The Soul and the Spangled Chaos
A. A. Attanasio
The frame strikes us, with its aggressive style and its large size relative to the image. Before we even see the painting, the robust frame meets us with everything we have come to learn in the previous century about the pervasive significance of the frame in modern culture – as an inertial frame of reference in physics, frame analysis in sociology, frame rate in cinema, as well as framing devices in literature and music.
The modern mind knows that all experience is framed and the frame is always part of the experience. Immediately, then, we recognize we are with a work accenting the boundaries that define us collectively and as individuals. The soul and the spangled chaos aesthetically expresses the central quandary of contemporary philosophy: the epistemological frame problem.
The cognitive scientist Jerry Alan Fodor describes this philosophical conundrum as “Hamlet's problem: when to stop thinking.” What are the boundaries by which we determine our reason and, in turn, our belief fixations? The painting’s defining elements – its prominent frame and declarative title – assert the work’s creative intent as an artistic representation of this plight, which is nothing less than the definition of human being in an inhuman universe.
The sturdy frame is covered with cracks. And its corners are gap-joined as if, despite its heft, it’s about to burst apart with the energy of the image that it is trying to contain. ‘Spangled chaos’ fills the canvas. Nebular clouds and stellar glyphs abound against a color field of yellow luminosity.
And there is the titular soul! She appears integral with this composition of antic imagery and kinetic hues. Yet, she penetrates the canvas with a dimension all her own. And she is black. Utterly black. Look closely, and you will see her inner structure meticulously tiered, with each tier precisely serrated. The size of your fingertip, she invites you to touch her.
Ah, so then this is not exclusively a work of blithe beauty in an impish frame – and it’s more, too, than just a philosophical platform that frames the discourse of soulful individuality and our chaotic cosmos. Here is a palpable encounter with the unsayable. Here is that dark part of the painter – and of us, the viewers – that accumulates light and wants to be touched.
The work’s title confronts the viewer with concepts as hefty as the painting’s physical frame: soul and chaos. In contemporary terms, ‘chaos’ signifies a mathematical system relevant in all sciences; whereas, ‘soul’ offers only apocryphal or dogmatic significance in our time. The creative tension between these antithetical ideas intensifies the relevance of this work as an aesthetic object:
We are informed by the overemphasis of the frame as well as by the ingenuous imagery. That appealing composition includes within it a black depression, which evokes the confrontation of soul (psyche) and chaos: Here is human life, our life, wondrously beautiful, heavily framed – and, though easily within touch, unpredictable beyond measure.
Listening to the Mountain
Artist, Shining Rainbow, worries about the walls of Project Contemporary Artspace. In the absence of art, they tower, white and imposing, and seem like vast empty cliff-faces. In front of silver cords, streaming like rain from high on the walls, Rainbow worries that her collection will not fill the amount of white space. But the vast clutter of works which are collected along the base of each wall seem to suggest otherwise.
This clutter is well conceived, deliberate, with the interplay between works, and the interaction between the viewer and multiple works simultaneously, being the aim of Rainbow’s first solo exhibition in 10 years – saltgate of the dream.
“It’s all about the context”, she says, gently readying a small piece to add to the collection. “The works have to be seen in relation to each other because that builds their meaning. I don’t believe in isolated events or isolated paintings, putting one piece up on the wall and saying, "This is it – this is the masterpiece and it stops here; it stops with these edges." Oh! I have so much trouble with edges!”
“I sit down and I love the meditative space of sitting with this little field – the canvas – this little field of creativity; it simplifies the universe and I can focus and do these beautiful things... But then I end up with this creativity that is contained.
“So, once I do that, I want to break it up, I don’t want to put one piece up as the ultimate, to put it up in a gallery for people to look at as the ultimate state. I want to show how I got there and how it deteriorated and what it meant and what was behind it and all the moments that fed into it as well”.
The collection of works represent a journey which took Rainbow both across the world and deep into herself, with some pieces simultaneously spanning time, geography and identity. “There’s an interplay between a state of mind that I might be in, an idea for a piece of work, a vision. I have this inspiration and I put it down, so it begins as a psychological state from within me. But when I start to capture that, there’s this whole other thing that happens with the actual medium. I feel like the process of trying to capture that state, and the changes that have to be made to do so, reveal the way that those psychological states might change or might need to change inside myself, so it’s a reciprocal, back and forward relationship”.
“Do you want to see?”, she asks, before moving hurriedly across the open space of the gallery to a collection of three works concealed behind a large, movable wall. She informs me that, come opening night, this space will be concealed at each end by curtains, to create a quiet, black tunnel.
“These paintings, the way that they came together, have to be read from right to left, instead if left to right” she says, beginning to discuss the installation and her hope that viewing the works in this way will help create a somatic response in the viewer.
“It’s dark, it’s about going to the darkness and finding strength”, she says, explaining the final work in the installation – what is there in aloneness and sadness but the realisation that in oneself is one’s only source of salvation. “The darkness is the tumult of emotions and the negative cycle of thoughts spiralling down, and I had this one moment when I was feeling all of that and I realised that I had been there before. I thought ‘I know where these thoughts go – do I have to do this?’. And the Egg was like finding some little core of strength that was separate, that I could access instead of going with the storm. When I did that, it set up this resistance, because I decided to stay still and let this tumult and storm go past – and that was the strength”.
The centre piece, the physics of Shining Rainbow, was created during an earlier time, while working in the art department of W. Wollongong TAFE, and encountering the same storm of emotion. “Not having so much strength and perspective, and being in that storm and in pain, and just sitting with it” – amongst a circle of poisonous coral trees which dominate the work; twisting and capturing the viewers eye, drawing it into the toxicity of the piece. “So I painted that to honour it in a way, because when you paint something you have to stay with it, you materialise it and give it more weight”.
The installation begins with the transformative experience of dying, a jagged piece of dark blue velvet, which she informs me, was cut out of the central piece during its creation. It is presented set against a stark, cool backdrop and, for Rainbow, is ultimately about questioning the space where these emotions come from.
“Now” she adds, with a beaming smile, “Let me show you what’s in my Egg!”
We travel to the opposite corner of the gallery to two works hung side by side and uncluttered - the simplicity creating a tense balance between them. “This is what is inside my Egg!
“After I did all of those paintings last year, and then went travelling overseas with my son, it was really hard. I went to do galleries and have this professional artist thing, and I was carrying my son, and it was like, ‘Oh, he just sits in the corner and I do this professional thing’”. She starts shaking her head to emphasise the point – “No”.
“And so it became a family holiday, and I had to surrender to that… And it kind of exploded. It was wonderful! The trip became what it needed to be, and it was wonderful.
“Then, at the end of it all, I was standing on this hillside we’d climbed up a steep bank, we were in Frigiliana, in the south of Spain, and we were looking through the gorge up at these distant mountains – and I told Caspian, ‘Just be quiet for a second, I’m just going to talk to the mountain’, and I had this one golden moment. I was like, ‘Ok, Mountain – we’ve gotta talk right now! We’ve got like 30 seconds!’ and it really worked! I focused, and I felt I was shown something.
“It was my childhood dream to go to Spain and I had made it, I had made it come true, I had done all the travelling and I was there! The mountain told me, ‘You did it! You did this! You took this dream from when you were a little girl and look where you are standing! This is your strength!’ and all of the energy that it took to make that happen was somehow reflected back – I’d given all that energy to make that happen and, somehow, being shown how much energy I had gave it back to me. At that moment I could recognise that and see, “oh wow – that’s strength!
“And getting home, getting over it all, I found that mountain again, so I feel that the egg might be the ideal, and all of that travelling, all of that breaking apart and putting back together, and having that revealed, was like, “This is the real strength”.
The piece itself is colourful, bright and optimistic, with the impressionist mountain bathed in golden hues and light brush strokes – which she informs me are still wet, as the piece was finished just in time for the exhibition. I can’t help but notice that merely two feet away, sharing the same stature and outline, the mountain is present in another work – captured in dark, velvety, blue hues and broad, deep brush strokes.
“Yeah – that is still the storm, the storm still comes – and I actually painted that painting first. I knew I wanted to paint this one – ”, she says, motioning towards the golden peak, “and I was in this really strong place for weeks after returning from Spain, and I could still get there, to that place, but when it came to painting, this one came first, and shows the mirror.
“This is so soft, and it’s like crying, and it’s the darkness that just goes in and in, and the other one is just so full and bright, and has the flowers which are just bursting out and the mountain facets which are so strong”.
“But it’s the same mountain”, I comment, part statement, part question.
“Hmm”, she looks pensively, “I don’t understand that, really. That’s enigmatic to me. To really think about it – yeah, they are the same mountain, and I painted them as the same mountain, but I haven’t really understood what that means to me yet. I feel like this one is the shadow of the other mountain”
We discuss her influences and she describes two key artists – American singer-songwriter, Joanna Newsom (whose voice has filled the gallery since I arrived) and Hawai'ian science fiction and fantasy writer A. A. Attanasio, who she met on her journey. For Rainbow, both artists deal with the furthest reaches — of emotion in Newsom’s case and imagination in Attanasio’s — those intangible places which almost defy our understanding – and yet are also the most real.
The result of this combination, Rainbow describes, is the power of consciousness used mindfully. “Whereas emotions and feelings can be very reactionary – the spiral of thoughts and emotions, and one thing reacting and bouncing off the other – to pull back from that and to realise that we have this enormous power to choose where we put our energy, where we put our focus, in each moment... That’s the whole theme of this show, that’s what the title means, or at least hints at, and that is really the motif of the show.”
“How we choose to value things – and our whole world changes based on how we choose to see something – and our emotions can work on us unconsciously; and we can get pessimistic and see things in a certain way; and the whole world darkens, those feelings tint the mood and we are looking through these filters all the time; and you can have these filters working on you unconsciously or you can say, ‘Wow! I have these filters! How can I change them?’… And that’s such a bright, bright power to have”
Given that the works represent her own journey and transformation, she hopes the viewer, too, can be changed in some way by the encounter. “What I hope is that when people encounter my art is it engenders a sense of confirmation of their own inner reality and inspires or encourages the realisation of their own creative interaction with life – the way that we can build our own inner strength and create our own healing of hurts. My work is about finding happiness, creating joy, and I hope people get a sense of this in some profound way – beyond just seeing my work as ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’”.
You can experience the transformation for yourself – saltgate of the dream is installed at Project Contemporary Art until the 29th April.
Heltersmelter online arts publication, 2012
We are the Magic Dancing
It is the 19th of April 2002. It is evening. I think I am on the wrong train but I’m not. I think I take the wrong road but I don’t. I arrive, as intended, at a cool, clear space, hung with color and line. A heart beats reassuringly in the corner. It is red and surrounded by fur.
The Equinox Gallery in Austinmer is full and Cathy Sykes [Shining Rainbow] is dressed in silver and laughing easily. She tells me later that she was unsure if anyone would come. She danced alone in the room for an hour, determined not to wait... feet moving lightly across stained cement.
I wander around. It is the depth of the work that strikes me first. A layered complexity leading away from clutter and towards freedom. A slide within the fractures of surface, reality melding with flow; movement unified by colour. And a guy says to her “Look... I am really drunk but...” and he pauses and steadies himself, because he really is drunk, “Look here...” and his hands roam around the room, “Here is a real discovery of freedom.”
The works are placed as if to show the latent beauty of the rough walls and they speak of anguish held by warmth, of messages grasped by a mind open to the sky.
There is humour here, too, as Yoda sits watching from a light-switch.
It’s all about interconnectedness, she told me. Two dead rats make smalltalk in a jar and the grill from a fan blazes its circularity, its broken symmetry a testament to the openings which exist in all things if you have eyes fresh enough to see them.
A mirror harbours a small piece of torn paper, reading “work in progress” and my face, looking, sees a work in progress and understands that life is about progressions related, particles relating — and a corner by the step shelters a lush beating heart, and with every flash it whispers yes yes yes yes.
“I am the white light breathing patterns”, one of Cathy’s text pieces reads and she is, and on her wings she soared with that light, leaving trails of it in writings and artworks and me.
Sparx Magazine, 2002