DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Tripartite Being

Filed under: Art and Philosophy — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 18:07

"The Sea is the Body, the two Fishes are Soul and Spirit", engraving from The Book of Lambspring, by Nicholas Barnaud Delphinas, 1599, illustrator unknown

The Sages will tell you
That two fishes are in our sea
Without any flesh or bones.
Let them be cooked in their own water;
Then they also will become a vast sea,
The vastness of which no man can describe.
Moreover, the Sages say
That the two fishes are only one, not two;
They are two, and nevertheless they are one,
Body, Spirit, and Soul.
Now, I tell you most truly,
Cook these three together,
That there may be a very large sea

This is from the first plate of the 1599 publication The Book of Lambspring.  The excerpt from the text is translated by Arthur Edward Waite.  In Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries alchemical craft and the Hermetic philosophy were expressed in “emblem books”, which consisted of series of often surreal images and baffling texts full of mythological and religious allusions, in which the language of chemical operations and that of spiritual transformation are inseparably alloyed.

The alchemical style comes from a pre-scientific era, when the study of Nature was called “natural philosophy”, and principles were described analogically rather than analytically.  The modern scientific method, with quantification and controlled variables and testable hypotheses, was just beginning to be developed.  It would soon prove far more efficacious than the old analogies, but the transition was not instantaneous.  Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most important figures in the development of analytical science, was also an alchemist and wrote extensively in the alchemical mode.

Three-headed monster in an alchemical flask, from "Splendor Solis", 1582, by Salomon Trismosin

Alchemical writings are deliberately confusing, to protect “secret knowledge”, which could include trade secrets of craftsmen as well as heretical philosophy.  I suspect the emblem books were intended to be used as teaching tools within an oral tradition.  Some of the weird images are not so far from the kind of thought-illustrations, such as Schrödinger’s cat, used by present-day scientists.

Nowadays we mostly lack the initiates who can explain alchemical writings and illustrations to us, but I’ve had a long fascination with these old riddling texts and strange pictures.  They emerge from deep study of the nature of material and spiritual transformations, and they retain the power to stimulate imagination and insight.  C. G. Jung adapted alchemical concepts to the methods of depth psychology, and alchemy has informed the work of many modern and contemporary artists, such as Anselm Kiefer.  After all, creative work cannot be reduced to a purely analytical approach, and thinking about it still takes place largely through analogy.

Resurrexit, 1973, by Anselm Kiefer

Let’s return from that tangent to the Book of Lambspring.  Its images are simpler and its way of speaking more direct than the typical alchemical style.  It consists of a series of animal images and an odd parable of a son reborn after being devoured by his own father.  It all seems to be based around the central idea of Hermeticism, that everything is in reality one thing, and that a process of separating and recombining can reveal this fundamental unity of the all.  (The entire text and illustrations are available here, it’s easy to read the whole thing in one sitting.)

The first division the book makes, and to which it returns again and again, is of our own being into three parts:  body, spirit, and soul.  The body is clear enough.  It is our physical being, our material aspect.  Mind and matter is a distinction that makes sense to us and that we still use today.

But what is the distinction being made between spirit and soul?  Let’s look at the words.  Spirit means breath, as in the root of respiration, inspiration, expiration and aspiration.  Most of the ancient languages describe spirit as breath.  In Greek the word for spirit is pneuma, in Hebrew ruach, in Arabic ruh. All of these words mean breath.   The concept is similar to the Chinese qi and the Sanskrit prana.  The salient characteristic of breath is that it is a current that moves through us but is not of us.  To live we must continuously take air in, and let it go.  It represents a vital force that flows through everything.  When we die, the breath stops moving through us, but it does not stop moving through the world.  It is energy and movement, universal and eternal.

The soul is anima in Latin, the root of animal and animated.  In Greek it’s psyche.  It’s nephesh in Hebrew and nafs in Arabic.  It is the self, the essence of a being.  It is personality, character, individuality.  It is the part of us that experiences the highs and lows of the human condition, and that relates to others through compassion.  Unlike the spirit, the soul is bound to the body.

Returning to our more modern distinction between mind and matter, then, is mind soul or spirit?  It is both.  The flow of experiences and sensations, the experience of time, the constant current of ideas and thoughts with which our intellects engage, are spirit.  All of these things exist independently of the individual, yet our lives consist of their constant coming and going.  Our particular tastes, our individual responses to experiences, the character we build through our struggles with the world, our memories and our achievements, are soul.  (Others may understand these terms differently; this is the distinction that speaks most clearly to me.)

But this is an art blog.  What does all this mysticism have to do with art?  For me, it informs my way of seeing things.  It’s an attempt to see multiple levels of reality together.  Since I’ve built my own creative process around figurative drawing, let’s see how this tripartite view of being would apply to drawing.

For me, a drawing of a living being must have body, spirit, and soul.  If it is missing any one of these aspects, it is an incomplete depiction.  There is nothing wrong with an incomplete depiction, of course.  Here are some lovely examples of such one-faceted images.

An anatomical illustration shows the structure of the body.

Torso, from "Livre du Pourtraiture" by Jehan Cousin, 1608

A gesture sketch depicts the energy of the body.

Gesture drawing by Bill Shelley, 2009

A caricature focuses on the individuality.

Frank Sinatra, by Al Hirschfeld, date unknown

I usually strive to get all three aspects, and to get them unified.  To me there is a magic that happens when all three of these aspects of the human can be seen harmoniously portrayed in a drawing.

Aimi, 2009, by Fred Hatt

I think a similar criterion could apply to other artforms.  A playwright, for instance, might try to convey the physical reality of a setting, the action of outside forces upon characters, and the individuality of their responses.

Remember the point of Lambspring is that these three aspects are really one.  Making the divisions reveals to us the underlying unity.

We can see similar three-part divisions in the Christian holy trinity, in the Ayurvedic gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas), in the shamanic three worlds, and so on.  They’re all really arbitrary divisions of a continuum.

One particular continuum, the color spectrum, was divided into seven parts by Newton, into six by Goethe, into five by Munsell, and into four by Hering’s opponent process theory.  But the division by three has been most useful for practical methods of industrial color reproduction.  Three legs are just enough to make a stool stable, three dimensions just enough to give us space.  The number three has the power of simplicity and the beginnings of complexity.

Color wheels based on the divisions of Newton, Goethe, Munsell, and Hering, from left to right respectively

Dividing the whole helps us to move within its dimensions, to explore its facets and work with its qualities, and finally to restore its oneness.

All the illustrations in this post that are not my own work were found on the web, and clicking on the pictures links back to where I found them.


My Interview with Yasuko

Yasuko Kasaki interviews Fred Hatt at CRS, May 1, 2010, photo by Satomi Kitahara

At the May 1 opening of my solo exhibition “Healing Hands” at CRS in New York, I was interviewed by Yasuko Kasaki, author, teacher, healer and founder of CRS, in their beautiful, newly renovated studio.

The exhibit consisted of three bodies of work:  “Healing Hands”, a series of color drawings based on the hands of the people who do healing work at CRS, “Heads”, larger than life-size portrait drawings, and “Chaos Compositions”, large scale, mostly multi-figure color drawings on black paper.  The “Healing Hands” series remains on view at CRS through May 26, while the other two bodies of work were hung in the CRS studio for the opening on May 1 only. CRS Art Gallery Director Satomi Kitahara organized the event.  See additional photos of the opening here.

The interview was part of the opening program, to introduce those interested in my artwork to my ideas and process.  Just below the next photo is a full transcript of the interview.  I have omitted the audience Q and A section to keep this to a reasonable length, but questioners brought up some interesting ideas that will be addressed in this blog soon.

Yasuko Kasaki interviews Fred Hatt at CRS, May 1, 2010, photo by Satomi Kitahara

Yasuko Kasaki:  We’ve set up this series named Artist’s Way.  Do you know the book, The Artist’s Way?  Yeah, great book about process and how to progress our creative energy and so on.  I’d like to let Fred talk about his secrets and his way of seeing things.  First we should start with the Healing Hands, our exhibition.  Those are the hands of healers, including mine.  We do spiritual healing, and we see so-called energy.  Energy is not actually the appropriate word, as a matter of fact.  We are not seeing energy, but we see the quality of the spirit and mind and networking and flow, and connection and balance of the mind power or life force, or something like that.  While we are doing this kind of healing, Fred, you see us and see something through your eyes.  How do you see the energy?

Fred Hatt:  Those drawings were mostly done before and after the healing circles that you have here.  The various healers that were models for the drawings  would sit in meditation, so they were just sitting and focusing their own energy within and I was just sketching.

Healing Hands #8, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I have always tried to see the human subject as energy rather than as an object.  I don’t claim to have any clairvoyant ability or anything like that, but I have practiced life drawing with devotion and discipline over a long time.  I go to two or three life drawing classes with timed poses every week.  I’ve been doing that for about fifteen years.  I’ve gotten to a level where the response of my hand is very quick.  I think that what the lines of the drawing record are the movements of perception.    I’m constantly looking, and as the eyes move and see a surface or notice some little thing, there’s a gesture of the hand that goes exactly with that.  The closer the link is between the perceiving and the gesture, the more it picks up the energy or the movement of the act of perception.  The act of perception is an interactive energetic or spiritual link with the person that I’m looking at.  I think that intuitively it really captures something.

I did sketches of the healers’ hands, then later I took them away and did some further work, colors and backgrounds, in my own studio.  More imagination comes into that part of it, but that’s also an intuitive response to what I can see from the position of the hands.  Every little thing expresses something about the person:  the way they choose to show their hands, the way that they’re resting, every little movement – little fidgets and adjustments.  All of those things are ways of perceiving some quality of the energy.  You start to see things not so much as an object of solid matter, but as something that’s flowing.

YK:  I thought figurative painters study anatomy of the muscles and bones, but you don’t see those things?

FH:  Well, I do, and I have studied that kind of thing also of course.  I’m fascinated with that.  But I also thought that’s not the only kind of anatomy there is.  I’m self-taught as an artist, so I just looked into anything I thought was interesting and relevant.   I learned about different ideas of the energy body, chakras and meridians and auras and all that kind of thing, because those systems are created by people who have focused on understanding the energy flow and the ways that different parts of the body are dynamically related, so there are insights to be had from any of that.  But I don’t rigidly follow any of those things.  I just take in as much information as possible and then try to respond intuitively in the moment, rather than systematically.

Healing Hands #9, 2010, by Fred Hatt

YK:  You say moment, but those hands are still, and those faces are still – but not still at all.  They are moving, because you are drawing movement.  So then, you are drawing and constantly changing, right?  So change and movement – you just try to get everything on the paper.

FH:  Well, the model is basically still, although a living person is never really still.  Even if a model in an art class is trying to sit perfectly still, they’re breathing, the blood is flowing, the mind is working, the nerves are working.   There’s a lot of flowing energy going on.  There’s also a lot of energy being exchanged between the model and the artist, because for the person posing, when you are being witnessed, when you feel that you are being seen, that really changes your experience.  It makes everything you do, it makes your being a communication, a sharing.  I think of drawing also as a sharing.  I feel like if someone is posing for me, that’s a generous act, letting me really look, letting me try to see as much as I can see of someone.   I feel like I have to work as hard as I can, I have to put as much as I can put into it, to honor that.  I want that to be a gift back.  I think that a lot of artists are making work for the public or the critics or whoever.  I always feel like I’m doing it for the models first.  I want them to see how I see them.  I want it to be a mutual sharing act.

Donna, 2009, by Fred Hatt

YK:  When I saw you for the first time here [at CRS], you were dancing here.  [To audience] You know that he is a great dancer, great performer, he is so talented.  And among other performers, he is really, I don’t want to use the word outstanding – outstanding too, but I don’t want to compare – but the quality of his performance is a little bit different.  Other performers just showed us what they created, and said “See us.”  But Fred’s way is “See?  Can you see?  Let’s see together.  You can see this movement, you can see this light, see?  It’s beautiful.  See?  You enjoy this?”  Anything he does, his attitude is like that.  [back to Fred] So sharing is all the time your  core.  And the gift is not from me to you, it’s just together.  Let’s get this gift.  This is your attitude.  Great, I think.

FH:  Picasso said “Creativity is happiness.”  I really believe that.

Shadows from Fred Hatt on Vimeo.

(The video embedded above is a performance by Fred Hatt and Corinna Brown, done at CRS in 2007.  More info available here.)

YK:  Can you talk about color?  I see color in the energy field.  But how do you see these colors?  I don’t think you perceive the same color, probably differently.

FH:  I don’t take the same approach to color all the time.  In  some of the heads, the portrait drawings here, if you look at them from a distance the color looks fairly realistic, it looks like skin tone, but if you look close, there are no skin tone colors there.  It’s a lot of different colors kind of mixing in the eye.  I’m actually trying to capture some sense of the color I see, with the idea that color is a relative rather than an absolute quality.  Colors change according to what they’re next to, and the colors of something like human skin are so subtle that if you try to just copy the surface color it’s flat and dead looking, so I’m trying to find those subtle variations.  Where the blood is closer to the surface you get pinker tones, for example.  That sort of thing gives this feeling of what’s below the surface, the life.

Michael W, 2009, by Fred Hatt

On these larger drawings with the multiple overlapping figures, I use color in a much more abstract way.  I should describe the process.  I work in my studio with a model.  We start out doing quick poses, and I just do simple line drawings.  I just grab colors at random.  I have a big bowl of crayons, and I just use whatever I pull out.  That way, once I have a huge mess of overlapping drawings, I can sort of follow one out of the mess by following the same color.  It becomes a massive chaotic mess of lines that looks like nothing but static, and then I try to go into it and find order in the chaos.  I develop parts of some of the figures, pull things forward, push things back, and find some kind of structure into it.  It’s an improvisational process.  This way of working creates these complex compositions which I would never be able to design.  If I made preparatory sketches and tried to figure it all out on paper, I couldn’t do it.  It only emerges from the process.

Seer, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Another thing that’s interesting to me about these is that for the viewer, it requires a much more active kind of looking than a picture.  If you look at the portrait drawings, that’s a picture.  You see and grasp the whole image.  It’s very direct.  Most figurative artwork is like that.  When you look at these more complex pieces, you look into them and try to find what’s there and find the interesting juxtapositions that happen by chance.

The color in these pieces is, in the beginning of the work, random, as are several other aspects of the process.  In the later development stages, I choose colors just out of an aesthetic sense.  The colors in these aren’t symbolic or anything like that, but they emerge in the process.  I think just because they’re on black, the colors have this neon, or black velvet painting, quality of light.  I like to draw on a darker surface, because I think I see the light first, then the shadows.  If you draw on white paper you really have to start with the shadows.

YK:  What’s the difference between your seeing movement and drawing it, and your doing movement yourself, very different ways of expression as an artist?

FH:  My experience with movement and performance happened from just following my interests, because since I was self-taught I didn’t have any teacher telling me I need to go in a particular direction.  I think most figurative artists are not interested in experimental performance art.  At least, when I meet other figurative artists, and I tell them I’m interested in that sort of stuff, they’re like “Ugh.”  But for me that experimental work was really interesting because the artists were treating the creative process as an experience, rather than as the production of an object.  I think that’s a very interesting approach.  Before the invention of photography, just the ability to create a realistic image was a form of magic.  Images were rare and had power just in their illusion of reality.  Nowadays, we live in a world where we’re bombarded with images constantly.  There are screens and advertising everywhere you look.  Images don’t, in themselves, have any magic at all any more.  They’re just pollution.  How do you get back to that feeling of it having magic and power?  To me, these really experimental artists, the butoh artists, the people that were doing happenings and that kind of thing, were trying to approach that problem by giving people an experience that can transform your perception.

I needed to incorporate this approach into my own exploration.  I studied butoh dance and I did a lot of work with performance.   I had to eventually come back more to visual art and drawing because I felt like that’s where my talent was strongest, and it’s where I found that I had the ability to do a really disciplined practice.  And I’m an introverted kind of person, so visual art is more natural for that.  But I think that the experience of performing was about trying to find new states.  To enter into a performing state is sort of shamanic.  What I learned from that really does inform the way that I draw, because if I’m trying to capture someone’s movement or their inner states, my own experience of feeling movement informs it, at least intuitively.

Range, 2009, by Fred Hatt

YK:  You were doing really interesting and crazy things in New York City with the performers, gathering in the early morning and doing really crazy things and naked things.

FH:  I haven’t really done that kind of thing recently, but back in the 90’s, in the days before 9/11, when there was no security anywhere, you could get away with anything in New York City, and we did.  I think the specific thing you’re talking about is a series of performances in the summer of ’97.  It was a collaboration that I worked out with Julie Atlas Muz, who is a well known burlesque performer and also a really good postmodern choreographer who did a lot of really creative and unusual performances.  In that summer, every day that was a new moon or a full moon day, we would go out before dawn, with whatever other performers we could get to come with us, to some location around the city, the Staten Island Ferry, or Central Park, or Coney Island, some interesting location where there were a lot of things to interact with, and we did these interactive, improvisational happenings.  Usually the only audience was people that we invited to come along and take pictures or video, but sometimes there were other people around, especially on the Staten Island Ferry where we sort of had a captive audience.  The people that were performing could pretty much do whatever they wanted, but at that time of day, five o’clock in the morning, there is this incredible, powerful thing happening, the transformation of night into day.  It’s a lighting effect that you couldn’t get from a theater lighting designer.  If you had millions of dollars you couldn’t make something that amazing, and each time it was different.  The birds are the rulers of that time, and they’re so loud, and human beings are so quiet.  It’s the time when everyone is asleep, everyone is dreaming, and so even though you’re awake, you can be in a dream in the real world, because it’s the time when everyone is dreaming,  That’s the predominant energy.  Really amazing things happened in those performances.  It was a struggle to get up really early in the morning and trek out to some place to do this thing, but then when we got done, we had to kill several hours before going to work or whatever.

Video capture from "Early Morning Dances: Belvedere Castle", 1997, performance by Julie Atlas Muz and Fred Hatt

YK:  Yeah, now there’s security, everything has changed, but you are still open to happening.  And happening is the same as miracles.  You cannot make up a happening, but you can keep your mind open to happening.  But to do so, I believe you need discipline.  So your mind is really based on the steady, long discipline, I believe.  So what kind of discipline are you keeping?

FH:  The regular life drawing classes I mentioned, I’m really devoted to that, and that’s a kind of a meditative practice, but it’s an active thing.  I also have had a practice, not quite as disciplined I have to say, with movement.  All of the practice is to get to that place where you are confident enough that you can just respond immediately without having to think about anything, without uncertainty.

YK:  How many years have you been doing so?

FH:  You know, that’s really hard to answer, because since I’m self-taught as an artist, people  say, “How long have you been doing that, when did you start?”  Well, I was drawing when I was a kid.  It took me many years to kind of find my way in bits and pieces, and that’s just an impossible question to answer because there are so many different moments where you could say it started here, or it started there.  The regular life drawing practice has been the most consistent thing, and that started in the mid-90’s, but before that I was also doing a lot of creative things, but I was just a little bit unfocused,  I would be writing poetry for a while, and then I’d lose my inspiration, and I’d start to do painting, and then I’d do that until I just felt like I was doing the same thing all the time, and then I’d stop and I’d start making films or something.  It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t going to get anywhere that way.  I think my youthful idea was that art was about being in an inspired state, and over time I realized it’s really more about steady work and discipline.  The inspired state is not so much about something that strikes you from the clouds, but more like really long work on changing the way that you experience the world, so that it’s experienced as magical.

Auricle, 2008, by Fred Hatt

YK:  Do you know even Picasso tried to write a poem?  He was struggling from painting and one day thought, writing looks much easier, and he wrote some poems and recited in front of friends, and Gertrude Stein said “Stop it!  Go back to painting.  At least your painting is better than your poems!”

FH:  One thing I think I learned from deciding to be dedicated to practice is that when you feel frustrated, that’s not a bad thing, because usually when you feel frustrated, it’s not going very well, what that really means is somewhere on the inside you’ve already moved up to another level.  You just aren’t able to do it yet.  So if you just keep going, you will reach that level.

YK:  So to say something as the artist is to go beyond perception.  So beyond perception is to try to reach vision, and reaching vision is always a happy experience, but somehow we are scared at happiness itself.  So that’s why you are training yourself to be happy, happy, to get used to the happy experience.  That’s why we can’t stop joining you.  Your art is like that for me.

But I can answer what you couldn’t answer by yourself, when you started drawing.  It’s 1961. [Holds up copy of drawing]  This is José Greco.  Fred Hatt, three year old boy, just saw flamenco, and somehow, he drew it.  This is his first – it’s amazing.

José Greco Dancing in Purple Boots, 1961, by Fred Hatt

FH:  The story of that:  I was a well-behaved little child, and I was the first child, and my parents were young, they were really interested in cultural events, and they could get away with bringing me, because I didn’t make noise, so they took me to all these things.  They took me to see this famous flamenco dancer of the time, José Greco.  I was so turned on by that, because it had stomping, and it was passionate, and I had never encountered anything like that before, so I drew that.  I rediscovered that drawing when I was around 40 years old.  I had finally come to the point I was really developing my visual art, and I was running these movement drawing classes where we had the models moving instead of standing still, and artists that were willing to try that would try to capture the feeling of movement, and I was working with a lot of dancers and performers.  I went back and visited my parents and I decided to look for the old artwork that they saved, and that’s the earliest thing.  I thought, wow, look at this:  I was three and I already was inspired by movement and dance, and the way I was trying to capture it was scribbling with crayons!  And it took me almost forty years to find my way back!

(An earlier blog post also tells the story of the José Greco drawing).

Here’s a panoramic view showing the large works in the CRS Studio.  You may need to scroll to the right to see it all.

Panorama of exhibit in CRS Studio, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

The Healing Hands drawings are 18 3/8″ x 24 1/2″.  The Heads (portraits) are 50 cm x 70 cm.  The larger works seen above range from 36″ x 48″ to 60″ x 60″.  All works are aquarelle on paper.


The Mind is an Antenna

Filed under: Art and Philosophy — Tags: , , , , — fred @ 00:24
Crystalize, 2000, by Fred Hatt

Crystalize, 2000, by Fred Hatt

A long time ago, someone taught me a simple way of meditation.  I was told that thoughts would come, and I should let them go.  You can’t stop the thoughts coming, but you can choose not to pick up on them or follow them, to just let them come and let them go.  I was taught to focus on the breath coming in and out, to give the mind a simple physical point of attention so that thoughts would not become a central thread.

Thoughts did come, of course.  The experience was like sitting on a city park bench, listening to fragmentary snatches of conversation from the people passing by.  Most of the thoughts were incomplete or nonsensical.  Many were intriguing.  If I had chosen to follow them, I could have spun threads of thinking, feeling, or narrative out of them.  But I chose to let them go, so they remained disjointed fragments.

I’ve had this experience many times since then.  Over time, I have come to believe that the mind does not originate these thoughts, but that thoughts exist in some impersonal mind-field and the mind just perceives them.  The mind is sensing thoughts, not generating them.  Of course, the mind is not just a sensor, but also a processor, so if you latch onto a thought you can build it into a structure using all the cognitive tricks:  emotion, metaphor, narrative, logic.  But the seed-thoughts, I believe, come into the mind from outside.

Projection, 1998, by Fred Hatt

Projection, 1998, by Fred Hatt

Our sense of a coherent self arises from the flow of our sensations, thoughts, and memories.  We identify with what we have experienced and what we think.  But all of that is really external.  Although it is our only way of perceiving ourselves, it is not ourselves.  It is simply the medium through which we move, as water is the medium in which a fish swims.

The world contains every possible kind of sensory input, every kind of experience, all the time.  It is a liberation to realize that we have some control over what aspects of this omnisensorium we choose to give our attention to.  When we pay attention to horror, the threading aspect of the mind will lead us to perceive more and more horror.  Likewise if we choose to focus on beauty or joy or humor.  In terms of thoughts, all kinds of thoughts are in the field at all times.

Like radio waves, many streams of thought are passing through us simultaneously, most of them unperceived.  If we don’t know how to tune our antenna, we are most likely to pick up the loudest signals, the million megawatt superstations.  Unfortunately those signals are mostly vacuous drivel and unfocused emotional urges.  Finding the golden strands in the stream of muck depends on learning to withdraw attention from the loudest and most sensational things so we can give our attention to quieter, subtler things.

Ourania, 1997, by Fred Hatt

Ourania, 1997, by Fred Hatt

The drawings in this post are aquarelle crayon on paper, 18″ x 24″ (46 x 61 cm).


The Spirit of Weeds

Sidewalk Reclaimed, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Sidewalk Reclaimed, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Weeds are feral plants, the bane of gardeners and pavers.  They thrive in the most inhospitable settings, taking root in the sooty dust that collects in cracks, taking over abandoned urban spaces with remarkable speed, breaking concrete and reclaiming mankind’s barrens for the kingdom of plants.

Straight and Scribbly Lines, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Straight and Scribbly Lines, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Weeds on Stairs, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Weeds on Stairs, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Urban Copse, 2006, by Fred Hatt

Urban Copse, 2006, by Fred Hatt

Weeds may be glorious wildflowers or medicinal herbs, thistles, grasses or ivies.  The kind that thrive in cities often seem to have forms that are ragged, jagged, scribbly, electric.  They’re tough and prickly, like many urban dwellers.

Street Grass, 2008, photo by Fred Hatt

Street Grass, 2008, photo by Fred Hatt

Grassburst, 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Grassburst, 2007, photo by Fred Hatt

Demolition Site, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

Demolition Site, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

In our uncertain time, everything seems to be breaking down.  Industrial civilization defines prosperity only as growth, but the limits to growth are looming everywhere.  Population and consumption of resources have exploded.  The atmosphere is running a fever.  Our food and all our technology are built on reservoirs of oil that may be running dry.  Our financial system is metastatic, a cancer growing on the real economy.  Our political system is sclerotic, too beholden to moneyed interests to act for the common good.  Bold change will not come from our leaders, but only from our forced adaptation to catastrophes.

Greenpoint Dandelions, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Greenpoint Dandelions, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Such times will be hard for vast monocultures, and for hothouse flowers (and I do intend those as human metaphors).  Such times call for weedy spirits, for those that can find their earthly grounding even in the decaying manufactured world, and who burst with green power, determined to reassert the forces of life.

Storm Drain Greenery, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Storm Drain Greenery, 2004, photo by Fred Hatt

Cobblestone Grass, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Cobblestone Grass, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Blue/Yellow/Green, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Blue/Yellow/Green, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Backlit Weeds, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Backlit Weeds, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Vacant Lot, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

Vacant Lot, 2002, photo by Fred Hatt

I took all the photos in this post in New York City, over the last seven years.


Meanings of the Nude

"Venus of Lespugue", c. 23,000 BCE

“Venus of Lespugue”, c. 23,000 BCE

Why is the naked human body such an enduring focus of art?  Of course the image of the human form excites our mirror neurons, and can express all aspects of the human experience, but it could usually do that just as well in clothes.  Art students study nude models in order to see the structure and movement of the body unobstructed, but the nude figure in art clearly has an importance beyond its function in learning anatomy.  The naked body is an object of desire, but the nude in art can evoke a far more complex response than can pornographic imagery.

The nude evokes many contradictory things.  Historically, the nude figure has been seen as representing innocence and purity as well as sensuality and sexuality.  The artistic nude can be Apollonian, showing the harmonies of sacred geometry as embodied in the human form, or it can be Dionysian, expressing unconstrained energy or emotion.  Power and weakness, pride and shame, pleasure and pain:  all of these are the experiences of being in the flesh, and all can be shown in the image of the flesh.

William Blake, "Glad Day"
William Blake, “Glad Day”, 1794

In the formal experimentation of the moderns, the nude as a subject maintained a connection to artistic conventions and provided a vital link of identification, humanizing abstraction.

Matisse, "Blue Nude"

Matisse, “Blue Nude”, 1952

In contemporary art since Bacon, the nude is often a mirror reflecting the darkest aspects of society through fragmentation, commodification, dehumanization, dissociation and repulsion.

Jenny Saville, "Hybrid", 1997

Jenny Saville, “Hybrid”, 1997

For the practicing artist, scopophilia, the erotics of seeing, can be an important motivating factor, stimulating the considerable focus of energy that is required in producing art.  Despite the popular image of the artist as lubricious libertine, no real art is produced unless the erotic impulse is sublimated into the creative drive.  Thus the artist of the nude may also represent both sensuality and chastity through her or his practice.

Boucher, "Nude on a Sofa", 1752

Boucher, “Miss O’Murphy”, 1752

Anthropologist Ian Gilligan, who studies the prehistory of clothing, says “Clothing is the thing that separates us from nature, literally and symbolically . . . It actually affects us in the way we perceive ourselves and our environment.”  Clothing is a barrier between us and the world, and between us and our own physical selves, with “implications for how we think about ourselves in relation to other things, but also in how our bodies interact with the world. . . We’ve fabricated a whole artificial environment, which is a kind of externalised clothing. Many aspects of modern existence insulate us from the outside natural world.”

This separation from Nature has become an unhealed split, a division of the self expressed in the root myths of human culture.  In the story of Adam and Eve we are told that the initial manifestation of self-awareness is shame at nakedness, and God’s punishment for it is suffering and death.  Thus our very bodies are seen as the source of evil and sin and must be hidden.

Masaccio, "Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden"

Masaccio, “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden”, 1423

Observing death we see that the living person or soul becomes separated from the body, and so we imagine that these things are inherently separate, forced together by a cruel deity to test us.  The mind or spirit is heavenly, angelic and pure, while the physical body binds us to death, destructive urges and suffering.

The body is identified with the Earth, whose odorous solidity it shares.  Body and Nature, and all the living things of Earth, are then reduced to objects, to be tamed and exploited without mercy for the advancement of the supposedly pure spirit.  The Earth has suffered from this division within Man, but as creatures of Earth we do not escape the pain.

Michelangelo, "Awakening Slave", 1519

Michelangelo, “Awakening Slave”, 1519

The West or the Abrahamic religions hold no monopoly on this hatred of the body.  The way of Yoga would seem opposed to the split, a practice of fully embodied spirituality, and yet the Yogasutras, the most revered ancient source of Yoga philosophy, clearly state the aim of the practice of Yoga is to “transcend the qualities of nature”, to purify ourselves of all physical desires and to “disentangle ourselves from involvement in even the subtlest manifestations of the phenomenal world,” as quoted from B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Scientific humanists might rail against religious ideas of the soul or the afterlife, but still long to upload the mind into a computer as a way of escaping the fallibility and mortality of the flesh.   (As long as computers don’t last even one tenth as long as the human body, this would hardly seem to solve the problem!)

For the fundamentalists in all cultures that fear individual freedom and the open mind, the image of the human body is a threat to order, as it reminds people of pure animal joy.  The free body terrifies authoritarians.  If the people experience freedom at the level of the body, there will be no controlling them!  Thus “modesty” must be strictly enforced.

Gustav Vigeland, figure from Vigeland Park, Oslo, c. 1930

Gustav Vigeland, figure from Vigeland Park, Oslo, c. 1930, photo by Simon Davey

The image of the nude reminds us that we are our bodies, that sexuality and appetites and mortality are our very nature, and that the beauty of our animality cannot be separated from the beauty of our spirituality.

Perhaps death separates body and spirit, but if we separate them in life we are like a house divided against itself, that cannot stand.  We cannot, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, deny and conceal the part of us that decays.  I believe mind and matter are two surfaces of a single membrane, and neither can exist in isolation from the other.

Fred Hatt, "Pregnant Couple", 2008

Fred Hatt, “Pregnant Couple”, 2008

For me, the nude is an image of unity, of spirit incarnate and matter imbued with life.  A work of art is in itself an attempt to put living energy into a physical form, so the subject matter perfectly fits the activity.  The nude hides neither its eroticism nor its mortality, but shows the human as a cell of the body of Earth.  The nude is a talisman to heal the ancient division afflicting humanity, and an assertion of freedom and joy against fundamentalism and fear.

I would like to hear readers’ responses to this post.  Please comment.

Fair use claimed for all photos of artwork.  Click on images for links to sources.

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