the basement entry in my own childhood home. I hadn't considered the 'layers of meaning' that would potentially be peeled back as folk with a whole host of associations entered the room and were faced with. . . well, evidently a whole host of associations. Seen variously as symbolic of a descent into some dark place in the psyche; or the residence of some unnamed, formless fear; or just a well-rendered representation of the lower levels of houses from bygone days. (Now that I mention it, I kind of lean toward door number 2 as I recall those anxious, childhood dashes -- down to get a jar of preserves, never looking into the shadowed corners of the cellar and certainly not daring to contemplate what might be secreted under the steps, watching and waiting to snatch the young David's ankle thru' the open-risered stairs.)
And we can't ignore the huge print pictured at right and upliftingly entitled 'Serenity'. Ever the innocent art lover, I'd always seen this seascape as displaying intrepid
courage, engagement in a freeing, thrilling passion -- windsurfing, released from the cares of the work-a-day world. Hadn't really focused much on the isolated, vulnerable, puny helplessness of this boarder as he/she, likely naively and oblivious to the roiling clouds and impending storm, skirts disaster or worse. . .
Poet Robert Bly has christened artists and writers as society's 'hired guns'. His reference is to our resistance to seeing the world for all that it is; our tendency to put a little smiley face at the end of a sentence. He maintains that we essentially 'pay' this talented subset of our culture to portray the 'truths' that we might be in just a bit of denial around. Think Greek tragedy as a prototype -- framed as 'entertainment', but pronouncing on our darker sides. Or Shakespeare, the master of showing us human folly and proclivity -- as 'just good theatre' on a Sunday afternoon. Disturbing isn't so disturbing if it's up on stage or 'projected' on a screen or evidently, hung on a wall.
I see this relating to mindfulness practice in a quite direct way. How we might view a particular piece of art or theatre, how uplifted or unnerved we might be by same, is in part a function of our life view. And it behooves us to take note; to use this as a direct conduit into self-knowledge. To be 'freaked out' by a painting or a play is information, quite possibly pertaining to our own particular 'shadow'. How better to gain wisdom about self than 'at the safe distance' of an observer. How better to incorporate this knowledge into our own individuation process than by noticing it -- not turning away
And so I happily add to my collection with only the slightest twinkle of impishness. Thanks for being my hired gun, Leslie. And it's off your wall, Martha.