Have you ever seen reproductions of the Lascaux cave paintings and wondered what the creators of those cave paintings were like?
I have, too.
What do those fantastic drawings of bulls, ibex, aurochs, deer, and horses mean? Were they expressions of wishful thinking, drawn to attract animals for a successful hunt? Or were they overtures to some cosmic force giving thanks that the beasts were there to hunt? Or were they just expressions of awe and wonder? Perhaps they were accounts, Paleolithic ledger sheets, of what was out there?
What are we to take from the cave paintings?
We can see the artists’ power of observation, how they imbued each beast with an “essence” and flashes of narrative; we can see their inventive use of materials—chalk, charcoal, blowpipe, and we can imagine the necessary scaffolding, the ritual ceremonies, the procession of shamans and elders, and youths to be initiated. There is precision of light, the delicate shading of forms, the understanding of animal anatomy, and the flare of creativity using the cave contours and wall undulations to enhance realistic effects. We can see the artists’ transmission of spiritual and material information to the future. And then there are the hand stencils, positive and negative, that appear everywhere, as if to say, “We were here.”
These people were intimately connected to their environment for survival’s sake, and doubtless had a mythology or spirit world that gave meaning to their material world. Although we have no definite answers as to their true meaning, the paintings seem enchanted, attempts to communicate something extraordinary; they are expressions of something very specific (but unknown to us) in a visual language that is powerful and evocative. They were people with a full set of concerns, habits, and practices that framed their days, just like us.
So, I see their human-ness.
Do you see like I do how the human compulsion to express something extraordinary still drives us? And do you also see how the human-ness inherent in the cave paintings and so much art, historical through contemporary, reaffirms our own humanity?
We need checkpoints that still our hearts. During the hustle and bustle of jobs and family, the challenge of maintaining home and heart, we fill our schedules with things to do, and this train of responsibilities demolishes any moment of reflection that might ground us in ourselves. Those cave paintings inspire me with their great passages of intense quietude, and they remind me how the human condition has not changed over time.
A Paradigm Shift
I had an epiphany last spring: The landscape paintings I had been doing for years had lost some of their electricity for me. Even though I was working on several very good pictures at the time, there was something routine and unsatisfying about the process. It felt limited.
After soul-searching, I realized I wanted to comment on and respond to the human condition more directly, in ways pure landscape could not. The conventions of pure landscape were no longer enough, and so I decided to take a break from landscapes.
Teaching ancient art history again had galvanized many ideas, and, coupled with my interest in the poetic narrative aspects of image making, I began to explore. I poured over those cave paintings again, and their evocative power worked on me.
Soon I imagined myself a traveller venturing through time. In the distant past I encounter the stirrings of behavioral patterns that evolved into the human continuum. I imagine connections to community, the development of cosmologies and ritual, varied attempts to explain worldly phenomenon. Gradually the Chronicle series took shape.
These Chronicle images come to me out of the blue. Sometimes I will dwell on an idea—how early humans explained shooting stars; the edifice of superstition that governed ancient (and contemporary) lives; how ritual frames our significant experiences—and those reveries will generate some thumbnails that I’ll refine and rework into a painting. Sometimes content is clear; sometimes the content is only a feeling that becomes more clear during the process.
As the cave paintings provide a unique insight into the relationship ancient humans had with their manifold experience, the Chronicle paintings provide a unique connection to aspects of human behavior in the face of the known and unknown. By contemplating the narratives of the Chronicle series, you can explore your own sense of community, your relationship with governing forces, and experience a more personal connection to the human spectacle.
If you are interested in enhancing your sense of connection with our human-ness, and to have an emblem to reflect on and remind you that “You are here,” I would love to talk to you about ways to make that happen: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In any case, I would love to hear your responses to this work. I want to know how they resonate with you.