Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “Buddhism”

Soul

The inspiration for this painting came largely from oysters and their far more notorious contents: pearls.

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The pearl has been a symbol of magic and purity throughout antiquity and across many varied cultures, from Western religions like Christianity to Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism.

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Soul thumbnail sketch, ink on paper.

In this painting a pearlescent lump of vibrant, growing flesh represents the human “soul,” or the mysterious essence of life that animates the decaying physical body, and for which modern science still has no complete understanding or explanation. Quite ironically, the only representation of this lifeforce that we mortals seem able to discern with any reliability is its supposed opposite: the physical embodiment.

Here, its life-giving energy is co-opted by the encasement of confining machinery, which can be seen as representing the limited human form, and in a broader sense, the inescapable yet corroded impositions of society and culture.

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Soul, 11 x 14 inches, oil on mounted linen panel, 2015

The contrast between the hard and soft elements of this picture illustrates the human struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in the precarious balancing of vulnerability and armament. The title Soul references the mystery of what it is that makes our atoms vibrate with life, and our consciousness self-aware.

Shenpa (Towards Healing)

My newest completed painting originated out of the photo shoots I conducted for my 2010 series Rebuilding.  The image of extracted hook with bloody gauze rag was leftover reference from that time, a powerful symbol I had always wanted to paint but ran out of time before the exhibition was to occur at Last Rites Gallery in February of 2010.

Searching for an idea to paint before embarking on a recent trip to New Mexico, I came across this reference photo and decided the time was finally right to complete the artistic thought.  New Mexico feels like a healing place to me; its nickname “the land of enchantment” rings true in the way my mind and emotions feel whenever I visit.  Happily, it turned out to be the perfect place to manifest this painting based on an ancient Tibetan teaching related to emotional and spiritual healing (especially having the good fortune of working on it while staying in my dream home!).

One of my favorite writers Pema Chodron has studied this teaching extensively, offering a very clear modern interpretation:

The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word “attachment” absolutely doesn’t get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it’s incomplete, and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I’m going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place— that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you—they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child— and, shenpa: almost co-arising.

That’s why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It’s the tightening, it’s the urge… it’s this drive, too. This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There’s this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.

Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful—like eating, enjoying your food. In fact, in moderation there’s this deep appreciation of the taste, of the good fortune to have this in your life. But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.

We never get at the root… . The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out.

[Chodron, Pema. “The Shenpa Syndrome: Learning To Stay.” Shambhala.org. Shambhala International, Sept. 2002. Web. 1 May 2013.]

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Shenpa (Towards Healing), oil on panel, 11 x 14 in, 2013

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Shenpa (Towards Healing), detail

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I managed to photograph the major developmental stages, though not always in the best light while traveling.

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Painting in the inspirational interior of an Earthship.

New Vessels

Lately I’ve been brainstorming and refining a new artistic vision, taking the opportunity of any downtime between large surgery paintings to complete some smaller, fast-paced still lifes with a much different palette and ambiance.

These pieces utilize clean forms and simple compositions, attempting a confluence of opposites to symbolize the precarity of industrial civilization in the new millennium, the increasing sense of dread among many who see the global destructiveness and the coming end of late-stage capitalism:

Serenity and catastrophe…the mundane and the dramatic…solidity and ethereality.

Like much of my work these pieces are also influenced by Buddhist philosophy, with smooth surfaces representing the perfection of form that simultaneously experiences impermanence: smoke, flames, and ultimately, annihilation. These vessels are bodies facing their inevitable destruction through aging, inflammation and disease.  These vessels are the purification of the ego, burning away its own delusion and illusion.

 

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Endgame II, oil on panel, 6 x 7in, 2012

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Endgame III, oil on board, 6.5 x 7.5in, 2012-13

This budding series is an expansion and evolution of the themes broached in another less recent painting, which of course is also a metaphor for the edifices of civilization and their approaching collapse; the rise and fall of human achievement:

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Endgame I, oil on canvas, 5 x 7in, 2009-12

My plan (completely subject to change in the winds of artistic inspiration or be ground in the gears of other life obligations) is to continue to refine these concepts and build up to scenes of larger scale and higher complexity, as I wind down my Apostasy series this year.  Who knows what will actually happen, but I’m excited and nervous about finding new challenges. So stay tuned for more updates on both endeavors.

 

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Small, medium, and large…

 

Second Skin Group Show: Denial Vanitas

Below is a preview of my submission for the Second Skin group show opening this weekend at Copro Gallery in California.

Previously I blogged about the technical process involved in creating this painting here and here.

Thematically, the painting and its title “Denial Vanitas” refers to the pioneering work of Ernest Becker, cultural anthropologist, who studied the phenomenon of mankind’s denial of death.  He came to believe that each individual’s primal fear of death is a subconscious motivational factor in nearly all of our actions–especially in aggressive or violent ones–which culminates, finally, on a societal scale in the form of wars, bigotry, or genocide.

Download the full map of Becker’s ideas here.

This theory coincides with Buddhist teachings on the nature of self, or Ego, as a psychological construct constantly seeking to substantiate itself in concrete terms, as an (ultimately futile) antidote to the fundamental groundlessness and impermanence of existence. A human ego (either individually or collectively) reaches a pathological state when it resorts to acts of aggression or violence in order to claim power and thus prove it exists.

I worked these concepts, using very non-traditional subject matter, into the long tradition of Vanitas still life painting as a statement on the tragic ironies of postmodern consumer culture.

“Denial Vanitas”, oil on panel, 11 x 14in, 2012

Death permeates our lives in these times where everything seems designed and destined for the dumpster, quickly disposed of, after a short and meaningless servitude. Yet surprisingly, a collective denial deepens as the energetic, smooth-skinned bodies and carefree attitudes of the young are fetishized and promoted as the ultimate achievement.  Death is taboo, a relic buried under layers of styrofoam and sealed in cardboard boxes, forgotten in dusty attics and closets. But skeletons emerge from this denial, as wars rage across the earth and the planet’s very life-sustaining capacity threatens to collapse from our industrialized aggression.

Only after we’ve uncovered the denied aspects of our motivations, finding wholeness in a once-fractured psyche, can we truly embrace each fleeting moment and deeply appreciate the preciousness of all life.