The Spirit of Self-Indulgence as Art:
Halima Taha, PhD
The Random House dictionary’s definition of “spirit” is “the incorporeal part of humans
(i.e., present in spirit though absent in body) and a conscious or incorporeal being, as opposed to matter (i.e., the world of the spirit).” The more ephemeral and spiritual aspects of artmaking are typically not discussed in the same manner as are more sensual expressions of appreciation, but nonetheless, most artists, collectors and arts professionals recognize their presence. My intention is to attempt to juxtapose an exploration of the evanescent experience of art to my interpretive philosophy about Richard Mayhew’s spirit of self-indulgence, which I believe has been for the greater good of his work.
Concrete qualifiers of the ephemeral are difficult to quantify for those who need to assert their intellectual prowess as a means of justifying Eurocentric paradigms for art. Historically, however, these professionals do render a valuable service. They create or define strong curatorial statements, which are essential to substantiate the documentation, discussion or dissemination of art for collectors and the students of art. This perspective can easily be contrasted with that directed to non- Eurocentric cultures where art has a purpose or is so well integrated into the fiber of life, that a word for “art” does not exist. This genre of art is often viewed as primitive, or from an anthropological perspective because of the way the work is created and experienced by the ”artist,” which sometimes can elude a more profound understanding about the relationship between a creative process and humanity.
The premise for this Eurocentric viewpoint is based on a maxim that art is about ideas that can be propagandized for the greater good or ill of a documented cultural history. Conversely, this discussion about Richard Mayhew’s work is based on a series of conversations I had with him about the spiritual aspects of how he makes art. Mayhew’s collective physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience as a maker of art can be difficult for an outsider to grasp. This, perhaps, explains why what Mayhew describes as “spiritual or mood painting” cannot be fully appreciated unless one can abandon the art world’s usual orientation. Richard Mayhew’s artmaking experience reflects his subjective sensuality, masculinity, spirituality, self-indulgence, and subconscious exploration of his persona. Indeed, how does one grapple generally with the ephemeral aspects of artmaking within the art world’s excessive and elitist verbal and historical rhetoric? Perhaps a way to begin is to approach these intangibles philosophically and emotionally. Therefore, this essay will not discuss a linear aesthetic pedigree, reaffirm purpose, or champion Richard Mayhew within the art canon as one of the more significant American painters of his generation. Instead, I invite audiences for Richard Mayhew’s work to consider the feelings behind the artwork that he describes as “spiritual paintings,” to gain insight into a universal sentiment that is easily forgotten but which bears remembering.
Evolutionary theory cannot explain art or aesthetic experience. For Richard Mayhew, the result of his experience is that beauty has become one of the primary aims of his art, and a means for us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. The timeless questions “who am I?” and “what is my purpose?” consciously guide Mayhew to a stream of unconscious creativity that becomes a gateway for self-discovery and results in a colorfield or landscape painting. These questions, moreover, lie at the heart of culture, which is in stark contrast with the aims of science. Some would say that artworks are products of the human spirit and imagination that cannot be mechanically produced. Richard Mayhew infuses his artmaking process with an experience-enriched aesthetic that is empirically inspired by what he is feeling at the time. Mayhew told me, “Many of my so called landscapes are very abstract because they are free-form. I am involved with the spiritual feeling of space. Just to work with figures would be very limiting because that would identify a particular place or situation. The colors of the paint look like natural landscapes, but that is not necessarily my preoccupation in painting. I am having an internal sensibility that is hard to express, but it’s a rewarding stimulus for my work.”
For Mayhew, artmaking morphs into a search for the spiritual in art. Through abstraction and color, he explores beyond the content and form of the work to the epistemological meaning of art itself. Contemplation and self-reflection are part of his artmaking process. Contemplative art accepts the world as a creation where humans can express opinions and feelings. In this sense, contemplative art becomes an abstract metaphor for existence and a positive force that unifies humanity with the universe. Perhaps this is only possible through ascension from the self to the universal and descent from the human to the embryo.
Mayhew identifies with a broad definition of the word “spiritual” as it pertains to how he paints. It encompasses elements of the mystical, the Gnostic, Eastern religions and the occult, although he staunchly rejects any formal attachment to any “organized” path. He has few, if any, discernable connections with the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, perhaps because abstract art might be approached as a doorway to the symbolism of modern culture’s spiritual underground. However, unlike Rumi’s Whirling Dervishes seeking the joy of oneness with Allah, Mayhew seeks a creative joy of oneness of the physical and natural world, in remembrance of the responsibility we have to reconnect with it and care for it.
Mayhew’s loose definition of “spiritual painting” explores the soul’s essence for a divine line between self and the Creator. He believes this enables him to tap into the depth and infinity of himself through color and ethereal forms. Within that context, Mayhew’s work becomes the spiritual thread that connects him to nature and humanity. Through his spiritual painting he explores various concepts of self as part of his own creative process, but also as a portal to his understanding of the human soul and its interconnectedness to nature. Philosophically, “self” is broadly defined as the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others. Within a philosophical model the task is to define these qualities. For Mayhew, the self is the idea of a unified being that is the source of consciousness. Moreover, this self is the moral agent for the thoughts and actions to which he subscribes. His self becomes substance through his paintings, which endure through time, and thus his thoughts and actions at different moments can pertain to the same self.
Since there are so many manifestations of self, Mayhew’s exploration of it includes an understanding of the illusion of individual existence, and separateness from other aspects of creation. This is derived from non-dual, mystical, Eastern, and Native American meditative traditions. This idea of individual existence focuses on human beings, who must each fight for themselves in the world but who are ultimately unaware and unconscious of their true nature. The ego, in this instance, is often associated with the mind and a sense of time, and there is a strong necessity for this manifestation of self to be assured of its future existence, rather than simply knowing itself and the present.
When reflecting on “self as an activity,” Aristotle agreed with Plato on the definition of the soul as the core essence of a being but argued against its having a separate existence. For instance, if a knife had a soul, the act of cutting would be its soul, because cutting is the essence of what it is to be a knife. Unlike Plato and various religious traditions, Aristotle viewed the soul as an activity of the body, which cannot therefore be immortal because when a knife is destroyed the cutting stops. Perhaps, like Aristotle, Mayhew views the soul as the first activity of a living body, which helps clarify his definition of mood and spiritual painting as “an internal creative feeling I have when I am working, which unfolds as I paint.” Conversely, as Mayhew continues his exploration of self-purpose through making art, he also ventures to realize the self independently of the senses. The Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna wrote in his Floating Man experiment about human self–awareness and the substantiality of the soul.[i] In this situation, readers imagine themselves suspended in the air, isolated from all sensation, even from sensory contact with their own bodies. He argues that, in this scenario, one would still have self-consciousness and concludes that the idea of the self is not logically dependent on any physical thing; hence the soul should not be seen in relative terms, but as a primary given—a substance. Perhaps Mayhew’s internalization of self though artmaking can best be explained by René Descartes’s summation: ”I can abstract from the supposition of all external things, but not from the supposition of my own consciousness.”[ii]
It is inevitable for most human beings, and creative individuals in particular, to explore the self through inquiry. In Ramana Maharishi’s book Nan Yar (Who am I?) the inquiry into the source of the “I consciousness requires asking the question, “Who am I?” The source of “I” is the true self. And self itself is the world. Self itself is “I.” Self itself is God, and all is the Supreme Self. This aspect of Mayhew’s self-indulgence enables him to feel directly connected to the natural and cosmological world that we inhabit. He also believes passionately that people need to reconnect with nature as a means of being one with one another and the earth, in order to responsibly and ethically coexist. This belief exemplifies Mayhew’s relationship between human consciousness and the earth. It appears as if his indulgence of the self through spirit points to cosmological cycles that address relationships between man and self that parallel man’s with the earth, through the water, metal, fire, and wood that reside in Mayhew’s work. Mayhew’s landscapes enable viewers to travel within themselves to more reflective corners of their souls, while also making compelling visual statements about humanity’s need to reconnect with the physical health of the earth.
Inasmuch as personal philosophies enable individuals to fulfill their visions for themselves in both tangible and ephemeral manifestations, Mayhew’s exploration of self through his work has allowed him to invite diverse audiences to reflect, wonder, discover, and consider more subtle possibilities within, as they enter the gateway of color and feeling that defines his art.
It should be noted, however, that outside the studio, the creative process and reflective consciousness of the artist, and their relationship to the art world, collide in ways that can often overshadow the more subtle depths of what the artist is presenting. Nonetheless, the business of art also has a purpose and place in propelling the self-indulgence of an artist in that the symbiotic relationships among artists and the dealers, collectors, curators, appraisers, scholars, auction houses, and academics around them provide the springboard for these cultural arbiters to define, challenge and develop value for the visual statements—the artwork— that artists produce. Collectively, the opinions of these professionals serve to establish for the art world whether an artist’s work is strong, weak, marketable, or noteworthy. Unfortunately, it is also at this juncture that the spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience of art is in danger of being marginalized and categorized as material historicism at best or merely a commodity at worst. This collective activity substantiates and functions within a series of theoretical frameworks, art-historical timelines and critical rhetoric. The theatrical scrim that enhances the excitement and drama of contemporary art also includes collector/critic artspeak and sometimes the pervasively murky trickery of smoke and mirrors.
Although Mayhew happily eschews the limited hyperbole that is required in the “grown up”
art world, which often forgets the joys of play and exploration, he acknowledges that this is a by-product of the process of understanding self from the outside in. Conversely, knowing himself from the inside out through his art enables Mayhew to construct a chrysalis of personal experiences inside which he metamorphoses into places and moments within humanity’s collective consciousness.