The dim allegory of ourselves
Unfolds, and we
Feel dreamed by someone else
— Mark Strand
Everyone has had at least one encounter with a ghost. Mine happened in a doorway.
I’m a teenager. Winter morning, dead trees puncturing holes in the clouds. My sister knocks on my bedroom door, and half-asleep, I mumble for her to enter, but she just knocks again. It’s hard to know why she’s knocking in the first place; we don’t have privacy from one another. One of us sits on the toilet while the other showers, endless conversation between us. Come in! Another knock and her voice saying words I can’t make out, so I shout again, but nothing. I’m forced to throw open the door.
In every dream, two qualities are present: a need to understand something and at least one all-consuming emotion.
I reach beyond the door frame to find cold air, slip by the space where something could be, then shoot down the hallway. In the kitchen my sister’s eating Fruit Loops, says she hasn’t been outside my room, and No, she’s not messing with me. I’ve just imagined it.
While we sleep, our secondary visual cortex—which while awake helps us to recognize and understand what we see—is still at work, attempting to make sense of snapshots archived in our minds; illogical reasoning arising as poignantly as if we were in full control of the conclusions drawn.
Our limbic system—the reservoir of emotions, and the system which helps form memories and shape behaviors—is also active, and so not only are our brains trying to assign meaning to random stored images, but we experience emotional reactions, too, in a non-formulaic mingling of sensational stimuli, grasping detective work. Strange projects arranged from our dormant mind’s craft drawer.
When we’re awake but we feel as if we’re dreaming, reality isn’t aligning, asymmetry of thought stumping us, unable to make sense of a moment. In a dream I could find sense in hearing a voice, seeing nobody. I could manifest the body. I could sculpt a human from nothing.
I first became interested in hallucinations through Mark Rothko. I went to the MoCA in Los Angeles, saw No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose). Couldn’t stop staring. “Color comes first,” he said.
Hovering on peach-copper, two blocks of color: violet and pale yellow. The canvas is rectangular – a boundary. The blocks blur into one another, color moving beyond the whisper of lines. And if you stare at the canvas for several minutes, losing yourself, perspective disintegrating, the painting transforms as concentrated vision softens and expands the saturation. Colors turn to mist. Chasmic violet. Pale sun. Stepping into the color, silence disassembling. Nothing has a limit when cocooned within the apparition of light.
Rothko called this experience plasticity— “…the sense of things going back and coming forward in space…”—and he achieved this sensation through painting large presentations of complementary pigments, organically and geometrically composed on the canvas.
If you stare at anything long enough, your periphery blurs, your eyes may even drift toward crossing. Reality changes through the aggressive use of the senses. The viewer becomes a participant in the painting by sensing the color’s pulse. They imagine colors enveloping their person. The painting, a static object, becomes an abyss in which time pools.
A form which doesn’t seek to represent the exterior world, but interprets it, follows dream logic.
Associations of color, shape, texture, and composition convey and create inherent emotional reactions. Meaning, based on visual aesthetics, we intuit universal sentiments while making or looking at art.
Green is growth or decay. Blue is calm. Yellow is happy. Purple is mysterious, and so on.
Shape and composition in Naotaka Hiro’s drawing (Untitled, 2018) explores the “unknowability of his body parts he can’t see,” rendered through long, crisscrossing lines which form oblong cavities, hints of a human figure—hands—enmeshed. The rapid, scribbled appearance of organic shapes communicates compactness. Interior parts coalescing, colorful, supple, like a starburst or garden within the body.
Or Jadé Fadojutimi, whose large stretched canvases hold gestural abstractions in vibrant colors and blending lines and shapes. The paintings have an unrestrained, vigorous presence. In “I Present Your Royal Highness” (2018), maroon and honey yellow ooze from a swirling pink thicket; the painting’s upper half defined by rounder, blooming shapes, and the middle part mesmerizes with a mass of dissonant lines. The colors suggest femininity; the execution suggests a struggle between an attractive surface and the noise below. For the paintings in an exhibition at PEER in London, “Characters at Play,” Fadojutimi said, “the paintings are me.” Each canvas pulsating with different colors, different stroke directions, each suggesting a different characteristic of the artist. Inside any one person, colors swirl – peace, sadness, fear, joy.
But the truth behind any work of art may be speculated and never known. It may not exist. Often, the more we try to make concrete meaning of abstraction, the more inarticulate we become, the more indexical the color spectrum, and our selves rendered residual—we’re left with the sensation that we’ve woken from a trance, unsure if we are who we were before drifting into someone else’s mind. The point is just to feel, to become.
My sister’s encounter occurred in red.
She’s just painted her room the same color she had dyed the under layer of her hair while dying the top layer darker brown. The same color as the plastic studs on her belt from Spencer’s. During the day, the room ignites with blistering aura. At night, the paint darkens, the blistered hue then bloodless.
Midnight, she returns home after a basketball tournament and showers. I’m already sleeping. She falls into her bed, centered beneath a wide window. Along with the new paint job, she has also rearranged the furniture, and a sense of foreign orientation lingers. Her long hair still dripping wet as she drifts, body catching on quiet, stillness sharper in the new color. She jerks from shallow sleep, heart racing with discombobulation.
And then the night closes to her, and she’s lost in bodilessness, her brain’s second cortex flipping through the day, and minutes or hours pass, she opens her eyes again, suddenly, to find a face hovering above her own.
She remembers its long hair braiding into the dark. She remembers—more than the physical appearance—the omnipresence of its proximity, an energy. She lays rigid until the face recedes into a corner across the room where the color has remained darker since.
A bad dream? She had already noticed that she’d painted the room unevenly. Or what if the red absorbed some entity? A very good ghost story—the one where something lives in our walls.
Our minds give agendas to inanimate objects, states, colors. Is everything in the universe trying to tell us something? Or are imagined encounters proof that we are meant to hallucinate? Do we broaden our imaginations through disorientation, do we dig inward? What is the evolutionary benefit to imagining something that isn’t there, to feel strongly in reaction to a conjuring of our own design?
Abstract art is child-like. You’ll hear this all the time. A child could do it. My child could do that. This type of comment moved Rothko to contend: “…deficiencies are attributed to the intensity of the artist’s preoccupation with his particular kind of fantasy and to the unworldly nature of the fantastic itself.”
The statement was meant to be demeaning, suggesting soft blocks of color were banal and simple. But his preoccupation—creative impulse, psychological responses to color, physical reactions to art—is a return to instinct, which can feel “unworldly” for acting on instinct is not always a conscious choice.
People often assign subliminal thought to spiritual intervention.
My mother says she was visited by an older woman when she was a student at U.C. Berkeley. Alone for the first time in her life, the sixth of seven children. The woman, dressed in a long, flowing blue dress, sat at the edge of my mother’s bed, resting her hand near my mother’s hand, so close that maybe there was warmth. The woman told my mother everything will be okay, then left as quietly as she had entered. My mother, who still experiences frequent panic attacks in the middle of the night, woke the next morning certain the woman had come only in a dream. Yet she felt the physicality of relief, how we feel protected by family members or close friends, and when they walk in the room, feel cradled just by their presence. The child within us quick to accept cosmic comfort. The child within us afraid to be alone.
My father says that he was visited by his father the night he passed. Before receiving a phone call with the news, my father woke in the middle of the night to find his father sitting at the end of the bed. A greenish tint to his face in the dim moonlight. No words exchanged—my drunk, abusive grandfather silent and hollow, full of nothing but memories other people put into him. My father haunted well before the passing. My father diagnosed with PTSD. My father, still searching for a childhood. The mind, with all its strength of logic and emotion, projects, manifests, and sculpts.
So much of what we see comes from another time, a physical alteration, a revelry from a different life. Everything we know does this.
Abstract paintings follow the logic of apparitions. Liminality (between moving and arriving, wondering and witnessing, dreaming and waking, wishing and having) is intimacy with the imagination. Between seeing and understanding what is seen, countless associations and memories fire off. Somehow, we make sense of the world. We like to make sense of ourselves. We’ve created languages for such. We’ve created family units. Afterlives. Maps. Philosophies. Therapy. Portraits.
We see, whether consciously or not, ourselves reflected or represented in every gap, every pathway, every transfiguration. This need to understand feels unworldly, so unlike impulses in the natural world.
When Doctor Ellen Winner, author of How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, asked people to look at a series of artworks, some by professional painters and some by children or animals, she found participants could determine the “professional” art by a sense of intention. When we create, we intentionally organize our feelings, even if we don’t understand the feelings completely. And the act of intention may not be intentional. Intention may be instinctual. Art is a process of intention and instinct, even when completed. Art is a process of interpreting mystery.
Through the process, we see ourselves in glimpses of understanding. In a figment of our imagination. A daydream. Our thoughts moving forward and backward—the ever-liminal space that is the present, where we float waiting and remembering. There, we make meaning of our own mythologies: our anatomy is as knowable as ghosts. The memories we can’t see in the mirror. Our various moods as visible as colors. Our dreams as reasonable as someone else’s artwork.
Plasticity—the sensation of things coming forward and moving backward in space—in art mirrors time and reflects the workings of our minds.
There is much to speculate about works of art. There is much to speculate about being haunted versus imagining ghosts. Rothko said that his paintings were “anecdotes of the spirit” and “portraits of the soul.” Like the work of Hiro or Fadojutimi, his paintings interpreted interiority. When we look at art, we experience the artist’s preoccupations, the fantasy alive within the liminal: meaning-making, a doorway explored. We see their eyes moving beneath their lids.
One more ghost story:
I’m in college and my father is in rehab. I’m taking a course in poetry. In the poetry class, we’re asked to write an Aubade—a form for “the dawn,” and for love. I’m not in love with anyone, not anyone who matters, anyway, so I try to write about my father. It feels hard – ideas come and go too quickly, like grasping for beads of rain. The more brief lines I try to write about him, the more I realize the abstraction of our personalities, our intimate depths, all living at one time in the same house some years ago. Maybe my fault lies in too broad a focus. Maybe each depth is a secret, belonging to the individual alone.
He’s living through one continuous day, light an obscure palette undulating without meaning, dreamless.
I’ve learned, maybe obviously, that asking yourself questions opens a liminal space where you can imagine. And when you ask questions of others, the same occurs for them. Why don’t you like where you’re coming from? Who sits at the end of your bed? What color is your anger? You get to decide. And miraculously, you’ll find that your decision will make sense to other people.
That was some time ago. I never finished writing the poem.
My father, a disciple of sobriety, tells me we are all on a journey. We are always moving toward but never arriving at an endpoint, sometimes moving backward, and then forward again. My father tells me, reminds me often, that this is where our strength is found.