Friday, April 13, 2007
Lux in Tenebris: Paintings and Installation by Michele Schuff
Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt.
—Scotus Erigena as quoted by Ezra Pound
…add your light to the sum of light.
—Billy Kwan in Christopher J. Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously
If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where will thee turn?
—George Fox as quoted by Kenneth Rexroth
There is light within a Man of Light, and it illuminates the whole world.
—the Gospel of Thomas
“All things that are, are lights.” We came from the Light, and to the Light we shall return. The fallen sparks trapped in earthen vessels is one of those models of gnostic philosophy that existed from one end of the Silk Road to the other, and has now spread throughout the earth. Perhaps it was always already spread throughout the earth. Perhaps the mysticism of light was spread already around the domesticated fires of the Paleolithic caves.
What we know for sure is that the mysticism of light took hold from Egypt to Central Asia and beyond. The major difference would be the source and destiny of the light; rationalists can say all they like that the metaphor is a natural diffusion of the multiple values perceived in fire and sunlight, and of course that is how all metaphors get started. (One might consult antique texts like Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction on the birth of all abstract concepts out of analogies drawn from direct physical experience.)
But the experience of the Inner Light seems to be a genuine psychological phenomenon, not necessarily universal. More often the Light is kept safely distanced from human beings, like fire itself or like an excess of sunlight. And yet one way or another, the light gets in. The disagreements regard the question of how and when.
“He was not that light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” And the Light Verse in the Koran birthed whole schools of mystical wisdom.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The issue for European and Asian antiquity was whether the light was there in the first place as part of a cosmic rescue operation or through a cosmic accident that meant the light itself had to be rescued.
Americans, raised on Calvinism’s notions of total depravity and with ample personal experience of innate human perversity, generally voted for the necessity of enlightenment from without, by any means necessary. But a working minority always asked if the light of enlightenment might not be already embedded in the muck, like the lotus flower that springs from the muddy lake bottom in the Buddhist metaphor.
Buddhism came late to America, of course; but gnostic philosophy and gnostic psychology came to the North American continent courtesy of Central European transmissions of Silk Road metaphysical metaphors. (I refer you to Harold Bloom’s books, such as Omens of Millennium, for an argument that America always was a more gnostically optimistic culture than is generally believed.)
Michele Schuff’s paintings and installation at Whitespace give us the metaphors unmediated. The two galleries give us the successive moments of light-mysticism in reverse, rather as Carl Jung suggested that contemporary souls had to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which itself is a Silk Road account of the re-imprisonment of the light that is classically gnostic in its essence). We begin in ineffable brightness and descend into luminous darkness. (Or maybe ascend; the floor of the back gallery is a big step higher than the floor of the front one.)
In other words, the front gallery’s big encaustic paintings feature vivid bits of red, yellow and orange surrounded by and melding into a white background/foreground, or globular ovals of white floating in a midnight-blue surround. The tables in the front gallery combine individual containers of light into a suggestion of collective purpose (like Christianity’s lamps put upon lampstands to give light, albeit soft light, to the whole house). The back gallery contains multiple hanging translucent models of Coleman lanterns (electrically lit, on a single circuit, the technology itself providing a metaphor of Neo-Platonism’s vision of the single Source of the One energizing and illuminating the Many).
One wants to celebrate the sheer technical versatility of “Lux in Tenebris” (Latin for “light in the darkness,” an extract from the Gospel of John that became the motto of the Presbyterian Church). It is rare to find an artist who solves compositional problems through a revelatory dream who also figures out how to combine onto a single rheostat the circuitry of multiple lanterns suspended by piano wire. The combination of imaginative leap and practical cast of mind suggests an enlightenment that is half intuitively Buddhist and half old-fashioned eighteenth-century rationalist. (For the record, Schuff’s chief source of metaphoric inspiration was Buddhist, but she is not a practicing Buddhist, and she began researching the metaphors of light after some very real experiences of light in the darkness in the unlit stretches of north Georgia’s Hambidge Center. In the night of rural artists’ retreats as in pioneer America, there are times when one can find oneself in the middle of a dark wood where the clear path is altogether lost, quite literally.)
The paintings make fine meditational objects. The repeated image of lights that are either stars in a night sky or illuminated vessels floating in a richly luminous dark are particularly intriguing.
Schuff may or may not know the onetime Persian-garden custom of putting lights in glass globules behind curtains of falling water, in niches for lights that are themselves concreteizations of the metaphors of mysticism. Most of us have encountered some version of the metaphors of microcosm and macrocosm that link the stellar distances of the night sky with the invisible distances of the occulted Inner Light. But that the technical problem of representation of all this should have been resolved in a dream is one of God’s gifts to the surviving Jungians among us. (Actually, it is God’s gift to a whole raft of contending interpretations, but one seldom finds such a pristine example of archetypes at work in everyday life.)
Of course, it is Schuff’s sufficiently transcendent talents as a painter that makes the dream’s visual insight more than a treasure held in earthen vessels. The wax of the encaustic medium contributes its customary mediation of light superbly, and the particular mix of light and dark in the palette is exactly what a good painting ought to contain. Occasional flaws of surface texture and other inevitable reasons for quibbling come only after the first impact, which is delectably positive and likely to ameliorate later critical impulses.
The hanging lanterns alone would be worth the price of admission, if one were being charged to get in, which one is not. The paintings alone would be worth it. As it is, the twin galleries of light and dark are a free gift that should be savored while the show is still there, and remembered lovingly when it is not.
The show is there through the fifth day of May, and you may consult your Atlanta arts calendar for the boring details of how and when to find it. Or point your browser, as a favorite radio program so charmingly puts it, to www.whitespace814.com.