Let’s just jump right in and try to define this genre: Symbolism originally developed as an artistic movement in the 19th Century, first as a literary movement before spreading into the arts. Prior to the coining of the term, the visual art movement was defined as “Decadent” before a manifesto was developed in 1886 by Jean Moreas. The forerunner to Surrealism, Symbolism focused itself on matters of the human psyche. Archetypes, myth, dreamscapes, and spiritualism were common themes. The handling of both subject and composition had often had a musical or poetic sense about it, and in fact many Symbolist pieces of the time were directly inspired by poems or musical compositions of other Symbolists. While there were symbolic objects placed in the compositions, there was rarely literal play: symbols were touchstones rather than statements.
The movement never really died out, rather, it morphed organically into a variety of other movements, most notably Surrealism. It fell out of fashion as the art world chose to embrace 20th Century artistic ideals, although its influence did see itself felt in the realms of fantastical realism and later on in science fiction and fantasy art. In the 1990s, Pop Surrealism actively pursued many of the ideals that the original movement laid out, mostly notably in archetypal use of the female subject as she interfaced with otherworldly and vaguely mythological environments, often with a disturbing twist.
Now, in the 21st Century, we see a very healthy and vibrant set of artists exploring the human psyche much as the Symbolists did in the 19th Century. Why now, and in this way? I can only answer from my own observation, rather than from a place of expertise, but I think its a direct correlation to the quickening of the times. As we become more global, as our technology and sciences expand, we are forced to reckon with our moral and spiritual values. This is a place ripe with symbolism, meaning, texture, harmony. Interplay of ideals, divine, and the profane exist in this realm, where words themselves tend to fail.
When Liba Stambollion and I first talked about creating a Symbolist show, our first task was to develop a set of variables as to what a modern Symbolist is or created. We both had slightly different points of view, which we agreed was in line with Symbolism in the first place (its definition is a little different for everyone). Liba entered the arena with a background that was more Visionary, with a stable of artists that have been treading these waters for a while. I came to the table with my Fantasy background, where narrative, context, and myth (mostly Western) are the focus. Most of my artists were illustrators that moonlighted as what one could call Symbolists. Our biggest problem, as curators, was culling the group down to a manageable number. We eventually worked it out based on the way the final group interplayed with each other, hoping to create a harmonious movement of work within the confines of a gallery.
Liba asked me to submit my own work, as I’ve been working in fantasy and imaginative realism for a long time, and my work made a natural transition to Symbolism as I’ve been exploring my relationship with my family of origin. I declined initially; I didn’t feel like I deserved a spot in the show. She urged me on, and finally I accepted, and my piece entitled “Little Grandma” was submitted. I have a difficult time speaking about the piece as a critic versus artist, but I can give insight to it in a way a curator could not. This gives me (and Liba, since she too has a piece in the show) a unique point of view. I do have an artist statement on the piece (which is published in our catalog), which speaks to the inspiration of the painting, which was a great grandmother of mine. Its a really simple composition, almost abstracted, with only the face and hand really developed. Textures of paint, which is very thick in some places, scraped back in others, cause the piece to shimmer in the light (which you don’t see in reproductions). She is clearly archetypal, and yet still human, familiar. I personally think the glasses and her wistful smile are key to bridging her from the world of fantastical to our world.
I had to really sit and be with the pieces of art that were submitted to the show before I could clearly develop a “feel” to them. Some of them where surprisingly small in stature (such as Rhonda Libbey’s “Burning Heart”, which is only 5 x 7 inches). Two had textural elements in them that aren’t easily viewed digitally, such as Carrie Anne Baade’s “Security” and Samuel Araya’s “Portrait of a Black Magician”, which both use a kind of wallpaper or patterned paper as a substrate. Liba’s piece nearly vibrates off the canvas. These things don’t really appear to me until I’m sitting in the same room with the art, and especially with the concept of symbolism, I feel its very important to take note of these additional elements of the work.
In this grouping, there is a total of 24 pieces by 23 artists, and I would do the show a disservice if I attempted to cram my input into one blog post. Instead, I’m going to highlight a few pieces at a time in a series of posts as the show progresses.
In this post, I’ll talk about the contributions of Aloria Weaver, Carrie Anne Baade, Liba WS, Maj Askew, Samuel Araya, and Yuko Ishii.
Aloria Weaver, “Integrity, Piercing the Veil of Obscuration”, Oil and 23k gold on linen, 22 x 28″
Aloria addresses her canvas mindfully on several levels, in which all take center stage. The culmination is powerful and technically masterful.
The subject is a modern woman tattooed and adorned in indigenous American motifs, yet rendered in a traditional three-quarter Western portrait in the classical style. She’s crowned in a golden corona and framed in a stylistic, flattened turquoise Aztec border. The muted cools in this painting allow the glow of skin and the red fabric to pop forward without being overly chromatic. It gives off a rich, velvety texture.
It doesn’t feel like cultural appropriation in any sense, to me. I can tell that the figure in this piece fully identifies with her choice of adornment: it is a part of her. It amplifies the divine within her. And that divinity, symbolized by the corona, is pure, noble (as gold is a “noble” metal and does not oxidize). The corona itself is reminiscent of the sun and the palm leaf, both extremely important, ancient symbols in the New and Old worlds.
Carrie Anne Baade, “Security”, Oil on panel, 9 x 12″
This piece is uncharacteristically small for Carrie (she usually works on large panels), only about the size of a book. I was a little bit disappointed at first, until I actually sat with it and realized that had it been large, it would have had a completely different feel, and I believe its statement would have been more of a Statement. This feels a little more intimate.
We have many symbolic “clues” in her piece that allow the viewer to compose a narrative: the angel with a mortal head on her shoulders, jewels adorning her oversized glove-like hand, two raptors with bodies like hawkish owls and beaks like vultures and eagles, and a little figure hanging from the bird stand. The bird’s eyes seem covered by birdish magnifying lenses, much like a jeweller’s loupe.
What does this mean? Surely it means something! Is it a puzzle, an allegory, or a pun? Is it a personal statement or a cultural statement? My own mind buzzes as I try to put the clues together to form the “answer”, and I’m sure Carrie is out there somewhere, smirking. She knows we’re all going to sit there, trying to figure it out, and while we may all agree on specific bits and pieces of what it could mean, the result in the end is a kind of “Choose Your Own Adventure” story (remember those?). And each will be just as “right” as the others.
Liba WS, “Sacred Deer”, Oil on canvas, 23.5″ diameter
Liba and I have spoken at length about this piece, which was not her original submission, but I’m glad its making its debut in this show. Her original piece was beautiful, but this one speaks more deeply to a joy of life that I think radiates outwards.
The primary subject is the stag, but I feel the piece would not be the same without his collar of butterflies and the abstracted, organic patterns in the background. The butterflies are monarch, with the center butterfly being bluish green, which is also similar to the color of the throat chakra (to speak your truth). I know Liba is a Sun sign baby, so I’m not sure if she intentionally chose the monarch butterfly or subconsciously did it. What I do know is that the butterfly symbolizes the resurrection of life, the emergence of the old into the new, a transmutation to a higher level of being.
The organic patterns suggest nautilus shells, lotus flowers, waves, peacock feathers, bugs. Every time I look at her piece, I see different things push forward. It reminds me of the paisley dresses my mom wore in the early 1970s, in which I would sit, mesmerized, visually tracking and retracking the curves and flares of the patterns on the dress as she’d swish by me.
Maj Askew, “Olive over Tallow”, Oil and digital on panel, 11 x 14″
Maj was one of four “digital” artists invited to this show (the others being Samuel Araya, Reiko Murakami, and Mark A Nelson). All of these artists work in mixed media of both traditional and digital, with Maj and Samuel working from photography (their own) as reference. While there is definitely a Symbolist movement happening in photography, Liba and I wanted to steer away from that (its not our forte) and focus on traditional works. Here’s where Maj became the poster girl for “my world” of painting (as I often show digital art pieces).
Maj does photograph her reference and use that as a base for her paintings, manipulating it digitally before settling in on a final composition. However, she paints opaquely, and she knows how to draw and paint. In my view, she is not “cheating”. She is efficient. And the creation is 100% hers. She is open about her process, which gets her a certain level of flack from purists, but since I do know many traditional painters who quietly work nearly identical to her, I find her honesty refreshing and worth standing behind.
Edit: Maj uses her photography as reference but corrected me in that she does not paint atop the finished photographic product.
In this particular piece, she tackles Western ideals and culture, particularly moving from an hunter/gather society to an agricultural one. The “hero” is the olive tree, in which olive oil transformed the West as a fuel, replacing tallow as a source of evening light, allowing more use of time to contemplate, read, write, study, tell stories. The figure anoints her third eye, a movement reflected in her own eyes and in the fruits of the olive sprigs that crown her. She holds an animal pelt along with a veil; perhaps with this Enlightenment of Man, the mysteries we seek to reveal are still locked away from us, hand in hand with our base animalism of the old ways? We may have pierced the night, but what we seek does not yet make us whole.
Samuel Araya, “Portrait of a Black Magician”, Acrylic, oil, collage on board, 12 x 16″
In this piece, Samuel leaves the digital world behind completely to focus on tactile elements of painting, to the point of collaging scraps of paper together underneath the painted figure of a magician. His primary palette is red and black, softened by a muted cool tone found in the paper scraps. Lines and dots pattern the piece, reflecting the current Age of Technology in its most basic form of dots and dashes.
We have the Magician, horned, left hand raised, an open, blackened eye to his right. He is lit from above – something I think is a key to his nature. I don’t think this is an homage to Evil, but rather to exploration and adoration of Knowledge. Black Magicians, from my own understanding, never chose the dark arts to destroy mankind, but usually to seek the power of ultimate knowledge: to be godlike, in that sense. Employment of evil often occurred, but that was a necessary means to an end, with rituals and magic in place to avoid unleashing utter chaos upon our Universe.
Samuel is tackling the world of our man made Temple of Knowledge: the Internet. As virtual as the world of the Sacred, it currently serves our drive for knowledge and power, often with destructive results. Without a King Solomon to tame the beasts that arise, how much real evil have we unleashed into our reality?
Yuko Ishii, “Healing Pyramid”, Mixed Media Assemblage, 28 x 8 x8″
Yuko Ishii’s sculptural assemblage is interactive: its mean to be opened, moved, deconstructed. The case opens, and the pyramid can be removed from the stand, which can also be removed. the pendulum within the pyramid swings with the lightest of vibrations, and each side of the pyramid is different.
This is art with intent, with real purpose. Yuko created this piece over a long period of time, looking to the object to help amplify spiritual cleansing during times of meditation. Pyramids are objects sacred to many cultures, best known in our ancient architecture, but also used within healing practices. In the case of this piece, the purpose is to gain deeper levels of understanding of the self and our universe through the energy it receives and transmits.
While more abstracted than most of the figurative art in this show, it treads the same path. She doesn’t challenge the viewer, but invites them gently to sit and gaze, empty the mind of our daily woes and open up to the Universe. What arises and descends is wholly personal, as-yet unmanifested, and truly ours alone.
“Modern Symbolists” runs August 26th – November 5th, 2017. Printed catalogs are available for purchase at Krab Jab Studio.