Alexis Hunter

In Western culture the mind and body are separated and they have even come to represent opposites; head and heart, good and evil, reason and passion. The greatest pleasure in creative work is to experience mind and body united. In the extremes of this creative fusion it can seem that the mind/body does not even exist and the creator reaches a state of ecstatic non-being.

There are many theories as to why this particular creative state occurs and I have been curious enough to test some of these in my work. This is not a novel thing to do - many of the movements of this century have their roots in theories of psychology and social relationships, from Surrealism to Marxist-Feminist Art.

I had explored Freudian theory through photographic narratives in the 'Approaches to Fear' series, (1976-1981), and I wanted to continue to explore this as a subject through painting. There is something particular about the pleasure of painting which is far more infinite than the pleasure of thinking up conceptual ideas. This move away from the highly sophisticated formalism of photography to a crude and chaotic form of painting was a huge risk as market forces in the West usually mitigate against an artist changing their style, especially when a reputation has been built on a particular body of work.

I became increasing curious about the theory of the state of pleasure in the process of making artwork. In 1985, after reading the essays of Peter Fuller and Marion Milner, I chose the Theory of Separation as my subject for a new series of paintings. According to Freud and Klein, before an infant is aware of themselves as a separate being, the infant experiences itself as at one with the universe and therefore has power over it. There are no boundaries between itself or other objects and people - a state of euphoric omnipotence.

Was this the state of unification experienced when painting ?
If an artist can return to this psychic state when working then is it possible for this state of unification to become the subject ?

Thirty studies were worked up in order to find a way to symbolise this state which involved a process of recollection. These culminated in the Memory Series of six large oil paintings. Although never shown in London - such a diversion from my house style was considered unacceptable by curators - this series was shown twice in New York in 1986. Subsequently the series was consolidated to four paintings which were shown in New Zealand in 1996.

It is always a kind of intellectual arrogance to venture into a void of meaning. However, I know that there is a trance-like state of pleasure when working and I have also seen the penury and despair of artists who keep on working, against all the odds, in freezing, damp and expensive studios, regardless of lack of success. It seems to me that to survive as an artist you must have a relationship with your work and that this relationship involves some pleasure. When this relationship is developed the artist never feels alone in the studio and could, at times, feel more lonely in a crowded room.

Anton Ehrenzweig wrote in The Hidden Order of Art [1967] that the artist's pleasure, when working, was not due to a regression into an infantile state, but could be the product of extreme 'de-differentiation'. De-differentation is an all-embracing way of looking and is used, according to Ehrenzweig, by artists to see the parts of a composition as well as the whole simultaneously. This is a state of scattering the attention to such an extent that it is not retained by conscious memory. Paintings seem to have 'just happened' and resolved themselves without the artist's intervention. (After working in this 'un-looking' way for long periods of time, it can take several hours to readjust to the more particular awareness of other every day activity.)

Ehrenzwieg considered this undifferentiated scanning as superior to conscious reasoning. Through this process the artist may contact unconscious aspects of themselves which are thrown back for contemplation in the art-work. As Ehrenzwieg explains:

"Something like a true conversation takes place between the artist and his own work. The medium, by frustrating the artists purely conscious intentions, allows him to contact more submerged parts of his own personality and draw them up for conscious contemplation. While the artist struggles with his medium, unknown to himself he wrestles with his unconscious personality revealed by the the work of art. Taking back from the work on a conscious level what has been projected into it on an unsubconscious level, is perhaps the most fruitful and painful result of creativity."

I would agree that an artist has to accept that their work has an independent life and acceptance of this requires humility from the artist.

In the book 'Emotional Intelligence', Daniel Golman describes the pleasurable trance-like state as 'flow'; a brain-state in which emotions are harnessed in the service of performance. As the demands of a task change, people in 'flow' continue to show an efficient control. The sheer pleasure of working is what motivates them rather than thoughts of success or failure. It takes considerable effort and discipline to be calm but focused enough to attain this state, akin to 'self-hypnosis'. It appears that when an artist (or anyone needing to sustain concentration) is distracted, tired or bored too many superfluous areas of the brain are activated preventing focused attention. When the brain is working at peak efficiency, as in 'flow', there is a precise relationship to the active areas of the neural circuitry of the brain and the demands of the task. Athletes call this state 'the zone', although this may possibly have more to with the production of endomorphines, the bodies' natural morphine.

I believe that the circuitry of the brain is connected to aesthetic endeavour and we can use different parts of the mind when working. If an intense enjoyment can be obtained by matching activity of the brain to the application of skill, the more skilled the artist becomes, the more satisfying the activity. The artist is propelled forward oblivious to lack of success, continually revising skills to the optimum of their own particular talent.

Could this explain why artists sometimes revert to more traditional skills in middle age? Is the artist challenged to compare their skill against the whole of artistic endeavour throughout history, not just the contemporary and fashionable? (Such a diversion can prove costly in a system that values innovation and does not kindly serve those who revert to traditional methods of depicting ideas.)

Theories on why making art is pleasurable are numerous. One of the most satisfying for me is that expressed by Lewis Hyde, in his book,The Gift: The Erotic Life of Property. He sees creative work as a gift of talent, given to the community and returned by other beautiful works (whether writing, music, architecture or fine art). People are stimulated to become artists when they are extremely moved by a particular creative work and want to give pleasure to other people in the same way. A gift passing on, through people, to others unseen. It takes a great writer like Joseph Conrad to understand the sublime pleasure of the artist, who appeals:

".. to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and therefore, more permanently enduring. [He] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty and pain:to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that binds together all humanity - the dead to the living and the living to the unborn."

Alexis Hunter
May 1997