(Republished from D/Visible Magazine. All images painted live by Kris D.)
After my last brief interview with live artist Kris Davidson, he and I decided that we hadn’t drilled quite deep enough into the mystery of what compels us both to paint. So over two weeks, while Kris was on the road in India and I was couch-surfing in Boulder, Colorado, we kept a lively correspondence about symbolism in art, mapping the unconscious, the visionary experience, anarchism, sacred geometry, and more. Here is the transcript of that conversation – an exchange that inspired us both to go even further sometime soon, that left us both delighted but wanting more:
Michael: I know you’re big about leaving the interpretation of your work to audiences, for the most part sticking to non-symbolic geometrical “landscapes” and the occasional fantastical and anonymous invertebrate seafloor flora. Why do you prefer to leave it so “faceless?” It seems like representational artwork makes it easier for audiences to connect to what the artist is doing…although in my own experience as a painter, it’s hard to completely improvise something satisfyingly real and recognizable and so sometimes my own preference for the abstract is less a critical choice and more about not making an epic experimental mess in front of people.
Kris: First off, the word “representational” in terms of artwork does not have to be confined to imagery from three-dimensional life. However, we humans live in a 3D reality and most representational art depicts this. Underneath our three-dimensional world is a geometrical architecture from which all matter comes forth. Generally speaking, sacred geometry is a way of describing this world through particular geometrical shapes and solids. My work is a process where I relate to these geometrical underpinnings, in an intuitive and hopefully poetic manner, and express it in a visual form. Though void of the 3D imagery in our day to day world, my paintings are still representational in that they are intended to point to what is underneath it all…and within us all. In terms of leaving my work “faceless” I wouldn’t say its necessarily faceless, its just that the face is perhaps…transparent. This ambiguous transparency allows for anyone to look away or look in. If someone looks in, their experience of the paintings becomes their own phenomenology. Geometry can suggest an infinitude of depth and information so someone can go as deep as they want to according to the capacity they have to delve. Personally, the use of 3D imagery gets in the way and I chose to fully dive into the pattern worlds a long time ago and it seems to be the most efficient way I have found to depict the mystic world that lies beneath it all…within us all… Do I lose some viewers because typical “representation” is lacking? Sure. Are compositions of shape and color still inviting for other viewers? Seems to be, so all of that feels perfect and fine by me.
Michael: That all makes sense in the context that a lot of the people who seem to connect most profoundly with work like yours (or mine, or Krystle Smith’s, or Adam Scott Miller’s) are either big into sacred geometry, or “the new physics,” or both. These alien topologies and perfect symmetries, intricate impossible knots and anonymous scapes that express a kind of nonverbal geometric hyper-language…these are all symbols and memes where various branches of contemporary spirituality and science seem to converge. Your work in particular is reminiscent of some of the physics diagrams popularized by unified field theorist Nassim Haramein, who is a kind of rock star in the electronic music scene in his own right via the emissary work of Jamie Janover. Nassim’s work points to the quantum vacuum as having exactly the same architecture as your work…but of course, he’s only made real waves in the last few years, so there’s a sense in which both of you are intuiting the same underlying reality. Leonard Shlain talked about this in Art & Physics, about how art explores a new paradigm in intuitive nonlinear ways right before (possibly even as a developmental precursor to) science coming in and systematizing the same understanding.
Add that to philosopher Ken Wilber’s discussion with Alex Grey about how Grey’s work is representational of deeper mind spaces, the entities and landscapes of “non-ordinary” (at least for us) realms of experience, and the whole “representational/nonrepresentational” divide starts to look pretty ludicrous to me. Grey’s training as a medical illustrator I’m sure has something to do with this, in the same way that my having worked at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum means that I’m coming at all of this with the eye of a scientific illustrator and the idea that I’m working on “subtle energy micro-flora” or “hyperdimensional entity portraiture,” an exploration of the field guide to these strange beings inhabiting the far reaches of our minds, a through-the-microscope version of Grey’s majestic paintings.
In Robert Venosa’s recent interview on Reality Sandwich, he mentioned how this kind of “visionary” work calls attention to unusual world-spaces and so many people don’t even recognize it as significant (in the case of your work or mine, they might not consider the piece representational). But, he says, that’s exactly what makes it subversive, because even if it doesn’t register with the rational mind, the imagery is still at work in the unconscious, familiarizing people with these ideas and ontological dimensions, priming them to accept the extraordinary as the mundane. And so grinds on the escalating threshold of what our evermore-hallucinogenic culture considers “visionary.” There’s something of this in your statement about how, “If someone looks in, their experience of the paintings becomes their own phenomenology.” Once you open your eyes to the work, it doesn’t matter whether you make sense of it as a particular thing or pattern or just an expressive gesture; the painting is your experience, it’s you, and there is definitely a meaning gap that interpretation rushes to fill. You might dislike the painting for being so stubbornly unfamiliar, or love it for being so spookily, unnameably familiar. Either way, stripping art down to its mathematical mother tongue definitely demands some kind of response, some kind of ritual-of-naming. Like when I got a betta fish in college and refused to name it and that drove my roommate nuts so he immediately insisted on calling it Freddy the Fish. It became an ongoing dispute, because the fish can’t recognize its own name so why bother, but on the other hand the human mind is desperate to have a handle on everything.
Kris: In regards to your statement: “stripping art down to its mathematical mother tongue definitely demands some kind of response, some kind of ritual-of-naming” I agree with you to the extent that by doing so, some kind of ambiguity is preserved for the previously mentioned reasons. I think the term “visionary” does this, generally. Regardless of the many ways this term can be interpreted, it still points to the mystical undercurrent that moves beneath and through all things as well as to the ineffable forces pushing the evolution of consciousness.
With respect to the tendency of the human mind to categorize as we explore I would say there would be a spectrum of sub genres with visionary art. On one side of that spectrum the art would be more emblematic and realistic (or representational, in the traditional sense…haha). As you travel away from that end of the spectrum, the artwork would gradually become more abstract and eventually geometrical as you arrive at the other side. In the middle of the spectrum you would find more integrated compositions of geometry and abstract forms meshing and morphing into emblematic or iconic elements. The closer you get to the geometrical side of the spectrum the more ambiguity you find in the art. As you mentioned this area of geometrical art represents a space where contemporary science and spirituality converge and there are a lot of visionary thinkers who’s research and ideas directly relate here. I think connecting these dots if you will is the best way to satisfy your tendency to name what exactly this is.
However, I don’t think the scientific illustrator in you could ever find satisfaction if you are wishing to categorize this realm and check it off the list as if you have just discovered a new species of sea flora or something. The elusiveness of this subject matter is inherent and necessary to how the art relates with people and their own perceptive constitutions. I think over-categorizing this realm and dissolving ambiguity could compartmentalize meaning and inhibit the potential of people’s interpretations.
In general though I agree there’s this spectrum, although there is a lot of overlap, especially with photography where landscape or microscopic photography is abstract for the sake of recognizing universal scaling laws…molehills that look like mountains. Or even to an extent any paintings of mountains, because landscapes are always about the footprint of the wider process, and so in a sense are at least pointing to the abstract.
This is where I agree with you about things getting slippery, too – because are we talking about landscapes or portraits? Are these places or people, we’re expressing here? I certainly am a location, as well as an intersection, an expression, a runaway train, an ecology, a community…as argued by Lewis Thomas and Lynn Margulis, the whole individual-as-collective turn that biology started taking back in the 60s and 70s and is now the basis of a theory of self-organization that mainstream science isn’t quite ready to accept: that this mysterious creative outpouring, this evolutionary explosion, occurs constantly and simultaneously in all directions along all axes on all levels of magnitude in all dimensions (and of course that means it doesn’t appear that way from an equal infinity of positions).
Anyway, when you say, “I think over-categorizing this realm and dissolving ambiguity could compartmentalize meaning and inhibit the potential of people’s interpretations,” I agree with you to the degree that slapping a name on something does tend to turn off a person’s brain, does allow them to think they know something when they really have no clue. No clue as to what? The ineffable mystery it continues to express. So in that sense, we really have nothing to worry about, there’s no way to squash the mystery.
I just want to make the distinction between description and explaination…learning to describe something like your artwork in the language of science doesn’t kill its elusive unspeakable truth anymore than (to borrow from Richard Dawkins) Isaac Newton’s explanation of how rainbows occur killed our wonder at the world or even at rainbows. To go a step further, I agree with Kevin Kelly that scientific exploration actually discovers more questions than answers, and so is in a sense not the exponential expansion of knowledge so much as it is the exponential expansion of our territory of ignorance, what we know we don’t know. And so in that sense it’s a far more efficient tool of mysticism than any religious or spiritual doctrine. We get to keep the left brain engaged, get to keep our analytical selves interested, without sacrificing awe…so long as we can remember that whatever interpretation we use is temporary scaffolding for the deeper and more mysterious models to come.
It’s like the Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone thing: “The Empire was never founded; Chaos never died.” That zen trickster boot-to-the-head inherent in work like yours doesn’t go away, no matter how many people talk about its relationship to unified field physics, Egyptian mystery schools, postmodern architecture, etc.
Speaking of Bey, I wonder how your philosophy about these things informed your more biologically-inspired work, like the 2007 paintings with little seafloor creature type figures in them? And how your passion for specific strains of political philosophy has cross-pollinated and co-evolved with your larger worldview (to use a mixed metaphor with two mixing-themed metaphors)?
Kris: I agree with what your saying in regards to the distinction you make between description and explanation. Couple that with the fact that we are close to saying the same thing on that subject, I’m going to move on to your last question…
In regards to the “seafloor creature type figures” or the “fungi structures” as some people have called them…or “alien plant forms…” Whatever you want to call them…ha…I suppose everything I’m absorbing through the senses and the mind had some influence on them emerging, but honestly they first came about after a DMT trip. At the time I was sort of living bi-coastally, splitting my time between San Francisco and this spot in the middle of nowhere Georgia. A little country town called Ila that pretty much consisted of a house here and there and miles upon miles of cow pastures. I would trek into the middle of these pastures where the grass was overgrown to three or four feet high and carve out a little spot to sit. It was summer, so there were all kinds of bugs and insects throughout the grass.
One day, while doing this and coming out of a DMT peak I moved through the typical geometries that I see and hovered into some kind of collective psychic field shared by me, the grasses, and the grass hoppers. After this I wandered back to my studio and started drawing what was to be the first of these little plant forms. I’m not sure what they are or what they mean, but the creation of them is informed by all of my geometrical stuff even though they are asymmetrical and completely different forms.
As far as my interest in political philosophy goes, it is something that gives a grounded and tangible voice to the foundation of interconnectedness that geometry has rooted into my brain. If I had to pick one word for a message that these geometrical compositions say, it would be “interconnectedness.” Everything there is,is connected in some way, and the play of geometrical forms celebrates this. Applying this to political history and philosophy I get to an Idea of free market meta-anarchism. Somewhat of a utopian ideal not necessarily applicable to mass humanity in the present moment, but nevertheless an ideal of humanity’s potential.
Michael: That’s totally a missing piece, here. Insofar as mapping goes, andvisionary art as descriptive of some mysterious experience, as an attempt to give it more form and bring it into the public realm for investigation, I think there’s a kind of scientific necessity to explain where we are going to find these things, where to look for them. “The methods of visionary art”…I have seen several attempts to codify this, and most of them say that unlike some art forms, this one is totally explicit about its means. And I think the reason why is because we are dealing with subjects that hang out on the border of comprehension, at least we can kind of map them out and say, well, these are the forms I see when I’m on the verge of sleep. These are the forms I see after I just ran a few miles. These are the forms I see when I’m sitting in a summer meadow surrounded by the buzz of insects and having a tryptamine vision…this kind comes before a certain point, and this other kind comes after.
The thing that getsme is that these “findings” are repeatable. I think anyone with an experience like that in a similar context probably recognizes thoseforms and ascribes to them the same sense of externality, of beingalive beyond the scope of one “hallucinating” mind. And that’s whyI’m stuck on the relationship between the curvier and the more angular elements of your work…as if we’re looking alternately at the chemistry and the biology of this world, zooming through orders of magnification. At least, that’s how my own mind appears to be frantically making sense of things. With respect to how your art and political philosophy are united in this notion of geometric interconnectedness, one thing that is really impressed upon me by your work is how fluid you have made these very crystalline geometries. They branch andreconnect, spilling across your grids in multiple directions with avery strong sense of flow even with the sharp angles and the perfectsymmetries. Sometimes it seems to me like muddy water flowing throughchannels cut into quartz, or fabricated from molten plastic. Neitherof those is really a good metaphor for the free market meta-anarchism,though.
More like the cosmic geometry that inspires your work and the kind of harmonious mutualism necessary for a peacefully anarchic state are both obvious from a certain perspective, at a certain point in spacetime, in a certain state of mind.
Kris: This is a great response, Michael, that really brings me back full circle and beyond to how we started this discussion, the idea of me leaving things with a certain veil of ambiguity around them. As mentioned, I do that to leave the audience no limits to the meaning they can decipher as well as no influence on what is actually deciphered. On a personal level, I don’t feel any innate desire to define my paintings in the detail that they are rendered visually or to give any scientific explanation of them. For me they just are… They are a poetic interpretation to something mystic, something so ineffable [and impossible to] articulate in words that the visual medium has proven to be the most efficient way for me to express, this is-ness.
However, I am open any one else’s interpretations and innate tendencies to define or explain. On a personal level, you seem to have more of an inclination to satisfy your mind’s need to make sense of things in a more scientific language. I fully honor and respect that as a facet of this emerging community that I am a part of. If yours or someone else’s scientific mind comes up with a relevant description of the geometries that were discussing here and it plants a meme in the community that resonates with likes minds and then becomes a more permanent part of the lexicon of visionary culture, then I am in full support. I am open to that as I put these paintings out there.
It’s interesting, the perspective expansion and shift I’m experiencing as I travel through India and grow more immersed in this ancient culture. In terms of spirituality and consciousness expansion, this culture has been refining various methods of facilitating these things for eons. On a level of cultural maturity the Indians would be at the top of the pyramid in this department. I see a lot of Westerners over here that seem to have dropped their past and have fully adopted the Indian ways of spirituality.
I understand that if you are coming from a place in the Western world that is void of spirituality and you find that here, then you may renounce your roots and embrace the things that are transforming you in the Indian culture. However, as interconnected as visionary culture is with aspects of Indian culture, it is still originating from the void left behind by a materialistic western culture. Therefore the integral consciousness that visionary culture speaks of is growing out of the fragmented consciousness of the mainstream West. It is something that is more embryonic in comparison to the mystic modalities of ancient India. As this culture grows through the current embryonic stages, a community of visionary-minded individuals pushes the development by the nurturing of their inherent talents and passions and then sharing them with the community of like minds. Over time, something that is esoteric becomes more accessible by greater segments of the community and a cross pollination of people’s work enriches and develops the culture further.
Seeing this pattern humbles me and encourages me to share what it is that I do with a trust that other people such as yourself can pick it up and add to it; In this case, expanding the potential meanings of these geometries in terms that may exceed my personal capacity to scientifically explain.
“Muddy water flowing through channels cut into quartz” may be one of the better metaphoric responses I have ever heard. In terms of an embryonic visionary culture going through various transformations necessary to evolve closer to an ideal such as a “free market meta-anarchism," this may actually be a perfect metaphor. As abstract as the connection is, it’s still connected there.