Esoteric art 4: Cave paintings (1992 – 94)

In the early 90s I began journaling my dreams, inspired by Jungian dream analysis and accounts of lucid dreaming, as another tool for communicating with my subconscious.  I had often found that certain dreams offered important insights or solutions to events in my life, and several times even predicted an event.  I developed a habit of deliberately interacting with my dreams as information systems.

In Feb ’92 I had a dream that completely rearranged my creative life.  It’s symbolism was stark and I woke abruptly as if from a nightmare, very shaken, but with an undeniable clarity about the dream’s message: an important ‘core’ aspect of my psyche was struggling desperately to survive, and if I did not ‘loosen up’ my creative process, this aspect was going to ‘die’. In Jungian terms, it was an aspect of the Child (in my dream, symbolising childlike-ness, intuitive knowing, and vulnerability) that was in distress, experiencing some kind of neglect or trauma.

Until that time, my creative work for 2 decades had been almost entirely in the medium of drawing, mostly in cartoon styles. I preferred to work small, and rarely created anything larger than an A3 page.  Even as a boy my preference had been to draw in black ink, with a graphic sensibility and attention to precise line – there was something satisfying about the crisp certainty of the ink on paper. However accomplished I was though, I never felt I could draw with the loose, freeflowing lines I observed in certain other artists.  I imagine this was a result of much complex childhood internalising: high expectations of self, ‘perfectionism’, self-criticism etc – all things that are now often described in Aspergers, giftedness and trauma response experiences.

This dream shocked me out of that creative ‘tightness’, or at least into a deeper process of releasing it.

I had already been partly shaken out of my habits with the sudden emergence of the portrait drawings in 1990 – more realistic, loose-lined pencil sketches that connected me more with the dynamic energy or ‘life’ within a line. This was definitely a significant ‘loosening up’ of my creative method, but being portraits they still required a certain loyalty to form. The ‘cave paintings’ that followed would take me into far more abstract representation, pushing my process towards something more primary.

As soon as I woke from the dream, I reached for two materials I would never have usually used: an A2-size sketch pad, and a box of oil pastel crayons (an unused gift from a well-meaning relative). With the pad laid flat on my bedroom floor, I began drawing spontaneously with the chunky pastels, in raw meandering lines.

The oil pastels reminded me of clay, creating thick viscous marks that simply refused to be delicate or refined; that morning as I worked on the drawing in a state of creative trance, watching the primitive symbols surface before my eyes, I felt as if I were a shaman inside a cave, painting in ochres with a blunt stick.  In this state I experienced a sense of essential forces, of surrendering to Mystery, a kind of Unknowing yet of direct Knowing in each moment.  I felt I was ‘markmaking’ rather than drawing, tapping into a personal mythology both ancient in its earthed-ness & visionary in vista. 

As I drew, I made a resolution: if I had an impulse to use a certain colour, line or shape that felt ‘wrong’ (in the name of ‘symmetry’ or ‘design aesthetic’) – and if I caught myself trying to ‘correct’ (control) the impulse – I would deliberately choose the original (‘wrong’) impulse.  I was subverting my inner criticisms to get closer to the direct contact of impulse to paper.

What emerged that morning was a drawing predominantly bright lemon yellow (not a colour I would have usually chosen), depicting a group of ‘primitive’, stylised figures.  The figures are radiating, and connected by, lines of colour that imply currents of energy. The figures are also anchored by lines into the earth, to each other via the solar plexus, and via consciousness, transmitted through them by a large circular object (or pulsation) hovering above them – a kind of Unifying symbol.

Moving toward the dissonant impulse

In applying this process of habitus interruptus, I observed that when I used the lines or colours which at first felt ‘wrong’, this dissonance would organically balance itself out as the drawing progressed, and as other lines & colours created new relationships with each other. In other words, if I stopped judging & editing my impulses, the ‘wrongness’ naturally found its own sense of harmony later in time.

This seemingly innocuous revelation changed my perception of ‘creative process’ permanently. I was making a conscious decision to trust in the process: I could relax. By attuning to my intuitive signals in this way, I entered an expanded perspective, in which the work had a natural momentum that existed beyond my conscious control.  Naturally, as I practised this awareness in my art I was applying it to myself, as an active analogy for the process of life.

Over the next two years, I continued to draw, paint and construct these ‘tribal’ artworks, always exercising the process described above: following impulse and instinct, trusting the work to find its own shape, allowing myself to Un-know in the Making.  In contrast to the personalised portraits & symbols I was creating for other people at the time, these ‘cave paintings’ were purely for myself, for my own inner visioning as I explored the personal & the transpersonal, the micro & the macro.  Not only did the process loosen up my technical controls, I soon discovered some other interesting features.

Artmaking as therapeutic dialogue

Many of these drawings were inspired by dreams with a ‘visionary’ quality, or which included ‘messages’ from significant characters (elders, shaman, celestial beings, aliens, animal entities etc). As the personal mythology of my ‘Shaman self’ evolved during these years, the ‘cave paintings’ became a shorthand map for the insights I received along the way.  This process, of receiving ‘vision’ and translating into symbol, stretches back to the earliest evolutions of human consciousness, the impulse toward meaning.

From a psychoemotional perspective, I was also creating this internal symbology to help myself integrate my emotional history: from the grief of being separated from my first son, who was still an infant at that time, back through the emotional turbulence of my childhood and even to apparent ‘memories’ of the womb.  

I also discovered that I could use this process to transmute certain emotional states, especially intense rage, grief or despair. The mindfull process of these drawings created a kind of feedback loop, or dialogue, between my inner state and the visual patterns emerging in front of me. The Making became an active meditation – each intense emotion offered up a ‘story’ or set of insights, which I instinctively symbolised as I drew, until both my mind and the artwork arrived together at a sense of harmony or order. 

(This use of creative activity to create mental equilibrium makes complete sense to me now in the context of Aspergers and managing heightened states, sensitivities and emotional overload, but I didn’t have that point of reference back then. 

In tandem, I can also see this ‘creative systemising’ as an outgrowth of hyper-attention developed in childhood: being sensitive to my emotional environment, I was hyper-alert to any signals of conflict between my parents, who fought horribly throughout my first eleven years.  I think, as a boy, drawing was partly a focusing & ordering tool, to help stabilise myself in such an unpredictably volatile emotional environment.)

We often talk of artists expressing their emotions in their work, in order to declare and project their feeling to an audience, for instance using their anger to create an ‘angry’ painting. I realised I had eventuated at quite a different process, a deeply internal exploration that was certainly therapeutic, but required no audience beyond myself.  I wasn’t purging or exorcising my emotion so much as interrogating it, mapping it and learning from it – finding relationship with it.

A good example of this is the piece I named ‘Union’, which I created in a state of barely-containable fury & rage.  I was in a very self-destructive relationship at the time, and the rage followed a particularly nasty argument.  I was amazed that I could even consider sitting still to focus on drawing in that state, and yet somehow I did & the process ‘drew’ me in, resulting in a complete transmutation into an experience of universal harmony. Many people have since commented how ‘positive’ and harmonious the drawing feels, and are surprised when I describe its turbulent origin.

The Dancing Spacemen

Some other interesting qualities emerged in these works, such as persistent symbolic ‘characters’ who represented aspects of my psyche.  Of course, this was extending on my use of personal mythology which began earlier via the Essence Portraits, only this time I had shifted my symbols to reflect the newer  ‘shape’ of my consciousness. This new creative process felt distinctly shamanic, with an underlying quality of both profoundly ancient and ‘futuristic’ intelligence.

The initial ‘cave paintings’ feature a stylised human figure with simplified limbs, a squarish head, sometimes with wings attached.  I came to call these figures ‘Dancing Spacemen’, and they often represented certain ‘beings’ that were appearing in my dreams.  In these dreams, the beings had the presence of benevolent guides, who always offered me messages of reassurance and inspiration; they appeared more as ‘felt’ presences – etheric, made of light or energy, without solid physical form – and I tended to think of them as inhabiting a realm outside of time, where we might imagine angels, celestial entities, aliens or even ‘future selves’.  Their appearance in my dreams always suggested a vast resource of ‘knowledge’ beyond the temporal. 

In this sense, the ‘Spacemen’ figures symbolised access to something universal and unified, a connective field, or an ultimate source of energy permeating all things.  A stream of drawings followed which referenced this theme of Unified Connectivity, or of the fractal micro / macro nature of the Universe. The Dancing Spacemen were often repeated mandala-style and interconnected with lines, or as figures-within-figures, suggesting archetypes of cosmic mother / father, masculine / feminine forces, yin / yang. Sometimes the Unifying symbol was a central hub in the drawing, from which everything else grew;  other times it appeared as an object hovering above: a circular sun / moon symbol, an all-seeing eye, or a larger figure watching over the others. 

The Shaman

Another significant symbolic figure who emerged later in this process was ‘the Shaman’.  He first appeared as a rough pencil design, and continued to evolve through many stories via his own ‘cave paintings’, gradually replacing the ‘Dancing Spacemen’ as a more self-referential icon. 

In his first depiction, he is riding a large turtle (the World Turtle, as found in Hindu, Chinese and Native American mythology).  In one hand he holds a feathered stick (alternately symbolising rhythm stick / wand).  In the other hand, hanging from a strap, is his medicine pouch, containing power objects.  There are feathers at his ankles (Mercury / Horus / Hermes / Odin), symbolic of inner volition, swift consciousness, the Messenger.  His solar plexus is a womb (creative fire) containing the universal Mother energy, that from which he draws creative sustenance.

His head is a radiant eye, symbolising the Shaman’s visionary abilities (in-sight); the circle of his mouth is connected by wavelines to an arced symbol of what I came to think of as ‘the floating library’.  Throughout the 90s I used the symbol of ‘the Eye’ in many forms, all of them representing a capacity to see in a metaphysical sense, with inner vision.   The Shaman became an extension of that, illustrating the ‘See-er’.

Somewhere in the middle of this two-year journey, I had a series of graphically vivid dreams in which I experienced myself as a Shaman undergoing various initiatory ritual deaths.  In one, I was buried alive, in another I was dismembered; these dreams were intense but whatever the form, I allowed myself into the experience understanding it was a symbolic death.  Using gauche paint like ochre on a large sheet of roughly-textured Canson paper, I painted the Shaman being guided through the Death dimension by two crows.  In a notebook later, I depicted the dismembered Shaman, buried in bits below the earth, while crow-priest figures guide a new entity to emerge – the Mantis Man.

Mantis Man

Mantis Man appeared briefly as a shamanic ‘ally’ symbol, seemingly to mark my entry into this new cycle of transformational rebirth.  He seemed to communicate two layers: on the one hand, a penetratingly detached watchfulness, a probing intelligence or consciousness that was so Other as to feel ‘alien’; on the other hand, the figure (bearing padded mallets decorated with feathers) was an embodiment of rhythm, the pulse of the Earth and of the Universe, and the use of polyrhythm as communicator, to access expanded states of consciousness.  Mantis Man arrived around the same time I began my journey into drumming and trancework.

Later I would learn that mantis entities appeared in many ancient cultures as either god-beings, spirits from another dimension or an extraterrestial intelligence.  South American shamen have reported contact with mantis beings during plant-assisted trance journeys, and these beings seem to have a recurrent archetypal status as ‘alien’ messengers for many people exploring psychedelic experience in other settings.

The Floating Library

Not all these artworks were a process of transmuting emotion.  Some provided a portal to other types of information. Ultimately, all focused creative states can be described as a form of trance or non-ordinary awareness.  As any hypnotherapist will tell you, we operate in various trance-states throughout our day, and many non-ordinary states allow us to perceive things differently or to access inner resources we wouldn’t ordinarily access.  I often used simple meditations or small rituals before working on one of these ‘cave paintings’, to encourage a deeper focus, or trance state.

While I worked on a piece, I felt as if I was connected into an etheric ‘floating library’ – a kind of amorphous layer or ‘atmosphere’ hovering above our heads, in which was contained the entirety of human history and experience.  I’m not suggesting I was channeling the Akashic records, but in these creative trance states, I felt as if I could plug into (like an old-fashioned phone switchboard) and access symbolic ‘knowing’ from any point in history.  In some of these works it’s easy to spot symbolic references to specific ancient or indigenous cultures, but none of these were conscious decisions. In the context of my personal mythology (ie whatever I was learning from life at the time), these were the symbols that presented themselves as the best communicators to my unconscious, for me to gain a certain understanding of myself. 

I emphasise this because at that time, and with good reason, there was a lot of outcry in the Australian Media about appropriation of Aboriginal art and cultural symbols.  By this stage I had accumulated quite a few drawings and paintings, and was offered a solo exhibition at a local cafe gallery.  This became the ‘Phosphenes & Moonbeams’ exhibition, and as I prepared for the show I was increasingly nervous that I would attract some sort of accusation of appropriation myself.  I didn’t want to explain, justify or defend my process, and couldn’t imagine being understood if I did, given how emotionally and politically heated the public opinion was at the time.

For me, the art I created was an intensely personal and private exploration of my own symbology, unconsciously accessing archetypal lines and shapes that appear in all cultures throughout the history of human ‘markmaking’.  It was my own internal journey into what I experienced as a unified field of insight, available to, and at the heart of, all humanity – beyond any parameters of culture or ownership.

Thankfully, there was no furore and the works were appreciated in their own right.  Yet it had raised some significant questions for me about things like aboriginality, respect for individual experience, ownership of symbols and other territorial thinking. 

One of my paintings (‘Centipede Woman’ – my first ever painting on canvas) had won a national acquisitive art prize that year, and given the look of the piece, I wondered how much the judges’ decision was influenced by the public focus on all things ‘aboriginal’, and whether indeed their decision was based on assumptions about my cultural background.  I have both Aboriginal and Maori blood in my mother’s lineage, but I never declare it on governmental forms because I couldn’t be bothered having to validate it in a bureaucratic process.  I also have English, German and Irish in my DNA, and I never feel the need to declare those genetic strands either.  The bottom line, emotional politics aside, is that we are all of the same species, from the same beginnings, and share the capacity to access consciousness beyond all cultural divisions.  No-one can ‘own’ a circle, and no-one can ‘own’ how I experience myself. 

I have a very personal relationship with the Aboriginal current of my DNA, and I feel it connects me with a sense of timelessness, of vast perspective outside of common reality.  I feel it contributes to my sense in life of existing ‘outside’ mainstream culture, and my tendency to move circuitously in life, viewed by many as an aimless wandering & lack of accomplishment.

This latter is generally considered undesirable from an Anglo perspective, yet from an Aboriginal point of view describes the state of ‘inner questing’ sometimes known as ‘walkabout’, or the expanded transpersonal state of ‘the dreaming’.  I can also relate to these characteristics in terms of autistic perception, and equally as a natural outgrowth of the 1970s counter-culture I was raised in.

After the first exhibition in 1993, I continued creating this style of work for about another year.  I moved away from works on paper, gravitating instead to acrylic paint and a more sculptural approach: I built raw frames from branches bound together with leather, with the roughly cut canvas strung suspended from the frame with thonging as if it were an animal hide. I primed the canvas with a mixture of PVC glue and clay powder, which gave the canvas an earthy, stained colour and a rough granulated surface.  I was drawn to the ‘making’ of artifacts – pieces carved from wood and embellished with paint, bone, feathers etc.  Most of the works for this exhibition were created on a friend’s bush property, where I was free to work alone for days at a time, in a prolonged meditative state – walking the land, collecting raw materials, allowing spontaneous body movements and wordless songs to move through me.

In February 1995 these last ‘tribal’ works formed part of a group exhibition with two artist friends, whose work also encompassed the spiritual in one sense or other.

By this stage my creative focus was evolving in other directions such as facilitating workshops, and a return to cartoon illustration. I was also about to experience a shamanic training that would change my life, initiating yet another quantum expansion in my creativity, and reorienting my painting toward the Personalised Mandalas. In attunement with my general process of ‘earthing’, 1995 also marked my opening to a new creative passion: drumming and rhythm.  I had no idea at the time that this new strand in my creative life would go on to span performance, community arts, music and teaching over the next 20 years. 

I made a brief return to ‘cave paintings’ in 2009, with a small series of gouache paintings on paper. While these pieces certainly have personal meaning for me, by then I felt too far removed from the ‘self’ that used to create in this way, so I didn’t pursue the style any further.