The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues
SEPT 2010 Issue

HEAT WAVES IN MY CORTEX Charles Burchfield, British Petroleum, and The Invisible Fire

There is a rumbling from the void. Light withdraws and there is movement in the darkness. Another great heaving, something roars through the depths toward the surface. It is formless. There is a great hissing. Circling birds fall from the sky. White liquid begins to boil. Black rain pours down. A green flash as flames swallow the night. It is happening again.

Charles Burchfield, “Dawn of Spring” ca. 1960s watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on joined paper mounted on board. 52 x 59 1/2 inches.
Charles Burchfield, “Dawn of Spring” ca. 1960s watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on joined paper mounted on board. 52 x 59 1/2 inches.
On View
The Whitney Museum of Art
Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield, curated by Robert Gober
June 24 – October 17, 2010
New York

I enter the last room first, a backward progression through contained chronology, the cart before the horse. I am immersed in the pulsing rhythms and sheer inventive playfulness of his work. It’s hard to imagine an artist more in tune with the unseen forces of natural life, or more in awe of the earth, than Charles Burchfield. It radiates from the canvases in a cacophony of colors and shapes, in the translations and transfers, the projected images of natural vibration, the dark recesses. Images begin to congeal: burning orbs of light, pollinating dandelion seeds, dark rooms.

I awake uneasily from a dream. It’s dark and the heat is unbearable, stifling. I’m bothered by something I read earlier in the day about events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. According to recent news reports, the 200 million-plus gallons of crude oil that were pumped into the sensitive ecosystems of the Gulf region have virtually disappeared. News cameras and scientists can’t find them. As it turns out, British Petroleum (BP), the corporation responsible for the spill, has flooded the region with a highly toxic chemical dispersant—some 2 million gallons in total—called Corexit, a chemical designed to break up the oil. Large areas of the massive oil slick, at one point the size of Kansas, have become submerged toxic plumes, unlikely ever to float back to the surface, destined to migrate through underwater currents across the entire Gulf basin and eventually the North Atlantic, killing everything in their path.

Suddenly it takes form, a massive snake of blackness hemorrhaging from the void. It is vast, repulsive. Anemia, hypothermia, malnutrition—the stench of death precedes it. Imbecility and dark brooding are its song. It rises and spreads, reaching out its inky tendrils. Waiting, spreading, advancing…

He took the old images and enlarged their surfaces by adding strips of paper around the outer edge—new vessels for early desires. “Dawn of Spring,” ca. 1960 is an image within an image of expanding imaginative space. There is a central rectangle of emerging colors and images. Beyond this there is a surrounding area of ghostly sketching.  Two trees, one large one small, radiate upward within the central dimension. They burn and mutate with light in the soft slush of wintery ground. A dome of swelling energy inflates the atmosphere; energy ripples and crackles across the ground, through the branches, through the air, outward, toward the very edge, into sketchy static beyond. The secret fire, the living balsam of nature brought forth from darkness to light. It forms words.

He writes them across the bottom, “very dark pit.” We enter the pit; inner and outer light is identical, seamlessly wed like Luna and Sol in illumined lunacy. The light within life is our own awareness, mediated by our energy, bodies that fill each particle of being. Direct communication is healing, realigning body and soul, connecting the soul to the world chorus. Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World, the pure ethereal spirit diffused throughout all nature, the divine essence that embraces and energizes all life in the universe. We finally come to our senses. We sit in meditation and come to know the meaning and the light of the darkness, the black sun. We see it gleaming beyond the Abyss that distinguishes being from non-being.

We wander further outward, focusing beyond the edge of the painting. He takes us there. The sound the wind makes through the trees. The sentience of animals. What we fear in the dark and what lies beyond the darkness. The light of darkness itself, which illuminates its own darkness, and this light the darkness comprehends. It is the numinous mystery, the Lumen Naturae. It is a revelation of living Light and the true source of self-knowledge and creation. It is borne of innocence and experience, not concept, and is hidden like a secret. This secret is in the light and the light is in all living creation—the songs of birds and insects, the sap moving through the trees, the movement of the tides. A spiritual technology for the soft machine, we must cultivate it like artists.

They breathe in its noxious breath. They eat the things exposed to its touch. It covers them, entering their orifices. They suffer lesions in their organs, the lungs, brain. They go blind. Soon, reproductive failures, changes in blood chemistry result. Delirium. Generations will be damaged.

Beautiful, chromatically deliberate, immediate, and luminous watercolor is a medium of transformation and unity, simultaneously bringing together the dual processes of opacity and translucency, separation and coalescence. It emerges as the critical channel for Burchfield. The animate, outer world of nature, and the invisible, inner world of artistic emotional life bleed into one another through the fluid reverberation of pigmented movement in the universal solvent, the harvesting of the hermetic dew, the philosophers’ vitriol. Water. Through it Burchfield seemed to see so clearly that nature was not something to be depicted as much as felt, experienced, revealed. Life and art were not, are not, a series of mere representations. Instead, they are, as Burchfield himself wrote in describing his 1917 composition “The Song of the Katydids on an August Morning,”  “monotonous, mechanical, brassy rhythms…combining with heat waves of the sun, and saturating trees and houses and sky.” They are primal, mysterious, and inextricably linked to the natural rhythms of unseen forces.

They sit in a dark room in a white tower. Secretly, they monitor its expanding trajectory and slow, poisonous composition. They discuss the variables of using its power for equitable advantages of a “social nature.” Terrified of its history they announce, officially, that history has ended, as have all the traditions associated therewith. Followed by a period of pageantry and carefully planned cultural exhibitions they separate from their origin and demand all do the same.

At the moment, the world is asleep, suffering the dreams of humanity which have become a nightmare of desecration and pollution. In our hubris we have forgotten that the world is more than our collective projections, it is more mysterious and strange than our rational minds would like us to believe. Quantum physics has revealed a fluid and unpredictable world in which consciousness and matter are not separate—whether a photon of light behaves as a particle or wave depends upon the consciousness of the observer. But we remain within the images of Newtonian physics: matter that is dead, definable, and solid, and consciousness that is objective, safely divorced from the physical world. Matter and spirit remain split, and we continue in the patriarchal fantasy that we can have control over our world.

“How is it possible to make people understand,” Burchfield wrote in one of his many journals, “that artists are not interested in art?” a thought later echoed by Barnett Newman when he said “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” The Sufis say mystic knowledge can only be known directly by initiation, not merely explained. Burchfield went knee-deep in the swamp and found, through painting, a paradise pregnant with energy and interlaced with darkness. He comprehended the nature of this darkness and made the journey to his own depths. Only the light of darkness illuminates our depths. Only by comprehending its nature can we comprehend our own.

They study it through a series of graphs and presentations. They emulate its structure. They learn to operate through vast, spreading, tendril-like networks of bureaucratic authority. Marked by biannual celebratory pageants, this authority is presented publicly under a banner of ideological rectitude and bigoted adherence to factional viewpoints.

August 20, 2010, The Associated Press reports that a giant plume from BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been confirmed deep in the Gulf. New evidence shows that a 22-mile-long, 650-foot-high pocket of oil has persisted for months at depths of 3,600 feet, according to a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Furthermore, trenches dug on a recently cleaned Pensacola beach revealed large swaths of oil up to two feet deep. Data recovered from previous spills suggest that the buried beach oil may continuously migrate not only out to sea but also into natural groundwater reserves. BP, accused by U.S. lawmakers of withholding critical information on the nature of the rig explosion that caused the spill and took 11 lives, calls the accusations a “publicity stunt.”

Soon, they forget the very nature of the thing they studied. Many proclaim a disbelief in its very existence. They return to the source and find it has advanced far beyond their careful predictions. They become strangely aroused by the perversity of its movements, the sheer size of its uncontrollable form. They impregnate the mass with a host of chemicals: benzene, methanol, mercury. Remarkably, the mass becomes transparent. They name the invisible death pool Tixeroc and give lectures on the speculative nature of its ever having existed at all.

Charles Ephraim Burchfield died of a heart attack on January 11, 1967. Two months later on the morning of Saturday, March 18, 1967, a supertanker named Torrey Canyon ran aground off the coast of England, on Pollard’s Rock between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly. Over the following days, every drop of the 119,328 tons of crude oil borne by this 1,000-foot-long supertanker seeped into the Atlantic. Thousands of tons violated the beaches of Cornwall, and thousands more were propelled by winds and currents across the English Channel towards France. British Petroleum was the company that chartered the vessel.

At the time, the English newspaper The Guardian reported: “British Petroleum, which has the Torrey Canyon on charter but does not own her (and therefore disclaims any responsibility for the oil pollution) has sent all the detergent it can lay hands on.” Detergents—a deceptively cozy, domestic term for what were highly toxic chemicals. They didn’t work. Nineteen days after the disaster, a huge slick hit western Guernsey. The oil lay so thick that 3,000 tons could be pumped directly into sewage tankers. The remainder was pumped into a nearby local quarry where the massive pool of black oil sits to this day, 43 years later.

Ninety-three years ago in 1917, the first of the years that Charles Burchfield affectionately referred to as his “watershed years,” far across the globe in Russia, the poet Alexander Blok published a series of essays called “The Spirit of Music.” In a strange echo to Burchfield’s passion, he wrote, “It is not the business of the artist to be concerned with the fulfillment or non-fulfilment of intentions; this is not the burden of his song. He should be concerned with life and all that has a bearing upon it, with the world and the decisive changes that take place within it. It is as he consumes himself in life that he finds his expression. Those of us who escape unhurt…will prove to be the possessors of innumerable spiritual treasures.”

Something splashes in the distance. It struggles against a force it cannot see. It sinks, resurfaces, and lays motionless in a swirling invisible pool of nothingness. There is an awful silence.


Craig Olson

Craig Olson is a former student of Thomas Nozkowski and regular contributor to the Rail. He is also an artist who lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

All Issues