Whilst at University I had a preoccupation with the philosophies of the Sceptics, the Naturalists and the Existentialists who all seemed to derive their viewpoints through the importance of human experience, or empiricism. From David Hume, to Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus. However, I felt that the human condition was a tortured one through their eyes, a struggle for meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. Over the last few years of working within the educational system, I too found vestigial elements of this in pedagogical approaches, that seemed to curtail the human spirit by condemning it to be a symptomatic condition of an overarching industrial enterprise, measured only against financial recuperation. I developed the impression that self exploration and the empiricism of the existentialists was essentially one of selfishness and diminishing returns; the Abyss felt all too empty.
David Hume once wrote, "In vain should I strain my faculties, and endeavor to receive pleasure from an object, which is not fitted by nature to affect my organs with delight. I may give myself pain by my fruitless endeavors; but shall never reach any pleasure."
What I think he was referring to here was essentially what he saw as a distinction between 'the art of humans' and 'the art of nature', and insofar as we create artifacts of beauty, they can never rival the awe of a natural occurrence.
I partly agree, but this depends largely on if you have the viewpoint that art is even created at all, or if there is a more fitting verb that could be appropriated from outside the lexicon of production.
A person who is 'inspired' can often be thought of as absorbing the essence of a moment and materialising it, but this is not exclusively a human trait. A Japanese Puffer Fish for example, too becomes inspired to make manifest sand mandalas in order to attract a mate. We wouldn't necessarily speak of the Puffer Fish as an artist, but as an organism deeply entrenched within the fractal patterns of its environment.
Bruce Riley's creations are indicative of this process, simultaneously involving premeditated and spontaneous actions to create his fluidly fragmented mandalas that resemble cross sections of generative quantum material.
By taking the original sense of 'inspired', (Latin, spirare) we are given the notion of inhalation. This was often thought of as a divine breath which quickens or stimulates an effect and is the same root as more negative words such as 'conspire', which essentially means 'to breath together'.
Having personally realized an inherent misunderstanding of existentialist terms such as 'the absurd', 'nothingness' and Sartre's infamous quote that 'nature is mute', I came across an idea, or rather an idea came across me, of 'Peak Experience'. It was an idea coined by Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who's theories I had largely been switched off from during my post-graduate education as a teacher, until now.
Peak Experience is the phenomena of experiencing exhilaration, magic, deeply resounding and sometimes unexplained feelings of heightened emotion, often mystic in nature, that bestow on the person a sense of truth and connectedness. This might come from a long walk, reading a poem, solving a quadratic equation or stroking a cat. For Marcel Proust this came when his mother offered him a cup of tea and a Petite Madeline. He wrote "No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory".
For Maslow, these feelings were achieved through the 'self actualisation' of his students. When a task was given and they were able to surpass the intention of the outcome, apply personal and intuitive contexts, a sense of accomplishment was felt, but a spiritual accomplishment.
In these resin paintings, Riley evokes the idea of my interpretation of the Peak Experience; Teleology. Teleology, a Greek term loosely relating to 'distant purpose', or in other words 'intrinsic intelligence', was an idea that Charles Darwin, looking to move away from the oppressive dogmas of religion (albeit whilst still being a Christian), discounted in favor of a 'survival of the fittest' viewpoint of natural selection. On the other hand, co-creator of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, could not account for the evolution of ideas, art, mathematics, and all the things associated with the higher faculties of the human mind, through natural selection alone.
He instead thought that there was a purpose to evolution, an attractor, pulling us out of the monkey body and toward something else, something similar to that which was the cause of Marcel Proust's tea and cake experience.
With David Hume's quote on the hierarchy of man made art and natural art, I would go as far as to say that the distinction is negligible, and what we see in the pieces of Riley, is the idea that his artworks emerge from without, from a personal attraction with his environment, and are thus environment incarnate. The composer, Ned Rorem, once remarked that "inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced", and is often why we can never quite put our finger on where our inspiration comes from, or our moments of despair. But I would attest that there is a kind of teleology to nature, an intelligence that generates within us the capacity to reveal new forms and compositions.
Like the acorn is pulled toward the Oak tree, we too are pulled towards self reflection, and in doing so, become a production of nature herself, to revel in the delights of composition, sound, color, taste and sensation, which in turn give us the ability to appreciate the distant intelligences, of animals such as the mandala making Puffer fish, or the resin abstractions of Bruce Riley.
So inhale deeply, because the Abyss is not so empty after all.
By Ventra is Golden
Associating with Undefined What-Have-Yous:
Thoughts on Bruce Riley’s Recent Paintings
by Matt Morris
Multiple heavens are stacked through different time zones and universes, and the soul is split into parts at death, with some pieces going to hell, some to their eternal reward and some go to live in the trees. So recounts the indigenous spiritual beliefs of Indonesian and Philippine cultures. The structure of these mythologies may be approximated in the paintings of Bruce Riley. Layers of watermedia and resin compress whole worlds into deep, churning events. Variously organic, patterned (sometimes condensing in ornamental designs) and loosely figurative, Riley’s paintings play jewel tones against
one another into luminous, vivifying complexities. While a painting is traditionally thought to open a window into the wall on which it hangs, these works are portals to someplace(s) altogether plural and pancosmic, where the painter and the viewer can occupy myriad roles (and positions and poses). We can be anyone we want, and there are a million ways to do it, as long as we are freed to flex our imaginations. These paintings testify as much.
My work’s about everything all at once; it’s about a universal thing that I might have access to, a state of being that doesn’t have anything to do with any kind of description. I’m so sorely aware of this humancentric view of how we process information in the world; it just seems like chewing things up a lot. There’s no need for answers. I’m very interested in a process of non-thinking, instead pulling something out of that spiritual ether and letting that guide, because there is a natural, coherent systemizing of life. The whole thing is a quiet watching.
In 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s Psychodiagnostik explained the psychiatrist’s technique for testing a patient’s associative responses to the abstract shapes found in a series of inkblots. And while many abstractionists in the proceeding century may eschew the viewer’s impulse to call out wriggling forms and flowing puddles as persons, places and things, Riley’s practice welcomes this engagement.
Rather than calling a thing by its name, these works and their audience are liberated to call a thing whatever they want. The sensuality of the perceptual is the dominant force here, and words (even these words) shudder in ecstasy before a total forfeit to the visual experiences they aim to articulate. A fantasy half formed unfolds: exotic orchids that only
bloom once a year, and even then must be coaxed out with song; drag superstar Ru Paul seated in half-lotus at an Ashram; a rainbow struggles with being snared between resinous panes, but blushes and admits he enjoys the fight; a recent sighting of the Loch Ness monster smacking a tray of chutneys; some of the paintings’ flies are open. As faces form in the paintings, they necessarily acknowledge the Chicago Imagists (associated with the “Hairy Who?” exhibitions that radically departed from conventional representations of figuration in painting), but there’s some sass to their tone. Lolling tongues (or phalluses) stick out in playful disregard, and these members come polka
dotted or bejeweled. Riley’s newest works are vivaciously masculine, like stained glass church windows peering into the heart of a man who is all ages at once. He (the artist) is excited, yet withdrawn. His actions in the paintings are obvious insofar that the paintings exist, but he doesn’t rely on the conventions of the artist’s hand or the brush’s stroke. Rather, a new system is in place, where drips, pours, sprays and stains of pigment and medium coalesce into utterly organic forms: as if blown in from a freak storm or plucked from Riley’s garden just outside his studio window in Chicago.
I’m messing with all of that cultural build up, all of that time binding, all the things that we are culturally and individually. I explore it through watching my own organism, using myself as a litmus test for where I look and what I allow myself to be. What I am at any given time is the current content of my consciousness. Since I’ve been watching my consciousness, the paintings have just become beautifully happy. My work, my life, all rolled into one. There are no hours; there’s no time.
Riley’s paintings have taken a turn towards the joyous and mysterious. In the recent Self Portrait (with seven years’ worth of layered painting on its surface), a single ‘figure’ is changed in for a gathering of glowing orbs, looming before a syrupy black field. Disco balls, Buddha hands or droplets of sun: these lemon, lime and spicy red forms overlap into a constellation of undefined what-have-you’s, reassured in their lack of isolation.
All quotations are from Bruce Riley and are drawn from an interview with the author at artist’s
studio on Sunday, May 9, 2010.
"I'm absolutely blown away by your work! I stood before a made thing that was not as if made but moved as if it organically grew from a small cluster (glob) of paint. Growth, organic movement. I got the same feeling as when, years ago, I came around a corner in Barcelona, and Gaudi's incredible Sagrada Famiglia was suddenly there growing out of the earth like a nucleus of mushrooms that outgrew their mushroomness to become, in Gaudi's making, a Cathedral. This showing at the Miller Gallery hit me like that, as if you've learned from every direction your art has taken you -- even the mistakes -- to now with sure hand let something emerge as seemingly spontaneously as it is carefully and meticulously executed. Bravo!"
Murray Bodo, Franciscan and author of Mystics: Ten Who Show Us the Ways of God.