SEED Exhibition: Feminine Psyche and Mysticism in Art / by Sam Abelow

Robin F. Williams. In The Gutter, 2015. Oil on canvas, 63 x 84 inches. Image via http://www.robinfwilliams.com/2015

PART ONE: SEED, at Paul Kasmin Gallery

Orientation

It has been very joyous for me to discover a community of artists and enthusiasts exploring the matters of the psyche through art. SEED, a group show curated by Yvonne Force Villareal, focuses on themes of the feminine as mystery and the importance of the mystical mind. It does so with expressive excellence, in the form of paintings, sculptures and mixed media works.

When respect and attentiveness to the archetypal feminine is lacking in a culture, creative types, women and the earth’s environment will all suffer. Growing up in a society that emphasized structure and rationality, created an existential starvation in me as a young person. This led to a yearning, a searching in the wrong places, and eventually a crucial crisis. Eventually, it was the psychological model of Carl Jung that led me on the path of healing. Jungian therapy involves a deep process of working with the unconscious psyche. Oftentimes, this entails an increasing understanding of feminine nature.

This review of the show is part of a series of articles on the role art can play when working individually with the archetypal feminine, as well as broader cultural trends.

Women who I am in contact with have been agreeable to my nuanced approach and the exploration of the feminine archetype as exclusive from gender. In the psychology of Jung, the archetypal feminine and masculine stand as qualities of human experience, active in varying degrees within all peoples and cultures.

Carl Jung criticized the West for its neglect of the archetypal feminine, a broad psychological category representing the mystery of the unconscious, body, earthliness, the instinctual aspects of woman and the importance of the mother, as well as feminine wisdom and its values of equality, relatedness and the connectedness of all life. [1] Although an ongoing issue, since his time, there have been major trends, stirred by the collective unconscious, which seek to integrate these characteristics of the feminine. [2]

The works of 29 female artists exhibited by the Pual Kasmin Gallery  are splendid examples of such psychological developments, as well as the endeavors that catalyze cultural movements.

Multi-Faceted Exhibition

Curator, Yvonne Force Villareal has said that she seeks to bring “positive, socially conscious” art to broad communities. [3] With her business, Art Production Fund, she straddles the fashion world, high art world and the general public. [4] With SEED, which focuses on “contemporary artists who explore the complexity and resonance of a long association between the natural world, sexuality and fertility, and spirituality and mysticism,” [5] Yvonne Force Villareal reveals a new aspect of her personality.

Her cast of female artists portrays diverse imagery of the psyche. Motifs in several works blend the personal, dream-like and mythological; numerous representational paintings portray the carnal, lascivious, multi-faceted and ambiguous nature of the unconscious psyche. An abstract contribution by Lois Hollowell is inspired by the “Explosions of pleasure” in “orgasm." [6] Finally, the performance piece by Lacey Down Binge on Blonde-Demand, challenges misogynistic tropes of popular culture and media

[Photos of works by Stiler, Koh and Klingebeil taken by myself, at the Paul Kasmin Gallery]

In this way, the artists confront conventions of identity, exploring the nuances of their mysticism, aesthetic fascinations, meditations on color, form and visual language. This diversity of the feminine experience lends perspective to what it means to be a woman in society, but also touches upon the deeper realm of the psyche and archetypes.

Identity and the Mother-Artist

When I met sculptor Hein Koh at the opening, we both admired the bizarre technique and explicit erotic imagery of Kate Klingbeil. Knowing nothing previously of Koh’s work, I noted that her sculpture of a giant oyster was like “a ridiculous child’s stuffed animal, with artistic peculiarity and perfection, pushing it into the surreal.” It was interesting to discover that her previous work had been much more irreverent, explicitly erotic and that her experience of raising twins had brought a levity and cuteness to her work.

A recent interview with Koh focused on the personal questions of being a mother and artist:

“My identity has slightly shifted, being a mom. I find, in our society, women are put in these tight categories — either a virgin or a whore. As a mom you’re supposed to be good, responsible, saintly. Of course, those are great traits to have, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a side to you that’s still wild, sexual. I’ve come to terms with the fact that all these things coexist; I’m becoming very comfortable with that.” [7]

As women realize and express themselves wholly, their authentic personalities will break through certain aspects of identity and cultural restriction. Each individual will choose for herself what mixture of traits she finds valuable. Jungian analyst and writer, Nancy Qualls-Corbett writes that women who embody the ancient goddess — that is, the archetypal feminine — are “true to their own nature and instinct” and are “untrammeled and untouched by the laws of man.” The author writers of the original, ancient symbolism of the virgin as indicative of a woman who “Belongs to no man” and simply “belongs to herself.” [8]

To translate the Jungian language, we could suggest that as women examine their own desires and values, they may brush up with conventions (laws of man); by living in their own truth, they belong honestly to themselves. In effect, the many facets of what it means to be a woman — allegorically expressed in the myths of ancient goddesses — are revitalized and incarnated once again. [9]

A mosaic-like painting by Ruby Sky Stiler, that hinted at Hellenistic forms of Aphrodite, was a stand out of the show. If I could have afforded any piece, I would’ve bought it. A clearly wealthy Jewish couple made their rounds, then the wife said to the husband, “Get the price list,” as they landed on Stiler’s decorative work — a fine choice.

Stiler’s success is well earned, and she, like Koh, has been examining how to balance expectations and conventions of being a mother, as well as being career driven artists.

Ruby Sky Stiler said in a short documentary:

“There’s this mythology that you have to sacrifice everything to be a good mom. There was a lot of extra guilt for me, that I was choosing to take myself out of [my son] Gus’s daily life; then, also guilt that I really wanted to go back to my studio.” [10]

Both Koh and Stiler feel that being an achieving artist as well as a nurturing, responsible mother is still contested as a public role, scrutinized as an identity. As these women strive to break through dichotomous constraints and express the fullness of their personalities, they balance the archetypal feminine and masculine within themselves. As actors within a social context, they shift norms, and in so doing, they reconfigure the archetypal balance of a collective society.

The Dreamweaver

[Images of Narrett's embroidery via http://www.sophianarrett.com/early-in-the-game/]

Regardless of the social changes and constrictions, there is the unconscious psyche itself, with all of its bizarreness and tendency towards ambiguous imagery. This is seen in Sophia Narrett’s allegorical embroidery pieces, which expresses the complexity and politically contradictory nuance of a contemporary psyche.

Narrett explained to me that it takes six to eight months of labor to complete a piece, which begins with a mixture of fantasy and personal experience. Delicately, with thread and needle, her pieces hang on the wall, inviting viewers to swirl within the weavings, decipher the symbolism, and voyeuristically wonder upon the remnants of highly personal associations.

Her creations are genuine expressions of an artist who engages with the imagery of the unconscious. The series of highly original pieces are diaristic portrayals of the psyche, which does not curtail to politeness or rationality, and instead acts as a sampling of rich symbolic motifs, ripe for contemplation.

PART TWO: Jungian Theory and the Archetypal Feminine

The Big Picture

When speaking of the archetypal feminine in the broadest sense, we can recognize a basic conflict within the psyche of the West. Broadly speaking, the development of an increasingly sophisticated culture came at the expense of a connection to the unconscious. Development of a human psyche which was more able to pursue goals, plan into the future, build and control its environment came with an awareness of the threatening unpredictability of nature, as well as an aversion to “the spirits” of the unconscious.

Erich Neumann in his book, The Origins and History of Consciousness, outlines the stages in which consciousness develops, as revealed in mythologies and anthropology. Neumann’s landmark book, The Great Mother examines the male psyche’s experience of the archetypal feminine, emphasizing the variations of the archetype as collective psychology and culture develops.

Contemporary thinkers have criticized the West as a male-dominated culture. Neumann examines the archetypal situation at the root of this scenario. Development of “ego consciousness” corresponded with masculine imagery, and the pull of nature and the unconscious with feminine imagery. Neumann explains:

“In the history of the development of the conscious mind, the archetype of the Masculine Heaven is connected positively with the conscious mind, and the collective powers that threaten and devour the conscious mind both from without and within, are regarded as Feminine. A negative evaluation of the Earth archetype is therefore necessary and inevitable for a masculine, patriarchal conscious mind that is still weak. But this validity only applies in relation to a specific type of conscious mind; it alters as the integration of the human personality advances, and the conscious mind is strengthened and extended.

“Even if, for example, the Masculine principle identifies itself with the world of Heaven, and projects the evil world of Earth outwards on the alien Feminine principle, both worlds are still parts of the personality, and the repressing masculine spiritual world of Heaven and of the values of the conscious mind is continually undermined and threatened by the repressed but constantly attacking opposite side.” [10]

The weakness of the masculine-oriented psyche and the collective neurosis of a culture disconnected archetypal feminine has created much suffering. But, in the last couple centuries, there has begun a process of rebalancing.

This circuitous movement is acted out through collective mechanisms, like evolutionary forces, which exist in unfathomable timescales, quite outside any individual lifetime. People, who lack contact with one another, become attracted to and delve into similar areas of concern.

Threads of History

In the 1890s Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious. Carl Jung, in his personal journey and psychological model, addressed deeper aspects of this realm. At the same time, similar elements of mysticism being looked at psychologically by Jung, were being spread by the Theosophical Society, led by Madame Blavatsky. Interestingly, Hilma AF Klint, influenced by Theosophical ideas, created the first series of abstract paintings (a decade before Kandinsky) in the West.

These factors, related to the unconscious and to non-rational thought, were related to a long-awaited resurgence of the archetypal feminine. The influence of Freud’s discovery of repressed sexuality influenced artistic and intellectual circles and led to an ongoing revolution in people’s relationship to the erotic body and sexual instincts.

The Hippy and Free Love movements of the 1960s was a continuation of such discoveries. This potent moment, which sought new understandings of community, spirituality and sexuality, continues to influence cultural norms and individual experience today. Theosophy transmuted into the contemporary New Age, and Jung’s contributions of archetypes, synchronicity and the collective unconscious all increased attention to the repressed feminine energy.

As people grapple with the influence of such upheavals there is much friction and misunderstandings. However, a persistent trend towards integration of the feminine is clear. The continued interest in yoga, meditation and other New Age practices are a resurgence of the goddess and her archetypal powers. SEED is an example of the archetypal feminine being expressed and reveals the particular importance of women to be pioneers of that work.

However, as much as it was the male psyche’s fear of the feminine that caused such a split and repression in the first place, according to Jung’s theory, it is important for people of all gender identities to seek balanced function of the archetypal masculine and feminine within themselves, and express the fullness of their personalities socially in order to correct the collective imbalances.

Art as Transference Dialogue: Collective Therapy

The group show, SEED, emphasizes the “understanding of the artistic practice as akin to witchcraft” [11] This indicates a recognition of the artist as mystic, or shaman, who goes into the uncertain realms of mystery, unfamiliar to common people. Psychologically, we can understand the “witch” or “shaman” as someone who is willing to inhabit the unconscious, at least temporarily, and return with an honest picture.

“The exhibition is playfully engaged with both traditional and nontraditional deific archetypes” and is “loaded with surrealism, symbolism and humor.” [12] The quality of the work and the fact that it claims to engage with the archetypal realm, implicates it as akin to the dream.

In Jungian analytic work, dreams can be assumed to be “compensatory” to the ego point of view. In this sense, assuming an artist's contact with the unconscious, we can treat their material as a dream, which tells us what we are missing, or ignoring. Compensatory material of this kind can be specific and local to an individual's day or week, or broader and related to such matters discussed earlier, regarding the overall psychological orientation of a culture.

Either way, engaging with the unconscious is an act of exploration of the feminine and holds healing potential.

What is key towards furthering our evolution, is that the mysticism of the artist is only gestated fully when viewers engage in a productive dialogue with the symbolism and emotional impact of a given piece.

In this way the artistic creation functions as material for self-inquiry and transformation. Acknowledging initial feeling reactions, thoughts and observations of imagery is the first step.

By remaining mindful, we can ask further questions. For example, a work by an artist on display at SEED, Sanam Khatibi may prompt such questions as:

Sanam Khatibi. Detail, But I want to swallow you, 2017. Oil and pencil on canvas, 62 x 78 inches.

Image via  http://sanamkhatibi.com/work/

How do I relate to carnal pleasure? Is it bad? Good? A Mixture?

Do I dislike lascivious imagery strongly? Does that mean I am repressing this side of myself?

What is the source of such primal, intense energy and what do I want to do with such forces?

Through answering, we differentiate and articulate our own personal meaning, increasing our understanding of self and humanity. This dialogue allows us to bring back pieces of the artist’s compensatory dream and fill in the missing aspects of our individual and collective conscious point of view, orientation and behavior.

Looking into the unconscious, through the work of an artist, provides an opportunity for the renewing vitality to the feminine dimension. In practice, this implies a thorough reconfiguration of values related to the body and sexuality, family and community (effecting business norms), treatment of the environment, as well as the unconscious psyche itself.

The feminine archetype emphasizes community, togetherness, love, joy, aesthetic and bodily pleasure, as well as the importance of incarnated life. When these values are acknowledged and embodied, there are dramatic shifts in individual behaviors and attitudes, as well as collective ones.
 

Footnotes

[1] For more on Jung and Sophia visit: http://gnosis.org/gnostic-jung/Remember-Sophia.html

Also: Compare that description to that of the archetypal masculine, which stands for the aspects of the individual personality and collective ideals related to laws and commandments, rational knowledge and reason, as well as the assertive drive to accomplish, build and achieve as an individual.

[2] For deeper explanation of the feminine archetype read: Carl Jung, Collected Works, Volume 9, Part 1, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

[3] NSL Bites: Yvonne Force Villareal on the Power of Public Art: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfcoPFFhNYM

[4] Taking her Cues from the Seventies, by Bee-Shyuan Chang. New York Times, 2012: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/fashion/yvonne-force-villareal-of-the-art-production-fund.html?

[5] Press release for SEED, Paul Kasmin Gallery: https://www.paulkasmingallery.com/exhibition/seed

[6] Is Loie Hollowell a Georgia O’Keefe for the Instagram Age? by Haley Mellin. Vice.com, 2017: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j5eyp8/is-loie-hollowell-a-georgia-okeefe-for-the-instagram-age

[7] Hein Koh Discusses Feminism, Pregnancy and Motherhood (Video interview), Culture Magazine, 2018: https://www.culturedmag.com/hein-koh/

[8] The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine. Nancy Qualls-Corbett.

[9] For more read: Goddesses in Every Woman by Jean Shinoda Bolen

[10] Erich Neumann, The Fear of the Feminine and other Essays on Feminine Psychology

[11] Daniel Gordon and Ruby Sky Stiler Take Baby Steps, Art21: https://art21.org/watch/new-york-close-up/daniel-gordon-ruby-sky-stiler-take-baby-steps/

[12] Ibid