The highest achievement for an artist is to bring the darkness, the unknown, the unconceived into the light of the known. The truth of a sculpture is located in the shadows.
- Nicholas Mukomberanwa
Without shadow, experience flattens. Past the cooling gifts of shade, shadow identifies the face of whatever’s active beyond the horizons of the immediate scope of attention. And, if only in consideration of its scale, shadow is not trivial.
Consciousness is a variable, not a constant, and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. … As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The band of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive. … By far the greater part we receive through subliminal perception. What surfaces in consciousness are fading shadows of things we know already.
- John Gray
Attention and consciousness, radically marginal, barely limn the shadows in which we actually live. Patched networks of metaphorical associations, images, symbols, extend this fluctuating and elusive sliver of alertness, condensing, objectifying, coding raw sensation into portably memorable, manipulable bundles of compressed energy. Hinging these bridges of the imagined is the can opener of language, interruption powerful enough to leverage vantage amid seamless flows of sensation. But verbal language also casts shadow at the limits of its capacities, and as compensation, may seduce a hubris intoxicated by the abstractions it facilitates.
Word dealers and technicians of art -- historians, critics, philosophers, educators, publicists -- understandably tend to cleave in favor of the vivid and more manageable simplicities of symbolic isolates, of signs and their formal patterns. Yet, one notoriously famous sign, a urinal, cleverly and subversively dubbed “art”, continues to be outrageously funny because it inadvertently punctures a conceit that art can be no more than an illustrative adjunct to a verbal idea, concept, narrative or discourse.
The slippery slope inclines where this contention waxes more prescriptive than alternative, in an assumption that no meaningful conception can be articulated outside the domain of the linguistic, if not the quantifiable, thereby orphaning other imaginative and sensuous apprehension to the shadows of the irretrievably elusive, the reputedly primitive, mystical, romantic, unintelligent, deluded, if not non-existent.
The rhythm is more important than the meaning of the words. Our gods respond to rhythm above all else. When the rhythm changes, their behavior changes accordingly.
- Maria-José, Macumba Priestess, Brazil
The mystic ideal of the disembodied concept booms in the anonymous pharynx of a god of imposed authority; but the impalpable thought sans penseur smells less like the opus of nobody than the urgent conjure of an Oz behind a curtain. There are real motives in the Hellenic pantheon's intense longings to be human. There's motive for Ogun, patron of artist and blacksmith, to cut his way through an impenetrable void so that, at last, the deities of the Yoruba, aching in their incompleteness, could once again reunite themselves with humanity. Central in these motives is the garden that is the human body.
The essence of feeling may not be an elusive mental quality attached to an object, but rather the direct perception of a specific landscape: that of the body.
- Antonio Damasio
The perceptual field saturates in somatosensory input: sensations of weight, pressure, pain, humidity, temperature – proprioceptive relations among muscle, joint, bone and balance – introceptive sensations of the viscera and internal organs -- chemical and hormonal flows. All together this articulates a flash image of a quicksilver body state that's responding as readily to mentally generated imagery as to external phenomena. Interdependent, body and brain cooperate in a neurochemical feedback relationship, where the brain draws on the shifts among body states as a reality check, as an index of the actual qualitative feelings that substantiate value and meaning.
The senses of plants are sophisticated; some can detect the lightest touch (better than the activity of human fingertips), and they all have a sense of vision. The oldest and simplest microbial life forms have senses that resemble those of humans. Halobacteria date back to the beginnings of life on earth. They are organisms which can detect and respond to light by virtue of a compound called rhodospin -- the same compound, present as pigment in human eyes, that enables us to see. We look at the world through the eyes of ancient mud.
- John Gray
Antonio Damasio points out that this reservoir of emotion played out in the theatre of the body is indispensable to the reasoning process, that without these recurring prompts, a person would be left unable to focus or distinguish between what is and isn’t important at any given moment. Damasio considers “when the brain is producing not just images of an object, not just images of organism responses to an object, but a third kind of image, that of an organism in the act of perceiving and responding to an object.” He continues:
He goes on to observe that this foundation also supports the development of more refined second order narrative practices such as verbal expression, but what’s of most interest here is what this insightful delineation of another deep rooted shadow capacity has to say about the arts and, in particular, about M. Scott Johnson’s sculpture.
For one thing, this points out the actual physical realities of what might otherwise seem to be vaguely formulated allusions, such as vibe, feel, soul, spirit, ambience, attitude, intuition. That these terms often designate blocks of information too densely complex for the more rarefied precisions of verbalization, in no way eliminates that body state knowledge both precedes and informs what language achieves.
In some ways, this is a contrast between digital and analogue formulations. As David McNeill has put it, verbal language has the effect of segmentizing and linearizing conceptions of experience; an instantaneous thought is necessarily divided up hierarchically and strung out unidimensionally through time, even though meanings are multidimensional. In contrast with this, gesture -- which is both conceptual mode and means of realization in the direct carving that Johnson practices -- is instantaneously multidimensional, global, synthetic and acting outside of systematic codes. These are complementary, differently coordinated, at times irreconcilable modes of conception, and it shouldn't seem anomalous that a sculpture would engage differently than would a sentence, nor that they would ever perfectly reconcile themselves with each other.
Most importantly, this underscores the viability, even the ubiquity and necessity, of conceptualizing and imagining in terms of the rich universe of body generated information, what are often called gut feelings, and what Damasio refers to as somatic markers, which include vicariously generated “as if” images of these body states. Internal body state imagery may be one of our deepest and most intimate resources of active understanding. While Damasio’s model may example an instance of cutting edge science’s arriving at unprecedented details that finally manage to catch up with longtime common folk and artistic conceptions, this also calls attention to how often both technocrats and academic intelligentsia abandon both baby and bathwater to the streets.
From a perspective of incorporating presence, of engaging a complex awareness that doesn't neglect to address the arena of corporeal experience, new mechanical and electronic media, while clearly opportune expansions, are not necessarily such profound improvements to the extent that chronologically anterior media such as stone sculpture have since been rendered so obsolete and irrelevant as to be incapable of relevant participation in contemporary experience.
Convenient and plentiful temptations to bypass the complications of palpable sensibility show in contemporary visual art that runs to be read (and often so literally as to actually be words) rather than felt, whereas in some performance visual art, “body” may be posed as an avowed topic, but is clinically literalized as mere object or sign. Another popular recourse continues in outsourcing through mechanically reproducible, disembodied simulacra, a procedure highly treasured in much postmodernist apologia. The safest and most time honored is a much older, more respectable and mild mannered strategy, which is simply to opt for dispassionate execution of predetermined systems, whatever the media.
I found a lot of the work being done around me in the U.S. to be just too mechanical, which is what it’s like working from a maquette. It wasn’t intuitive enough for me, but then I wasn’t going after “primitivism” either.
- M. Scott Johnson
These orientations share a tendency to impair, if not to rupture and disavow, the intimate dialogue between artist and art entity, a dialogue during which both are mutually transformed, and out of which the dynamics of these interchanges come to be embodied in the art entity. To do so demands a courageous humility (and humor) that partakes of Ogun’s risks in crossing the thresholds of transition.
This has to do with the quality, even the depth, of knowledge and experience being engaged and presented. A wealth of formal education and technology may have made it easier than ever to replicate what formerly could only be achieved through Ogunian transformation, but these opportunities also amplify the ethical choices an artist negotiates. Is the goal of an art process the production of artifacts, in which case outsourced mechanical dispatch and efficiency would proffer an unqualified boon; or does an art entity concentrate an intensified nexus within a web of relationships?
Is the site and occasion of artistic attention and activity, i.e. the “artwork” a dumb object of an artist’s subjection, or is there mutual recognition and exchange between artist and art entity? On the artist’s part, a mutual recognition would entail adopting the character of the art entity and reconstituting that within one’s own specific topography and voice. The artist thereby comes to know the character of a work from the insides of its evolution, a perspective informed very differently from that of a casual spectator looking from the outside in.
How the artist engages the work, and is thus informed, shapes the artwork a witness encounters; and aesthetic choice networks evolved out of first hand experience will differ significantly from a matrix of choices grown out of second hand conceptions. Meaning may indeed be constructed, even idiosyncratically, by any witness, and Rorschach reactions may be potential in any encounter; but these are part of a witness’ creativity. What the artist brings to the occasion remains the artist’s responsibility.
To articulately navigate the intricate palette of body states (which is not, by the way, a ward of the psychologist’s subconscious) is always over one’s head. One is immersing oneself in an informational density that’s stretching past the capacity of direct, denotative consciousness, and this therefore necessitates an active and deliberate thinking in shadows. This is also what the English poet John Keats referred to as negative capability: “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Well informed intuition emerges as the most intelligent and practical methodology for negotiating these ambiguous thresholds.
It’s ironic that what most in visual art speaks to corporeal sensibilities is routinely referred to as “abstract” in the modern West, a conundrum faced by the Abstract Expressionists, whose work, in terms of material presence and scale, has been possibly some of the most palpably arresting of all geographically Western art. It’s even more ironic still that it took the angelic pinhead advocacy of writers such as Clement Greenberg (who later played a leading role in Tom Wolfe’s facile parody, brilliantly entitled “The Painted Word”) for their iconoclastic and unfamiliar work to even be looked at seriously.
But, as Cecil Taylor put it, "To feel is perhaps the most terrifying thing in this society." Feeling in a socially atomized consumer culture, where privatized sensations may free-float unsounded, decontextualized and unaffirmed, is vulnerable to profound doubt. The body as a field of experience may shed credibility as a confirmative resource of truth, and instead may be rendered abstract, with conscientious attention to feeling being regarded as a potential exercise in solipsistic sentimentality, as simply one consumer choice option among others. This social disjuncture may run deeper than what any single art may be able to resolve, but at the same time this doesn’t justify pretending that the body field isn’t really here or abandoning the challenge or responsibility to engage with possible ways of being more fully human -- which is what art often aspires to when it’s more than propaganda, decoration or casual diversion.
When art fully engages a person as bodily presence, it can be inhabited, and in the corresponding shifts of one’s own body states, in the modulating feelings of that engagement, the art entity reciprocally inhabits its witnesses (not to mention its artists). The structure of this interchange, which in no way ostracizes reflective thought or conversation, perhaps not all that coincidentally, parallels that of spirit possession, which is cohabitation with a spiritual entity, a transformative, specifically physical feeling that Robert Farris Thomson has described as “one of the formal goals of Central and West African religions” and one that inflects the entire Black Atlantic world.
The body as metaphor is an all-important concept in the art south of the Sahara. Combine that metaphor with metaphors of motion and, in the words of an African-American rap group of the 1980s, one “steps into the cipher.” We enter, in other words, a code, a stylized form of consciousness, involving all in deep and primary vitality.
- Robert Farris Thompson
When Antonio Damasio proposes that “the self is a repeatedly reconstructed biological state,” he’s collaterally referring to rhythmicized, and therefore stylized motion -- but at neurochemical velocities.
If thought can be understood as stylized motion, if interaction with one’s environment excites patterned internal movement, then coherent images of self, social and world conceptions can be acted out as ways of doing, as embodied attitudes, in concurrence with other imagistic constellations.
Attitude carves dispositions toward potential states of motion that can be socially realized as gesture, stance, gait, dance, music, speech. These motion structures are mimetically transferable patterns of relationship -- interactively imagistic, discursive, somatosensory and interpersonal, but their meaning, and even their existence, depends on their being embodied in performance. They are not abstractions.
Motion related African aesthetic practices tend to favor embodying knowledge in direct participation rather than in archival reservoirs. Motion codes are less content specific than they are adaptable to multitudinous circumstances. Huge swaths of a lived worldview may be reconstituted in another context out of a dispersed cluster of prolific core attitudes. The forms and materials of articulation may radically differ in the new environment, but the style of relating these elements, their overall feel, the quality of thought, may at times concur surprisingly with ancestral precedents.
Two striking instances of this potential at work emerge in Zimbabwe and in the Americas. There were no parallels with ancient lineages of griot families in the case of sculpture in Zimbabwe, where whatever continuous threads there may had been were disrupted by British interference. While the Zimbabwean renaissance didn’t evolve in a vacuum (there was access to both Pan-African and Pan-European resources) originating sculptors have arrived at a very Shona-specific art that can stand with the best work in stone being accomplished globally, and with no compromise in identity. Shona conceptions, Shona ways that persisted as motion codes distributed among other activities reasserted themselves anew in the context of sculpture.
Even more dramatic are the creolized innovations of the Americas. In the English colonies and the later United States, where the systematic and collateral alienation of Africans from their material cultures, languages and social practices was the most brutal, the infectious Jus Grew phenomena converted the US into one of the principal distribution hubs of global Africanization. The notorious colonial English prohibition of the drum after the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina spurred a migration of drumming into the four limbed body percussion of Kongolese Zuba ("Juba" in the Americas), which later reconstituted itself in the 20th century trap set. Progeny of the African diaspora transformed the archival resource of the turntable into a performer’s instrument . And no one should be confused about who was in charge in the case of Ellington’s or Parker’s appropriation of European harmonic devices into the service of a radically different musical worldview, all sonic homonyms aside.
After I make the initial statement impression based on the geography or shape of the stone, then like a conversation it slowly begins to reveal itself. I hear its secrets and I share my secrets with it. It calls me and I call it, that’s when the relationship begins. The stone talks: “touch me here … touch me there.”
- M. Scott Johnson
M. Scott Johnson’s call and response sculpting flies live under the radar, the chisel reaching beyond mundane consciousness into the penumbral somatosenory, articulately carving the shapes of felt experience, and thus translating unseen perception into affective motion. Where the majority of what’s going to happen persists as yet to be known and still indefinable, maintaining contact within such flux becomes a matter of feeling one’s way along, of working outward from within the relationship, perception by perception, move by move, insight by insight: the practical conditions of enlightened improvisation.
Improvisation is the ultimate human (i.e. heroic) endowment. It is, indeed; and even as flexibility or the ability to swing (or to perform with grace under pressure) is the key to that unique confidence which generates the self-reliance and thus the charisma of the hero, and even as infinite alertness-become-dexterity is the functional source of the magic of all master craftsmen, so may skill in the art of improvisation be that which both will enable contemporary man to be at home with his sometimes tolerable but never quite certain condition of not being at home in the world and will also dispose him to regard his obstacles and frustrations as well as his achievements in terms of adventure and romance.
- Albert Murray
He was the hope bringer. He was the laughter bringer. High John the Conqueror came from Africa, some say. When, under slavery in the South, the work would become just too much to take, High John would hear the people’s wishes to be anyplace else but there. He’d go off and find an enormous black crow big enough to fly himself and everyone else away onto wonderful adventures; and none on the ground would ever know the difference.
It takes 3 days of working 10 to 12 hours a day before I get to the stage of really carving and the flow is up. Stone carving is physically demanding. It causes small states of delirium or exaggerated reality.
- M. Scott Johnson
High John the Conqueror is the portal within the elevated delirium of that flow, the quiet space that circulates among the heat of the hammer, the easy slip into the marvelous as the carving goes on, on and goes on.
After emancipation, High John wasn’t seen so much as before. He’d found a new home in the roots of a weed called johnny the conqueror. Some people would carry the root as a lucky charm or keep it in a secret place, there to help people overcome what they could not beat otherwise and to bring them the laugh of the day. With the joy John would bring them, they could laugh and sing that “things are bound to come out right tomorrow.”
An inyanga, a Shona sprit medium, once visited a party of Operations Crossroads Africa volunteers at work in Zimbabwe, where a three stone turquoise ring on one of M. Scott Johnson’s fingers caught her attention. She talked for a while and eventually came to the topic of shadows, in particular that the creator expresses itself in 3 shadows on the physical plane, and if one looks at anything closely enough, one can always discern the play of these 3 shadows at work.
Observing the sun in the rotating shadows it casts, M. Scott Johnson begins to learn a stone’s harmonies. The spectrum of shifting solar declinations mutate and transform a stone’s proportions in the modulations of shadow that teach him how, and where, to enter into a stone. The truths of a stone emerge in concert with these shadows, as the flash of his direct carving traverses the shadow regions of feeling, imagination and perception.