Monthly Archives: February 2012

It’s time for “Nudes Downtown” on the Northwest Oregon coast. Saturday evening, March 3, I’ll be art walking with pictures of naked people in downtown Astoria. More info in this article here. If you need a ride, jump in the car with us.

Dancer with Hankies, a piece I did last year with Shakespearian actor Oge Agulue, is hanging in this Astoria show. (KALA at HIPFiSH Magazine, 1017 Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon.)

And through the end of March, my painting Natural Causes (Spoon) has been juried into the first annual Oregon Artists Showcase in Newberg. I’m headed over there again next week to see good pictures by Oregon people. (Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan Street in Newberg, Oregon, just southwest of Portland.)


Gregory Curtis writes in his book The Cave Painters (2006) that one should view Paleolithic paintings in France and Spain as “masterpieces” made by “geniuses” in the grandest, most western sense of those terms (178). Curtis does a nice survey of those who have discovered, copied and theorized about cave paintings over the past century or so, and along the way he often lofts the idea that what we tend to think of when we say “civilization” really started in these caves. It can still be seen. For example, he draws a direct evolutionary line from two intersecting paintings of a vulva and a bull in Chauvet cave to the Minotaur myths of Ancient Greece and bull fighting in Spain. At the same time he quotes an anthropologist who warns “against assuming too much” (214). For Curtis, cave paintings are so beautiful and so full of genius, he can’t help connecting them in his mind to his favorite ideas of high culture and cosmic significance. After one visit to Les Trois-Frères cave, Curtis writes, “I was so overflowing and overcharged with impressions and also so convinced that I had been as close as I would ever be—physically close—to The Truth that I could hardly think” (186).

He’s a fan.

New as I am to the amateur study of Paleolithic cave paintings, it’s still disorienting and kind of cute to run across other fans and see their idiosyncratic enthusiasms. Reading Curtis’s book got me struggling (sometimes productively) with the narrative pressures his words put on the images. It made me ask why we get so involved emotionally with pictures done by people whose looks, voices, clothing and beliefs we’ll probably never get to appreciate.

Part of it for me, the part that gets me taking lots of notes and practicing sketches, comes with the sense of access I get to unpopular ways of depicting the world. Looking at photos or traces of those images, reading what archeologists and historians take from them, I get to ferret out new pictorial rules—well, ancient rules that are new to me—for how to paint bodies. (And I pause in tribute to the capability of photos and drawings and other displays to creep their way into our minds and keep us up at night imagining the daily life of hunters 30,000 years ago.)

Another source of the allure is these paintings’ openness, or what Curtis and other fans call their “mystery.” These are sheer images, absolute pictures, available for us to dive into without the risk of hitting a semantic bottom. Like a good Rothko, they’re both strange and familiar enough to get the imagination cooking. Unlike an expressionist deep purple box, though, the paintings, drawings and engravings on cave walls represent specific parts of this world that seem familiar. I know my own joints and organs, and I know my wife probably like Paleolithic people knew theirs. I feel familiar with the horses, deer and bovines on cave walls from riding and hunting and eating their distant offspring. I even feel kind of familiar with the mammoths and lions from seeing their bones in museums. But the rest of what surrounds these pictures is gone. We don’t have contact with the people who made them, no titles for their work, no conclusive evidence for why they did it.

There is no narrative available, but—here’s the familiar engine of this thing—when we look at them, we can’t help constructing one. We look, sense some resonance with them, and up come the unavoidable conjectures. We think something like, “Crawling into this cave must’ve felt like this; making this picture, I bet he wanted that.” We’re built to make these leaps into the minds of imagined people.

Curtis says he’s self-aware in his leaping. After quoting the anthropologist who warns against assuming connections that aren’t there, he writes, “I guess I could be one of those people” (214). Yet that confession doesn’t seem to affect the book outside of page 214. Curtis has the annoying habit of repeating assertions with punctuations like “certainly” (39) and “must have,” as in, the abstract circles and lines on the walls “must have been an elaborate code” (6). I can’t think of many things more laced with uncertainty than how Paleolithic people thought of their abstract circles and lines. Describing the paintings in Chauvet cave, he notes that carbon dating indicates they were all made at the same time, about 32,000 years ago, and before 1994 they were only visited one other time, about 27,000 years ago, by a ten year old. “There are no other tracks; the child was there alone. What was happening? Was it just an adventurous and inquisitive kid or was it some special ritual where for some reason a child was sent into a cave alone every few thousand years?” (216). I want him to be joking here, but he isn’t. In Curtis’s mind, the possibility that a kid walked into the cave in a Tom Sawyer spirit of adventure deserves to be considered equally with the possibility that an illiterate, probably nomadic group would visit a cave once, then plan and wait some 5,000 years to send one ten year old into the cave for a few minutes of “special ritual,” then seal off all further visits. I think Curtis can’t help it, and ultimately that’s part of the value I take from these pages.

Curtis doesn’t ask; he celebrates. He doesn’t wonder whether these works are “art” or if the paintings of horses and bison had to do with religious ceremony. He already knows they did, and this book is his attempt to get readers to feel his sense of grand, sacred experience, of “intoxicating mélange” (111), and ride along with him toward imagining these pictures as source of life-changing ceremony.

Reading this book is like reading the diary of a rabid Michael Jackson fan. (And I know what that’s like because my wife is one.) Much as I’m a fan, too, it’s hard for me to stand next to him. He jumps around wildly at the concert, wearing the t-shirt, singing along with every word of every song (especially the B-sides), and yells in my ear that the guitarist’s wardrobe choice tonight is a secret message to true fans.

I don’t want to be that guy. I make fun of that guy. But even if that fan is annoying, I realize I share a subterranean focus with him, and I listen when he tells me the trivia.

I make it a rule now and then to study pictures by people unfamiliar with the Renaissance convention of single-point perspective. Seeing how other societies depicted a moving, multidimensional world gives me hints for adjusting my own assumptions on what a figurative painting should be. In years past it’s been buffalo hide paintings or medieval altar pieces. In recent months I’ve been gorging myself on Paleolithic cave art thanks in large part to a captivating piece of scholarship.

According to R. Dale Guthrie’s The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005), cavemen never lived in caves, and they spread through Eurasia as expert cooperative predators hunting large mammals on a “mammoth steppe”—a windy, cold, arid grassland stretching across the continent and bordered by forests in the south (18). These people banded together with spears to parry the charges of big cats, wolves and bears. And they made lots of art—or what we now call art, but what they probably saw as activity inherent to fashioning tools, preparing food, staying warm, and making sense of their world. A tiny fraction of their creative output survives in the natural climate control of European caves.

Guthrie, an emeritus zoology professor, artist and big game hunter, studies these paintings with a consilient approach. Stressing common ground shared by the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences, he combines methods to find conclusions that rest on solid scholarly ground. The book covers so much of that ground that I’ve been looking stuff up in a dozen more just to keep up with it. The result for me has been a technique-changing chance to imagine a way of seeing very different from our iPhone-centered worldview.

Guthrie’s main point is that the people who made Paleolithic art twenty or thirty thousand years ago were more like us than not, and with that in mind we can study the images they made for clues about their own time—like what markings extinct animals had on their hides—and clues that expose ourselves: Why do we make pictures? What makes some pictures compelling and others boring? Why do I paint what I paint?

The claim that we can assume these ancient people were close in nature and temperament to ourselves gets quickly controversial because so much scholarship and popular musing on cave paintings casts Paleolithic people as vastly more naïve and devoted to the sacred than we are today. Take Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a film that revels in the 3-D beauty of Chauvet cave’s images of large mammals covered in a layer of crystalline calcite. Herzog narrates, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on a rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Is placing an animal’s skull on a rock a strong hint of religious ceremony? Guthrie thinks not. What if this bear skull was placed as a joke or for the same reasons a traveler sets a conch shell just so on the beach?

Guthrie rejects the idea that Paleolithic people went into these caves primarily for religious reasons, and he marshals an impressive array of evidence to support his theory that most cave art is graffiti done by kids. First, very few people ever visited these caves, and they did so infrequently. Few footprints, no trails, no hearths, and little soot from torches has been found in these caves. Guthrie writes, “The image of a shaman taking the initiates into deep caves for secret rites, generation after generation, is bogus” (36). Second, populations during the Pleistocene era were young, with a mean life expectancy of about thirty years. This relates to what Guthrie calls the “young moose antler effect” (132). Every year moose shed their antlers. The vast majority of antlers found in nature come from young animals because all moose start out young and only a few become old and large. The sample size is skewed toward the young. With humans and art, it’s the same. In a society where over half of the average person’s life is spent under age eighteen, there simply isn’t time for much artistic output after adolescence—especially since adults tend to have less reason to go spelunking into caves and drawing. Third, Guthrie points out who goes into caves today. Statistically, young males are most willing to push limits, explore deep recesses, and otherwise do risky things. That’s why young males pay the highest car insurance premiums. Fourth, Guthrie conducted a study of all known Paleolithic hand prints in caves, comparing their measurements with modern European hands of various ages and genders. He found a wide range represented, from toddlers to adults, “with most of the individuals falling between ten and sixteen” years old (125).

With no evidence that Paleolithic people commonly lived in caves and lots of evidence that young people were the most likely to be exploring them, Guthrie finds it perfectly natural if most cave paintings look like children’s drawings. They probably are. To scholars who have categorized some of these paintings as representations of sacred man-beasts, Guthrie asks, what if they’re mistakes made by developing painters? Drawing a bison leg with the wrong hinge pattern makes it look human.

Again, this theory equates a lot of cave painting to contemporary graffiti. Guthrie cites scholars who note “abundant Paleolithic vandalism in Paleolithic art caves” (188). Is Herzog’s bear skull the equivalent of tennis shoes flung up on a power cable?

This brings up another thought. If cave art is considerably more likely to survive than the outdoor art of several millennia ago, and caves were mostly explored by adolescent males, then our mental images of Paleolithic people are skewed toward the young and the male. That is, we have a better idea of what boys cared about than what old women cared about, and this is where things get really provocative for me as a painter.

The vast majority of cave paintings represent large mammals, especially the prized beasts people hunted. The next most common are pictures of genitalia, male and female. (Only one figure has been identified as a mother and baby among thousands of Paleolithic art pieces, and looking at the image, I agree with Guthrie that the artist might actually have meant to depict a backpack.) Because they painted them, we know these images—related to the adrenaline of hunting and sexual fantasy—were on these painters’ minds when they went wiggling back into caves with a torch and a pouch of pigment. Guthrie writes, “When hunters closed their eyes, we know that they could see muscle and tendon in their proper positions and articulations. Yet such an inner vision was no instant gift but was accumulated and honed by observation and experience, and the spoor of that learning is visible in Paleolithic art” (91). Improvising on natural shapes in the walls, these painters worked through what captivated them. Life revolved around hunting for them, on observing animals for hours on end, practicing making spears, throwing them, group tactics and camouflage. Play and painting were part of that practice. “Large mammals were more than symbols, shamanic forms, or stylized territorial markers. Paleolithic large mammals were the big game of life. Little wonder they are the core of preserved Paleolithic art” (220).

Studying how Paleolithic hunters depicted their visible world has me sketching more ideas for paintings than I can count. Paleolithic people probably didn’t have our pictorial concept of point of view (all lines vanishing to a single point from a stable, single tripod view), and so their pictures often incorporate the movements of the viewer and the subject in ways novel to us (but perhaps not novel to the cubists). For example, bodies often have certain parts twisted around, employing what we would call multiple points of view into a single image. A lion may have two eyes on one side of its head. A deer might have its rump and head both twisted into view or its hooves bent in a way that shows the shape of the tracks it makes. Sometimes Paleolithic people made what Guthrie calls “x-ray drawings” of the bones and organs they knew were in animals’ bodies (145), and sometimes they painted lines of red dots—perhaps representing the blood hunters follow while tracking a wounded animal.

Red dots as a portrait of the adrenaline-charged hours between wounding an animal and bringing home the kill—these are emotive, efficient attempts to sort out and celebrate the stuff of life. Their example has me staggering though a list of new ideas for how to depict the big in-between moments of my own twenty-first-century activity, where I find my own red dots.

Here’s to showing all over northern Oregon as winter gives way to spring!

My painting Natural Causes (Spoon) has been juried into the first annual Oregon Artists Showcase in nearby Newberg. The opening happens this Friday, Feb. 3, and the show runs to the end of March. Come see good pictures by Oregon people. (Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan Street in Newberg, Oregon, just southwest of Portland.)

Then, it’s “Nudes Downtown”!

Dancer with Hankies, a piece I did last year with Shakespearian actor Oge Agulue, will hang in beautiful coastal Astoria (home of The Goonies movie). It’s part of Astoria’s celebration of people pictured naked. (KALA at HIPFiSH Magazine, 1017 Marine Drive, Astoria, Oregon.)

And then, don’t miss Talisman Gallery‘s open show, ongoing on Alberta in Portland until the last week of February: dozens of talented people hung pictures and sculpture in a tight salon format. Nice variety. Details on their site.