Living Myths in Paint: Sandro Chia Exhibit / by Sam Abelow

"The Young Amazon," Sandro Chia, 2017 | Oil on Canvas 78.74 x 63 inches

"The Young Amazon," Sandro Chia, 2017 | Oil on Canvas 78.74 x 63 inches

There are two painters I currently admire above all the rest, although there are many examples of enduring works of art. The first is Paul Gauguin, who painted actively in the late 1890’s. The second is Sandro Chia. I attended Chia’s first exhibit in New York City after a decade at the Marc Straus gallery this late winter, early spring 2017. On display were a couple dozen affecting and mature paintings.

Before I can explore their art specifically, I must explain how it is that I experience art. A particular approach to viewing art is imperative to understanding why I revere these painters above so many others. I will utilize this review of Sandro Chia to outline my personal beliefs and philosophy regarding the unconscious aspect of painting, and how to view paintings through the appropriate lens.

An Introduction to Viewing Art

If you allow your gaze to become meditative, with single-pointed awareness, a good quality painting will become animated, expanding, morphing, glowing and radiating. A painting is not a passive visual experience like a photograph or film.

In contrast to photography and film, Neuroscientist Semir Zeki notes that, “Because all art obeys the laws of the visual brain, it is not uncommon for art to reveal these laws to us, often surprising us with the visually unexpected.” [1] These surprising effects of paintings can take time to absorb.

Paul Klee, an abstract painter of the early 1900s said, “Art does not represent the visual world, it makes things visible.” [1] Because of this transformative nature of painting, the viewer must give time for the artwork to unveil itself.

A contemporary of Klee, named Wassily Kandinsky, who is known for founding pure abstraction, wrote, “Concerning The Spiritual In Art.” In that essay, he compares painting compositions to that of musical symphonies, the complexities of which, “whether conscious or unconscious, really underlies my work.” He mentions that the “patient [viewer] will readily understand.” [2]

To engage with a painting actively, the viewer must be patient and allow their own consciousness to perceive an almost latent animation and vitality. The pigments of oil paint are filled with life, the energy of matter, the subliminal sort of consciousness that is in reptiles, or within the rocks of a coastline. Therefore, paintings have a metaphysical property that digital content, film and other media do not. An object such as a painting, containing wood, cotton, pigment and oil medium, is living, in the same sense that water, clouds, rocks, sea-creatures and land dwellers are. The paint itself breathes in a subtle way.

It’s essential to relax the mind and soak in this life in order to truly embrace whatever has moved through the artist. Therefore one must practice the skill of viewing art like they would practice meditation (Vipassana, Zen or Yoga). This yields the necessary lens and a mood to perceive its totality.

There is the world of people, animals and landscapes, but also the inner world, which can, and often does, portray certain psychological energies in the form of abstract and luminous colors. Paintings have the potential to evoke deep mystery, but we must cultivate the focused attention needed to experience such realities.

Beyond the Rational Mind: Art and Music

The only other expression that has the potential for a transporting effect, in an immediate way, is music. Interestingly, both Klee and Kandinsky saw and intuitively explored the parallels between the two art forms. Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson said that, “Whatever music is about is beyond language. Music speaks to you of meaning, whether you understand it or not.” This is because melody and rhythm speak in pure emotion, or deep-rooted archetypal energies.

The diversity of possibilities are endless and these various genres can be used in different contexts. Taylor Swift might be awesome at a big party, to dance and sing along to, but something else is required for a romantic dinner.

The power of music to effect mood states should be utilized effectively for viewing art. Music, combined with a painting is the ideal format for communion with the unknown -- the mystery within.

Historically, music could be experienced only through natural, acoustic means. Today, we have stereos and apps to give us instant and almost unlimited access to quality material, developed over many centuries and in a multitude of cultures. This resource can be utilized in a modern context, in the home, with a profound outcome.

For most of us, the curation of such an experience in the home will not include an original Gauguin or Chia. Practically, it’s only imperative that you connect to the art and feel it to be an authentic work of inspiration, something that represents a communication with an aspect of the great mystery. It must be, as Jordan Peterson said, “like looking into the night sky, which speaks about things that are beyond the mundane.”

Living With the Mystery

One can experience these sorts of altered states of consciousness in a modern art gallery. But, we are better off living with the objects. Our homes should be temples, not only to the television and the liquor cabinet, but to the mystery of all life. We should hold up the existential questions around us and allow the art to promote an infinitude of novel answers to the enduring questions.

American Pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey wrote in “Art as  Experience” that an experience is the “bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world.”  [3] Dewey noted that “works of art are the most intimate and energetic means of aiding individuals to share in the arts of living.” He saw art as instructive, educational, in that it gave us enriching experiences. [3]

However, we must slow down our minds in order to reach the most nourishing aspects of reality that are available. To some degree, we must regulate the consumption of video games, sports spectacles, television shows and liquor, with the necessity of something profound. Otherwise, we will starve ourselves and we will starve the collective morality. For an individual without a sense of something larger than himself will eat junk, never satiating the endless hunger for something true.

"Day of God," Paul Gauguin, 1894 | Oil paint on canvas, 2′ 3″ x 3′ 0″

"Day of God," Paul Gauguin, 1894 | Oil paint on canvas, 2′ 3″ x 3′ 0″

A Kinship With Gauguin

"The Wayfarer with His Cane," Sandro Chia, 2017 | Oil on Canvas 63.78 x 51.18 inches

"The Wayfarer with His Cane," Sandro Chia, 2017 | Oil on Canvas 63.78 x 51.18 inches

Both Gauguin and Chia paint people as they imagine them to be, compelled by their intuition, feeling and instinct. Nothing in their work appears overly analyzed, refined, polished or mechanized. Their works give the sense of a fleeting vision, ephemeral, like that of a dream. Yet, with the brush, these painters have somehow captured what is intangible, frozen what is not reducible to matter.

It is this similarity that Chia has to Gauguin, which provokes my enthusiasm.

Exploring the Unconscious

The unconscious is not entirely a Freudian environment where our repressed needs for power and sexuality reside. Along with these drives, there are other energies described by Carl Jung. The personal and collective unconscious is deeper than we could ever fathom. This reality of the psyche contains the depths of the ocean with the strangest animalistic instincts, as well as the endless sky above, with the most serene and transcendent elements.

Gauguin and Chia reflect back this eternal conflict, or play between opposites: the carnal body, and its limitations, including death, and the mysterious beauty that prevails despite this inevitability. Their paintings acknowledge the transcendent perspective that blankets a meaningless world with the colorful tableau of poetry.

An Artist’s Search for Personal Meaning

Like the dreams that well up from our unconscious each night, Gauguin and Chia both place the strange, unusual and unexpected over the familiar: landscape and human personality. The trees are red, the shadows on people are green, abstracted symbols find themselves on clothing, animals, or adjacent objects. They provoke associations which modernity seeks to ignore. These intuitions are, and have always been, the essence of mythology. [4]

Carl Jung, extrapolating from Friedrich Nietzsche, understood that the demise of organized religion would require individuals to conjure up their own meaning. Jung showed that the resource was our dreams and fantasies. Art critic Donald Kuspit recognizes this view in Chia: “The individual is their focus; Chia is the emblem of sustained individuality in an alien modern world — not only the individuality of the artist but of every person.” [5]

The artist cannot provide us with our own sense of meaning, or a set of morals to live by — our lives are exceedingly diverse now, so we must collect and clarify those models. What the modern artist can do is openly represent their own quest for individual meaning and display that as a totem of encouragement for viewers. True artwork touches a universal depth. The associations to such visions are limitless and are nourishing to the instinct for meaning and myth within all of us.

Sandro Chia said about his recent paintings, “There is lots of meaning. Some is maybe autobiographical. But then there are aspects that are very much beyond me. It’s also mythological in some ways — the relationship of man to nature, and how that can mutate.” [6]

We are both animals and spirits (self-aware consciousness). Chia’s paintings work with that theme in a playful and enchanting way. Gauguin did the same, although he was much more tortured by such a paradox.

The Resolutions of Art

Many of us torture ourselves with needless anxiety, with stressful obligations and harsh judgments; many keep updated on the news and perceive everything crumbling into bits; we have no definitive identity given to us by family, or nation; many have no real sense of why we are here at all. Most of us ignore these percolating questions, these pernicious predicaments, for good reason too — initially facing them will be painful.

Great artists like Chia and Gauguin face those questions and either suffer greatly, on the precipice of such a steep cliff, or prevail and produce beauty out of the chaotic and confusing reality of living.



1: “The Neuroscience of Art,” Mengfei Huang,

2. “Concerning The Spiritual In Art,”  Wassily Kandinsky,

3: “Art as Experience,” John Dewey

4: For more, read Joseph Campbell, “Hero WIth A Thousand Faces”

5: "Sandro Chia New Paintings,"

6: "Sandro Chia Debuts New Work at New York's Marc Straus Gallery," Margaret Carrigan,

Comments on the Carl Jung Reddit page