ART, SCHEMES, DREAMS, AND NIGHTMARES
During my freshman year of college I experienced a baptism-by-fire radical assault on my dearest beliefs and assumptions about reality. It all began in my art school foundation design program. I entered the program in 1970 on the heels of twelve years of Catholic School education and the Sixties; and I quickly learned the meaning of the words, “they don’t call it Liberal Arts for nothing!”
A fine arts education is meant to open up your mind to new ways of seeing the world; I was not disappointed. In addition to our studio classes we studied the full gamut of art history from the Lascaux cave paintings to the Italian Renaissance, and right through early modernism and Pop Art. In foundation design we were introduced to the Surrealist artists and writers. I was impressed with their willingness to explore the irrational parts of the mind, in their search for inspiration for their art. I found the work of Magritte and Delvaux, who both worked with dream imagery, to be particularly fascinating. Disgusted with the political and social status-quo of Post World War One Europe, the Surrealists recognized Freud’s idea of the subconscious mind as an oracle of unmet desires and repressed emotions as the perfect metaphor for the social turbulence of the day. They set out creating a radical new art, abolishing the academic aesthetic hierarchy in favor of new styles reflective of the changing political and social dynamics of modern European society.
Inspired by the Surrealists’ radical approach to art, I began experimenting with different techniques to express a seemingly endless stream of imagery that came to me in a spontaneous, effortless fashion. In addition to long hours spent in the studio, painting, I also delved into analytic philosophy, existentialist philosophy, poetry, American literature, and art history. Excited by this frenzy of new ideas, I searched for a common thread to tie all that I was learning into a cohesive statement.
For many young artists in the nineteen seventies, the themes of the Surrealists, Existentialists, and early Modernists still resonated; we identified with the Surrealists, and like them, felt the part of misfit and outcast. Uncertain of our role in society, we felt isolated and marginalized from the mainstream. Like a singer without a song or an actor without a script, we weren’t sure who our audience was, or what our subject matter was supposed to be. In earlier times, artists were supported with commissions to paint portraits of the monarchs and nobles or to decorate palaces and churches with illustrations of Biblical stories and historical narratives. Their task was clear: follow the assignment and express it with clarity. Unfortunately for many of us contemporary artists, the answer to the question, “for whom are we painting?” is, “ourselves.”
For me, the conundrum was: Can I make paintings for myself that also have some meaning for others? Is self-expression alone a worthy reason to dedicate my life to making art? I decided that recording my personal narratives is a worthy endeavor because my personal story, if well told, would bear witness to the time we live in. To ensure that my narrative is relevant to others I tasked myself to identify and develop themes that resonate emotionally with others.
Through my somewhat arbitrary and unsystematic reading of twentieth century philosophy I learned that the existentialists investigated emotional, political, and subjective experience while the analytic philosophers investigated logic, mathematical reasoning, and objective thinking. I was equally attracted to both, and used ideas from both in formulating my art work. My content was emotional but the structure I used to present it was logical.
From the get-go I was attracted to drawing and painting. What I love about drawing and painting is the challenge of expressing the three dimensional world in two dimensional space. Using a shorthand language of shapes, line, and color, we can create both dead flat abstraction and full Illusionistic space. The picture plane is a philosophical gateway into an artificial, imaginary world, which exists in its own time and space regardless of what the artist is depicting on it. This fact makes painting a complex abstract language with many variables and eccentric features. This language has an inherent philosophical nature – the artist asks “What is reality?” and the painting responds, “Show me!” For me, looking at a painting unleashes a line of Socratic questioning, an unpeeling of layers and layers of implied meaning and assumptions which sometimes turn out to be false signs and mere illusions created by our minds in our desire to quell the uncertainty that we face each day of our lives. In some cases the more we look at a painting the less certain we become of what it is we are seeing. Our emotional capacity to process metaphor and allegory is fed by our desire to interpret and understand the world we live in. Painting is an inquiry into reality. We discover reality through our individual experiences of the world.
Every generation has it defining crisis; the Surrealists had World War One; we had the Vietnam War. As the anti war movement grew and society became more polarized, I felt my creative impulses build. The resulting conflict and anxiety formed the spark for my artistic yearning. I wasn’t sure what I would do with it, but I knew I had to do something. I could feel the pressure building inside.
What with all this uncertainty and the angst of being at the crossroads of the end of my childhood and the onset of adulthood, is it any wonder that at the ripe old age of eighteen anxiety seemed to be the overriding theme of my life? I now had at my disposal the language of painting to express and possibly exorcise this anxiety, but I still needed to find the right subject matter to carry this theme metaphorically.
Not coincidentally, around this time I started having lucid dreams and nightmares. Many of these dreams woke me in a state of panic. Covered in sweat, I could recall every detail. Many of these dreams appeared repeatedly, knocking me over the head with messages that my cognitive faculties could not comprehend. I began to record these dreams in my sketchbooks. In searching for ways to express the incredible anxiety they caused me to feel, I developed the idea to depict them as narratives running through a malleable space – a space/time continuum which does not conform to the laws of perspective. I was interested in the feeling that the dreams produced in me, not in their “meanings.” Conventional realism seemed too limited to express the anxiety and terror that characterized my dreams. I sought a style that could better express their irrational absurdity. My brain, recently scorched by the fire and brimstone of foundation design, conceptual art theory, and the general gestalt of the art school experience, was game for something new. Rapid fire exposure to Dada, Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, and Pop Art had me spinning.
The fleeting nature of memory required I work as directly as possible. I drew the dream imagery quickly without thoughts of how it looked artistically. I relied on my internal recognition mechanism to verify the fidelity of the drawings to the source material. I realized I was skating on thin ice, as there was no way anyone else could verify that the imagery was accurately expressing those particular dreams. Notwithstanding, I held my ground on the philosophical point that what the viewer sees is not the dream but the language used to express it. That language, grounded in the history of art making, belongs not to me, but to all of the humanity. Confident that this common thread was enough to justify my obsession with this personal subject matter, I set about expressing my idea, borrowing freely and quoting liberally from the symbols and techniques of the history of art.
Although dream imagery comprises only about ten percent of my entire oeuvre, the techniques I developed to express these notoriously temporal impressions continue to structure most of my other narrative work. What I discovered in dream imagery was a pre-selected system of hierarchical imagery arranged in an absurdly gripping narrative, where certain details are magnified for reasons not always clear. As mentioned above, conventional realism seemed too static, too familiar, and too comfortable to accurately express the violent random changes of mood that can occur in a dream. Realism relies on illusionism to draw the viewer into the pictorial space; I want the viewer to experience the disjointedness of the dream sequence itself. By substituting the system of spatial perspective and vanishing points used in realism with a codified hierarchical system based on the apparent symbolic value of the imagery, I followed what seemed to me to be the logic of the dream narrative itself.
Loaded with potential symbolism and metaphor, dream-based narratives present as powerful psychological allegories. The interpretation of these narratives I leave to others; my role as an artist is simply to record and document them. My attraction to dream imagery springs from the directness images projects their apparent importance in the narrative. Their structure provides me with a specific subject matter, unique to my personal emotional make-up.
What I learned from studying dream imagery is that mining the richest symbolic content of any scene provides a powerful material with which to construct a painting. This idea carried over to my other work as well. I try to distill all of my subject matter down to its salient symbolic features. Much of my nondream based subject matter derives from memories, memories which continuously distort and change with the passing of time. This fact alone causes me a certain anxiety. I know I am guilty of embellishing and revising the facts more and more as time go on, idealizing the facts, turning them to fiction. Had I stuck with traditional still life painting instead, the silent and immutable still life objects might have provided me with the stability I have been grasping for in the shadowy world where from my work emerges. On the other hand, when I look at the still life paintings of Cezanne and Picasso, I am not sure the outside world, when carefully scrutinized, appears any more cohesive than the dream world.
Another thing I noticed is that the process of dreaming, where we surrender our analytical faculties to our subconscious mind, is similar to the trance-like state we go into when we lose ourselves in our creative work. Senses heightened, perception on high alert, our intuition takes over. We lose all track of time, giving ourselves over to the moment. Being lost in this nonverbal, right-brain experience creates an intensely pleasurable feeling. We sense the spatial nuances in front of us and express them freely. When “in the zone” our creativity unfolds effortlessly like any natural process, such as walking or breathing, unencumbered by verbiage and rhetoric.
In ancient times dreams were thought to be messages from the gods, omens or oracles to enlightenment. Who among us has not been struck by the story of Exodus of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows getting swallowed up by the seven thin cows? Joseph, the hero of the story, has the gift of interpreting dreams, and becomes an advisor to Pharaoh. In another Biblical story, Jacob dreams of angels ascending a ladder to heaven. Stories like these create the desire to find meaning in our own dreams, and set us up for the endless tomes of pseudoscientific drivel on the subject of dream interpretation. Indeed, the investigation into dream interpretation comprises a major part of Freud’s psychological theories. Finding allegorical meaning in our literature is a full-time occupation for many scholars. When these interpretations resonate with the public, we edify and transform them into cultural touchstones.
Karl Jung took Freud’s idea of archetypes a few steps further. In Man and His Symbols, Jung put forth the idea that symbols like the circle are deeply embedded in the human consciousness via their universal symbolic meaning (circle = sun, moon, etcetera.) The implication being that the human brain has a repository of images, a universal symbolic language that is a veritable part of our DNA. Jung’s concept is almost metaphysical in its appeal. I agree with him that humans have a penchant for symbolic language. However: I just don’t think that symbol recognition is imprinted on our brains. Rather, I think our proclivity for recognizing visual symbols comes from our exposure to the wide use of such symbols in our culture. My reasoning here is analogous to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous rebuttal to the purely speculative notion held by some that meanings are inside our heads. In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes, “In some cases, but not for all, the meaning of a word is in its use.”
The big question for me was not “What do dreams mean?” but “Why do we dream, and what does it have to do our waking life?” Dreaming seems to me to be some kind of extension of our imagination which generates imagery under its own steam. Most of the time, I am barely conscious of my dreams. To me, dreams feel like a movie that is always playing in the background of my life, and although its presence appears to be marginal, dreaming seems to have an important connection to the creative process. I am amazed at how this part of my mental life is capable of generating fantastic stories, plots, and characters effortlessly. All I have to do is fall asleep and watch. I speculate that what I am experiencing when dreaming is pure, uncensored brain activity. This unconstrained mental energy is not slowed down by the higher, judgmental, moralistic compartment of my brain. My ability to reason is suspended as reality begins to meld with unreality. In fact, I experience a kind of passive acceptance of all things illogical and open-ended when dreaming.
As an artist, I have always marveled at the brain’s ability to multitask. A big part of the creative process involves taking in stimulus and then allowing it to “cook.” The process can take months or longer, but when it is ready, I know it and then begin to work. Some consider the “cooking time” to be a form of writer’s block, but for me, it is part of the process, much akin to the seemingly inert chrysalis phase that transforms a caterpillar into a butterfly. An example of the kind of complexity the brain can handle presented itself to me recently while walking down a busy New York City Street. I was aware of my surroundings, including traffic, street vendors, pedestrians, and obstacles in my path, while my thoughts meandered from mundane details at my day job to what I was going to do after work. As I neared a man walking in front of me I overheard a snippet of him talking to his father on the phone, telling of and thanking him for the best hang-over ever – the said hang-over resulting from a celebratory party after a football game. This struck me as curiously primal – I was surprised by the reverence he seemed to have as if the simple act of getting drunk had some kind of ritual significance. As I turned the corner westward towards the subway station I quickly found myself out of earshot of his voice and my consciousness returned to the mundane thoughts I was involved with moments earlier, how to solve a scheduling conundrum at my job.
As I marveled at how the brain can move in and out of thoughts so nimbly, I realized this process is not dissimilar to how, while dreaming, we travel from one scene to another so effortlessly, and with great familiarity. I assume this process is mostly electrical in nature since the nervous system is electrical. The speed of human thought and reaction to stimuli is incredibly impressive. In my opinion, computers don’t even come close to the way the mind works.
During my student years, I read somewhere in one of Jung’s books that there are three periods in one’s life when we have our most profound dreams. They correspond to three times when we experience transitions in society - the first when we leave the security of our home life and start going to school (between the ages of four or five), the second when we leave school and enter adulthood (eighteen), and the third when we start slowing down, moving out of our prime and into our senior years. These social/psychological transitions are accompanied by certain biological or chemical (hormonal) changes which may have a global effect on whatever stimulates the dream process. I was intrigued by this idea because I experienced intense nightmares as a child of about four years old, and experienced vivid, repeating lucid dreams at age eighteen/nineteen. I was recording the most memorable of these dreams through drawing and painting while an undergraduate student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It was an exciting time for me as a young artist. My dream life provided me with a seemingly unlimited amount of unique imagery and narrative for my paintings. The fact that these dream images could not be seen by others added another layer of abstraction to my work. I had chosen to work with very subjective, obscure narratives because for me they are the perfect metaphor for the alienation that most contemporary artists feel. We are trained as artists but, finding ourselves in a world with no patrons must find a subject to paint which meaningfully represents our dilemma. The contemporary artist must not only design and create his/her artwork, but must also create a context for it.
When recording dreams, I typically slept well beyond eight hours per night. I discovered that I could suspend my consciousness in a sweet spot between dreaming and waking, where I could experience my vivid dreams and also remember them. In that state, I was aware that I was dreaming, and could talk to myself about the dream while I was having it. I kept notepaper by my bed so I could write about it before it faded away. I also made sketches of the imagery as soon as possible.
Two emotions I almost always feel while dreaming is fear and anxiety. I also have experienced rage, bliss, and inappropriate disaffection while dreaming, but fear and anxiety seem to be the dominating feelings in certain repeating dreams which woke me up, usually when something terrible was about to happen to me. A painting I made in 1972, Dream: T.S.B., is a classic example of a repeating nightmare in which I was being chased by a strange creature:
DREAM: T.S.B. (THE THIN SON OF A BITCH) 1972 48 x 42” acrylic, coins, and mixed media on canvas Collection, Janet Shapiro, Minneapolis, MN
This painting is composed of scenes from several terrifying repeating nightmares. The different scenes are presented as panels on wheels, which are being pushed around by a team of set changers. In one of these dreams I keep finding coins in a parking lot. The coin trail leads to a chest filled with jewels and gold. The chest is underneath the lilac bush in the yard of my parents’ house where I grew up. As I reach for the treasures, two thugs emerge from the lilac bush and try to beat me up. I run into a forest, the grounds of which are covered in thousands of intensely colored flowers. Suddenly an orange stick man with wild hair and a nose like a pencil began chasing me. His name is “The Thin Son of a Bitch.” I run fast but then I fall into quicksand and cannot escape. He screams at me and raises a large branch with which to beat me. At that point, I always wake up, sweating and trembling. I had this dream many times.
Through the many fluid transitions between the various landscape and garden scenes, my love of the fauna and flora of Minnesota is prominently featured. Many of my happiest childhood hours were spent exploring the lakes and fields of the places I lived. This ironic combination of bucolic garden scenery combined with the terror of being chased by a maniacal stick figure creates intense anxiety for me to this day, even after reaching a certain détente with my inner demons. A dream like this can no doubt be interpreted in many ways; we can easily assign a meaning to the symbols present or can construct a meaning to the narrative with whatever cultural bias we bring to it. Many people report having dreams of being chased. It seems to be almost archetypal in its frequency. This is only one of many dreams of being chased that I have had. The scenery may change, and the monster may change, but the absolute sense of dread and anxiety is
Talways the same. In my dreams I usually find myself surrounded by familiar things put into an unfamiliar context. I don’t remember ever dreaming of a completely unfamiliar place. There is almost a sense of nostalgia associated with the familiarity of dream content, except the nostalgia is out of context and becomes strange. The parts don’t always add up to a whole. There is an overriding sense of disorientation and open-endedness that add to the feeling of displacement.
A striking thing happened after I finished painting the painting: I stopped having this nightmare. I can only conclude that the act of bringing the imagery out of my dream-space and into the physical world somehow defused its psychic energy. This happened with many other dreams that I painted. I think recording dreams releases some of the anxiety in a way not dissimilar to talking about them with a therapist does.
A second type of dream I have recorded involves desire for closure from loss. I have had several lucid dreams in which my late wife Laura appears. These dreams are startling in how real they feel. It’s hard to believe such dreams are not divinely inspired as they are so visceral. They often take place in beautiful, natural settings, replete with heightened sensory stimulation. Although these dreams are not accompanied by the high level of anxiety that nightmares contain, they are filled with just as much potential symbolic content. It is remarkable to me the dreaming brain can produce such visionary work. If only I could do the same while conscious! This dream occurred three and one half years after Laura passed away; I developed the sketch into a painting four years later. When I had the dream I was coming to terms with losing Laura.
LAURA’S GHOST IN ITALY 2012 36 x 48” acrylic on canvas
I dreamt I was on a tour of Italy. Our group was walking in an olive orchard on a rocky hill. Through a tall wrought iron fence I saw Laura’s ghost. There was an opening in the fence where someone had bent the bars. I went in. I asked Laura what it was like to be dead. She responded: “Being dead is not all it’s cracked up to be – the food’s not that great and it’s kind of boring here.” We laughed and talked for over an hour. She asked about everyone in the family, and I told her all about our kids, the cats, and everyone else. Finally I noticed the tour group was starting to move. I told Laura I had to go. We kissed and said good bye. I went through the hole in the fence and rejoined the group.
This dream occurred at the point where I was finally coming to terms with Laura’s death. It was a very peaceful and beautiful dream. There are many personal references in the dream; how they got into the dream defies explanation. The location is Italy, a country which produced some of the most important artwork known to me. Laura’s paternal grandparents were from Italy. The fact that we never traveled there together created a longing in me after she died. In my dream that desire is fulfilled. The garden in which I am standing is an olive grove. The first Van Gogh painting I ever saw hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art and is titled “Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun.” As a young art student I spent hours staring at that painting. In my painting Laura appears on the other side of a fence, a divider between the world of the living and the world of the dead. The fact that the fence is made of wrought iron and allows one to see through it is an interesting feature; it allows me to see what is on the other side yet is designed to keep me out. Laura and I are separated but together in the dream space.
The mood of the dream was calm and happy; I found the dream to be cathartic and healing. It contained symbols of people, places, and things I loved in real life. I cannot explain how this narrative and these symbols came together in one dream, but I interpret it as a positive reinforcement of my desire for closure of a devastating chapter of my life. I do not ascribe any spiritual entity or supernatural power to its authorship. Like all of my other dreams, I think the imagery is generated from memories and emotions of things I have experienced in my life. I think it is natural for us to try to search for meaning in dreams, especially those which clad themselves in deeply symbolic imagery because of the strong emotional effect they have on us.
Forty-two years after I made my first dream painting I got a strong urge to organize all of my work on this subject. My recent heart attack woke me up to the fact that I needed to get this book done now. I knew my paintings and drawings on dream subject matter were the most original and unique group of work I have produced. My artist friends and collectors were familiar with much of this work but it had never been shown together in any kind of comprehensive way. It was now or never, so I began the book project in earnest. This undertaking involved digging up old slides of my early work, looking through old sketchbooks, and reviewing my personal journals and notebooks. I never recorded my dreams in any kind of systematic way; rather, I recorded the ones that seemed to pack the most emotional punch, mainly the repeating nightmares. The theme of most of my dreams is anxiety, which is coincidentally, the main theme of my waking life. Anxiety gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me up at night. Painting, drawing, and writing are my outlets.
I had written annotations for twenty-five of my early dream paintings back in the late nineties, and still had that document in my file cabinet. These descriptions helped me get started on this daunting task. I dug up old sketchbooks and notebooks, and found my early drawings and notes. To simplify the book I decided to organize the paintings in chronological order rather than thematically.
Over the years my fascination with dreams led me to explore an assortment of literature on the topic. My reading, which was no more systematic than my methodology for recording my dreams, was broadly eclectic. There were as many theories on what dreams mean as there were authors on the subject. Some were overly simplistic; most were speculative or pseudoscientific. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud offers a plethora of anecdotal evidence on what causes dreams, as well as a fascinating history of experimentation on dreamers by various researchers. Freud’s book was a major influence, not because I agreed with his ideas but because of the dogged way he went at it – his writing style, rich in colorful language and images, was the most captivating work on dreams that I found. His bias, psychology, seemed to intersect well with certain aspects of my own work, but I did not feel that psychology explains the whole story behind the phenomenon of dreaming.
Enter Allan Hobson, stage right:
When the book was nearly finished I sent a draft to a colleague of mine, Bill Barrette, to get his input on it. Bill knows my work well, so I value his opinion and insight. While we were discussing the book, Bill mentioned that I might find Dreaming as Delirium by Allan Hobson to be of interest. Bill had read this book a few years earlier and felt its content was relevant to my work. The book was unlike anything I had read before. I was stunned and excited by what Allan’s research had yielded. His discovery that the brain operates on two different chemical systems: one while awake, the other while asleep, provided a clear explanation for many of the mysteries of how our brain creates dreams, and how the memories that provide the content of those dreams get organized into seemingly nonsensical narratives. Here at last was hard scientific research on how the dreaming brain works. I couldn’t believe I had not learned of Allan’s work twenty years earlier.
Next I read Dream Life, an Experimental Memoir, where I learned about Allan’s upbringing, his irrepressible skepticism, and his love of learning. Allan’s writing was a beacon of hope to me. I felt a strong kinship to his ideas, and admired the tenacity displayed in his research.
When I got to the part where Allan mentions he is looking for personal journals of people recording their dreams, I decided to send him a copy of my book. One day a few weeks later I came home to a voice message from Allan on my answering machine. Upon hearing Allan’s voice I felt like Dr. David Livingston in the African wilderness when found at last by Sir Henry Stanley. To learn that my work in recording my dreams was of interest to the scientific community was incredibly validating. I was very grateful to have made contact with Allan.
A few months later Allan invited me up to his farm and sleep lab museum in Vermont for a weekend to relax, enjoy nature, and discuss our work. Allan’s enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity is infectious. While applying his formidable skepticism to root out the truth, Allan has elevated his scientific research to a level of artistry that few people ever achieve. While perusing the exhibits in Allan’s sleep lab museum, I was struck by the fact that Allan’s approach to research has always been based on observation and logic. He has not compromised his work with speculative notions about the meaning of dreams or the psychology of the dreamers. He carefully measured brain activity while observing his sleeping subjects, recording the nuances that occur when one goes from non-REM sleep to REM sleep. This work objectively exposed the simple mechanics of the phenomenon of dreaming. Ironically, understanding how the dreaming brain works chemically while dreaming takes nothing away from the beauty and mystery of dreams. Allan does not deny that dreams can be interpreted in meaningful ways; he leaves dream interpretation to the individual dreamers. That makes sense to me, since we access dreams through memory, the individual repositories of our subjective experiences. As an artist who works with personal narrative, I very much appreciate the distinction between universal interpretation and personal interpretation of dream generated symbols.
I once visited Sigmund Freud’s house in Vienna, and was inspired by what I saw there too. But Allan has surpassed Freud in the breadth of his vision and scientific rigor. This wedding of scientific truth and visionary art is a remarkable achievement in a world where few can see such possibilities. Allan is the avant- garde of neurology (as are contemporary artists.) He is not interested in the metaphysical, symbolic, or romantic meaning of things but the beautiful reality of their pure existence and what that can mean for engagement in life. His museum displays numerous examples of dream art made by people who recorded their dreams using drawing and painting, revealing Allan’s respect for the subjective side of dream interpretation.
And how will all of this affect my next body of work? Since completing my book I have recorded several new dreams which I am in process of translating into paintings. Just the other night I awoke from a dream in which I was tasked with carrying a full glass of water on a tray while walking through my house, down the stairs, and down the block on my way to the subway to work. I knew if I spilled even one drop of water the world as we know it would be destroyed. The dream was as lucid as dreams I had in my teens; loaded with great imagery; spatial, temporal, and logical distortion; and is rife with hidden metaphors. And that’s not the only one. My hope is that I am now entering into a personal renascence of sorts and will find new ways to express the dreams of the next chapter of my life. When I get there I’ll try to remember not to spill the water.