menu bar

How Christie Scheele Moves Me

It was a peculiar effect; an odd internal stirring which had perplexed me long after I first encountered it. Standing before a canvas adorned with a scene delivered through the talents of Christie Scheele, one is often tingled by a subtle, difficult to define influence, almost as if in the presence of a strong magnetic field.

It is this effect, or quality, attaching itself to the pull of some of Scheele’s larger landscapes, which I believe prompted reference, by some art critics and writers, to Mark Rothko and the color field artists of his era when discussing her work. But this analogy, I also believe, is just a bit wide of the mark (or Mark).

That intellectually provocative rascal Rothko, given to proclamations and manifestoes, brought equivalent provocation to canvas, achieving an almost metaphysical effect with his boneless slabs of vibrating color, mesmerizing his audience toward meditative states. Depending upon modulatory phases between chosen hues to quiver the light reflecting from his flat surfaces into unsettling ranges of conflict, Rothko actualized what a prominent British critic contemporaneously described as an “all-pervading, as if internalized, sensation of dominant color.”

In this characterization of Rothko’s visual affidavits, we find semblance to the uncommon sway of Christie Scheele’s scenes; they produce delicate sensation in the viewer. But where Rothko limited himself to conceptually static rectangles and relied upon the gentle motion of his faintly vibrating fields of color, Scheele engages a sense of place and presence, a peculiarly self-conscious experience of presence. Nor does Scheele employ the same means to produce sensation in the viewer or even directly self-identify these mysterious ends as an objective. The analogy marches off of a cliff after only a few paces.

When evaluating her own approach, Scheele invokes confabulations on the merits of “flatness” in painting from the heyday of the critic Clement Greenberg. In a sense, she flatly denies seeking to duplicate common aspects of landscape.

“I always like to remember that what I’m doing is a painting,” Scheele declares. “It’s got a flat surface. It’s not a window. I’m never pretending to copy nature or to fool people into feeling that they’re standing out in nature...

“The idea is that one minute you can look at it and it has perspective and goes back in distance and another minute you can look at it and the whole thing comes right up to the front... and it’s abstract shapes...and the shapes are very important in how they’re cropped and how they go to meet with the edges of the canvas or the page.”

Scheele speaks of an incident wherein a friend advised against using a particular painting for an invitational card to a showing because “this area up front here doesn’t ‘read.’ It doesn’t come off like marsh grass; it’s flat.” To which she responded “Yeah! That’s exactly what I’m after!” and explains “I want certain shapes, and sometimes some shapes more than others, to be just believable enough that, when you look at it, you don’t go ‘ow, that’s badly painted’ but I definitely want them also to flatten out as shapes.”

From her own accounts, Scheele shies away from aerial or atmospheric perspective to achieve what she must concede is an initial impression of depth in her landscapes, attributing the appearance to an applied softness at the edges of her shapes. This is a significant ingredient, I think, to the mechanisms of viewer response in this dominion of her

work; one which helps it achieve phenomenal regression or constancy apart from the familiar heightened quality of foreground detail or degeneration toward color neutrality suggestive of distance in aerial perspective. It is not that these elements are absent, of course, but that their consequences are modified in Scheele’s hierarchy of intent.

Certainly the arrangement of shapes, to remind the eye of the formal qualities of the piece, contribute to the obvious initial assumptions of landscape perspective but the shapes themselves, as they are integrated with deliberate minimalization of detail, are held by Scheele as of superseding value. The shapes are more real than what they suggest. This, I suspect, is another link to their ability to provoke sensation.

Scheele writes that her view of highly articulated realism and non-representational abstraction is of “two extremes,” at separate ends of the choices available to an artist, adding; “My preference for a spot in the middle, using representational imagery that is simplified, flattened and transformed, allows me to work with the associations of landscape that move me, while composing a piece that reminds the viewer that this is, in fact and after all, a painting. I do this by focusing on the play of shapes, surface, edges and color, as elements that can move the viewer as powerfully in their own right as does capturing the feel of the scene depicted. My process is often reductive, revealing some other truth than the literal landscape with all of its detail.”

That “some other truth” she refers to, I am moved to speculate, is an instinctive one which relates to prelogical perception. Here, again, we touch upon the mystery of a common response to many of her scenes and, while the body of her work apart from the magic of this effect is remarkable upon its own terms, where this feeling comes into play, it is quite extraordinary.

Acknowledging the odd “feeling” her work can elicit, Scheele smiles that her paintings “can go a little Rothko.” She relays that she once heard someone say that Rothko is like the ocean and adds “that’s a feeling I like to capture, too...I think it’s a sense of the surface swallowing you. That’s what they (color field painters) were doing and that’s important for me. Particularly with the oil paintings, it’s a question of scale. It’s hard for that to happen in smaller pieces,” she said, providing another clue.

The transmutation of reality into visual metaphor is scarcely a novel notion, given the inherent character of representation, and it necessarily tilts toward abstraction when one wishes to express the nonvisible energies of nature. Landscape and abstraction met on differing fronts and with varying results in the work of such artists as Ivon Hitchens, Nicholas de Staël, Robert Angeloch, Peter Lanyon- or even the fervently expressionistic terrains of David Bomberg- all without a hint of the strange gravity of viewer involvement which pulls from Scheele’s surfaces. She hesitates to apply terms like “mystical” or, even more misleading in her view, “spiritual.”

Although her work can inspire meditative states, Scheele is quick to point out that she doesn’t meditate regularly and then laughs that if she didn’t paint the way she does, she might have to meditate...“It’s really a question of balancing,” she reasons. Her inclinations are to mercurial and sometimes elaborately analytical thought. “I think I know, at this point, that it’s not my life’s plan to go on a real spiritual quest...One of the reasons I paint the way I do is because when I’m painting I’m not trying to express my ego or my whole personality. I’m working on balancing myself. So, doing it is meditative for me. That’s why I think it’s meditative to look at it. I think it’s also a measure of how much I need that in my life.”

Scheele’s first seven years of life took place in Nebraska, an environment which may have kicked up a few of the dustdevils that have manifested as tornadoes in some recent work. Most of the rest of her upbringing occurred around Oneonta, New York, with a few periods elsewhere and two Latin American excursions as an exchange student. Her studies were conducted at the University of Tomas Frias in Potosi, Bolivia; the Royal Academy of San Fernando and the University Complutense of Madrid in Spain, topped off with a Summa cum Laude BA in Spanish and a BFA in painting from the School of Art and Design of the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

Christie Scheele’s earlier periods often included more intellectually active themes which she drifted away from, she reflects, “by accident.”

“It was not a calculation and it’s not a genre that I ever really have liked that much,” she says of landscapes. “I found it often full of convention and just...boring....Conceptual artists are playing with the mind more and I find that interesting, too, but one of the reasons I moved away from more conceptual art when I was younger- I love art concepts and I love contemporary art, unlike a lot of landscape painters. But I want the whole package and part of that package to me is just to be able to speak directly to the heart- or whatever you want to call it- the soul, of somebody who isn’t necessarily highly art-educated but is willing to look. And I’ve been successful with that.”

Recalling that she fell into minimalizing landscape after doing figurative work and “kind of groping my way to some success with it,” Scheele estimates that “It was one of the least calculated moves I’ve ever made, even with my ‘busy brain,’ and right away it was successful. Right away, they were better than the figurative work had been. That was about twelve years ago...There was so much to explore at the beginning that’s it’s taken me all this time, I think, to evolve; to understand all the different perimeters and points and things there are to be explored in landscape. I’m also trying to push past the conventions.

“One way to go, other than abstract, is to simplify more and more and another is to sometimes challenge the notions of what a landscape painting is- what the image should be of... ‘Beauty Sampler’ has all of that detail in it and there are very unusual images, really, to find in a landscape painting...”

Now, art doesn’t necessarily imply beauty, of course, but we are speaking of beauty here, aren’t we? In Scheele’s “Beauty Sampler” we find multiple images fracturing the spell with a caprice of its own. Tornadoes, oil derricks, smokestacks...not wholly revolutionary choices- think of Degas’ “Landscape with Smokestacks” which Howard Trienen’s recent book celebrates- but it takes a discipline of disassociation to truly appreciate the grim beauty of such scenes and, by grouping such redolent disassociations with more savory scenes which have been arraigned at the same docket for combined consideration, you’ve activated some interesting levels of conflict. It may be too soon to decide if this is direction or diversion but Scheele’s latest leanings are toward more abstraction on one hand and, on the other, “torquing up the narrative and making it edgier,” as she put it.
Meanwhile, the fascination and mystery of those of her scenes which reach into the back of your head to tickle something remain to taunt. So, it’s time to gather together some of those clues mentioned above. Alright, friends, put on your deerstalker hats, here we go...
Starting with the assumption that most of the people you know have their eyes in the front of their head, let’s take a whirlwind peek at the physiology of vision...

Now, those peeled grapes on either side of your nose contain tiny cones and rods that suck light into that electrified sponge in your skull. The light is translated into information when it shoots back to a six-layered patch at the tail-end of your sponge called the Visual Cortex. (Midway, it passes through a “way station” glob called the Thalamus, to which we’ll return in a moment.) Light waves do not possess the qualities which we conceive of as Color. It is in this journey that light gives birth to color, which doesn’t actually exist outside of this circuit, despite what your decorator tells you...

In these rear layers, light is processed, coded and shot down to Area TE, which is so called because it is on the TEmporal lobe of cerebral cortex, and here we are able to make sense out of the complex sensations of light, sorting out qualities like color, dimension, distance and so on. Here, in a nutshell, is visual perception, a topic which has interested artists and those who have become known quaintly as “experimental psychologists” since long before Aristotle became a gleam in his parents’ thalamus.

Okay, the thalamus is a primitive and, nonparadoxically, sophisticated brain center involved with activities related to survival. A well-worn line you’ll still hear in introductory classes on brain function is that it relates to the four F’s; feeding, fighting, fleeing and sexual behavior. It sits in the middle of this system in order to make preliminary classifications of external information and, if need be, kick things into emergency gear a split second before you can wrestle with “Why?” or “Huh?” This also makes it one of our suspects in the Christie Scheele mystery.

When I first viewed Scheele’s work, I noted prominently among sensations produced by certain paintings was one of something...impending. I was instantly puzzled by this but prepared to dismiss it as an idiosyncracy of my own perceptions and memory, reasoning that the scene reminded me of a past circumstance or event I could not quite recall. But, when I mentioned my response to others and they confirmed a similar feeling within themselves, I was ushered into an extended period of pondering and pouting about these reactions. Actually, my first impressions were correct on two levels but it took a while to realize why, as we shall see.

Quite recently, we have made great leaps in deciphering the physiology of consciousness. In fact, the bright spotlight of science has illuminated so many previously shaded corners of the mind that human identity can begin to fear that there will be no more shadows left in which to hide. We have been picked at for untold centuries, even by fine artists such as Leonardo, but ever since Johannes Müller’s doctrine of specific nerve energies seriously began tracing our experience of sensation in the early 19th Century, we have advanced with ever-increasing velocity toward comprehensions of human perception and experience we scarcely dared to dream of before.

Certainly, there were members of the artistic community who followed the progress of perceptual psychology with interest when David Katz explained the difference between spectral color and surface color in 1935, or braved the technical language of the gestalt crowd to savor the significance of “spatially homogeneous chromogenic stimulation” and “threshold function” as these psychological dimensions of sensation were being mapped. Surely, some reaganized trickles dripped onto the palettes of some working artists. But most often, it would seem, despite the fact that their eurekas were washed in the same tub, artists and scientists did not often hold hands along that path.

Speaking of our “codes of recognition” in The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler ventured that “there is no sharp dividing line between our images of people whom we have met in the flesh, and those whom we know only from description.” (Refer to the chapter on “Character and Plot” for the rationale behind this statement but, meanwhile...) He trots “empathy” on stage to take bow for that smudged line; unconscious inference; noting that “[t]he distinction between fact and fiction is a late acquisition of rational thought- unknown to the unconscious, and largely ignored by the emotions.” Of course, we must add “things” and “places,” real or not, to the cast of “people” on the set as subject to the same process. They are all shifted into the prelogical systems researchers like Jerome Bruner call “categories” which are subject to instant reprogramming as the brain defines its input.

From this point, I can only hope that my simplifications will not confound or horrify the intelligent lay reader. Neuroscientists have already bitten through their lower lips and, I should emphasize, a phenomenologist should not be permitted to read the descriptions below if there are sharp objects in the room. But, otherwise, bear with me and consider that there may have been some budding color-fielders with eyebrows arched at a paper by Bruner, Postman and Rodrigues which appeared in the American Journal of Psychology in 1951. Titled “Expectation and the Perception of Color,” it gives as the first two steps in a general theory of perception, activities which we can shorten to “look” [focus] and “see” [take in or register].

The all-important third step of the cycle would be “confirm or infirm,” by which they mean a feedback part of the system which serves as a kind of fact-checker and context provider. Distinguishing between the “cue characteristics of the stimulus rather than the energy characteristics,” the authors tell us that if “the critical quantity of ‘cue’ information is not present, the [register] will be infirmed partially or fully. Under these circumstances, an unstable perceptual field will result and an alteration in [register] will follow, that will, in turn, be ‘tested’ against incoming information. The cycle of checking altered [register] against incoming information will continue until there is a stabilized perception.”

So, you’re looking at a Scheele painting. You register ‘landscape’ but is it fictional or real? The process of focusing on this “register” is stalled by Scheele’s method of subduing detail and the soft, misty edges of her shapes. The authors note that a register may vary in strength and that the “greater the strength of the [register], the less amount of appropriate information necessary to confirm it. One may vary the amount of appropriate information given to the organism in numerous ways: by changing the amount of time a stimulus is available, by altering the illumination of the stimulus-field, by changing the extent to which a stimulus-field is in focus, and the like. The strength of [a register] (and, therefore, the amount of appropriate information necessary to confirm it) varies as a function of its past use, past success, the degrees to which it competes with other [registers] and many other conditions which need not concern us here.” Thank heavens.

This process, gawked at from another angle, might be experienced when you step out of doors from a bright room and face a landscape cloaked in twilight. Real or fiction? The circuits burn back and forth as your eyes adjust but, in Scheele’s painting that additional information is not forthcoming. When you stand at an appropriate distance from one of her larger scenes, the sense that your thalamus is trying to cope with your register can be pronounced. (How’s that line for a subtitle?)

Sensory receptors operate by selection through a drastic and practiced reduction of incoming information. Cell groupings in the system specialize by responding to different kinds of stimulation. Some concentrate, for example, on detecting edges and corners and might therefore be set milliseconds off stride by the information provided by Scheele’s soft edges and definite forms, introducing a flicker of uncertainty to the physiological components of the orienting reaction to new stimuli.

The thalamus is a major part of the limbic system; a processing center which deals with emotions, including fear and apprehension. While grappling for the handle on your register, you can get a rush of an impending something, not yet classified, which doesn’t entirely subside as you come to grips with her scene. Meanwhile, the stimulation in the four F’s area, and that sexy little amygdala, could account in some small way for an atypical blush of pleasure which one might derive from her scenes, teasing the appetite to clinch. But that may be stretching the hypothalamus.

And this may be a more radical reductionism of brain theory than any reductionism that can be achieved on canvas but... another part of the limbic system consists of twin curved, stretching flaps of gray matter under the cortical region, nestling under both the left and right sides of the temporal lobes and lapping over the front and top of the thalamus, called the hippocamus, which means “seahorse” and is so named because some old Mediterrean toga-tugger whose name we don’t know, saw a resemblance in shape. (Since there are two, English majors can think ‘hippocampi’.)

Okay, so we have a medial temporal lobe structure and limbic system component, the seahorse, which plays a critical role in moving the memory of a visual image into long-term storage in the TE and some research suggests that there’s a circuit from the visual cortex to the TE to the hippocamus and back again. This would be an ideal pathway for us to confirm, infirm and put into context our environmental inputs.

Stimulating the seahorse not only affects the delicate balance of stress hormones produced by the pituitary and adrenal glands, slapping autonomic reaction, but also intertwines with stored memory so that prelogical judgment can match incoming data to material in two crudely sorted bins marked “it’s cool” or “split!” in the lexicons of the hipper hippocampi watchers. These can be life or death decisions made for us before there’s time to make a decision and it’s this level of awareness which concerns us here.

These basic “codes of recognition,” as Koestler has it, are necessarily not encumbered by intellectual deliberation or other nit-picking devices. This is the true “pre logical” zone which a colonial school of anthropologists confused with primitive thought. Indeed, the seahorse and its stable mates evolved earlier than those parts of the electrical sponge distracted by abstractions such as thought and retain a degree of independence. This is what Lyall Watson meant when he observed that “perhaps the most far-reaching consequence of the limbic bridge between active and inactive nervous systems is that it establishes a sort of schizophysiology. The two systems have partly overlapping functions, and neither had clear-cut dominance over the other.”

Another possible indication implicating the hippocamus in relation to the Scheele reflex is its response to novelty. There’s a quicker turnover of protein here than in any other part of the brain and the seahorse is noted to be most active in the presence of new environments; exploring, recording and storing spatial dimensions, for instance, which involves some dialogue with the parietal lobes. Electrical activity in the hippocampus heightens dramatically in animals learning a new task and subsides once it is mastered. There’s also a notable increase in RNA. Yet another trace of evidence is an ephemeral, subjective spark of déjà vu evident in exposure to Scheele’s scenes, another experience associated with hippocamus stimulation. Also, as researcher/journalist Marilyn Ferguson observed in The Brain Revolution; “the déjà vu phenomenon is sometimes accompanied by a wave of ineffable poignance; the ‘memory’ seems to be in an emotional context,” which should signal limbic system involvement to us.

Research subjects in Boston whose limbic systems were tweaked reported: “complicated mood and intellectual alterations, depersonalization, a sense of unreality, trancelike state, displacement, bizarre distortion of bodily position, extrapersonal space.” Compare these responses to the initial reactions of someone standing before a large Scheele canvas and you might come to the conclusion that she’s painting for your guardian angel.

Mistaking a painting for new spaces, even momentarily, could spur the seahorse, touching off a limbic exchange. This, in turn, connects to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, biochemical conversation, body juicers, and, in a sense, the “alchemy” which Scheele speaks of when she composes her scenes.

Scheele demonstrates that she’s on to what perceptual psychologists mean by “threshold function” when she confides that another choice which presents itself when approaching a blank canvas “involves the decision to sooth or the decision to provoke. While I opt for a manner of working that clearly doesn’t scream provocation, I am often interested in leaving questions open, and sometimes in introducing a certain edge to either my image or to the way it’s presented stylistically. I always aim to induce the viewer to spend time, to go deeper than the pleasantries.”

Which brings us to the final laps on this looping track, beginning our home stretch negotiation by hopping back on Greenberg for a quick gallop: “Take the flat plane,” he said after one of his Bennington seminars. “The Old Masters knew very well, very well, that they were painting on a flat surface, and they knew without spelling it out, without verbalizing it but showing it in their practice, that the flatness had to be acknowledged, no matter how much, how vivid the illusion of depth they might have aimed for. And there were other such things that the Old Masters took into account implicitly in their practice, like determining the inside of a picture by enclosing shape. The fact that it has a certain shape--a certain frame--had to be acknowledged inside the picture, and someone like Cézanne made a great point, without knowing it, without ever spelling it out himself, of calling attention to the fact that pictures tended to be rectangular in shape. And then the Cubists pointed out that the illusion of relief and depth depended much more importantly on shading than it did on perspective-- differences of dark and light. And Analytic Cubism was one kind of orgy of shading, as it were, for its own sake...”

Leaving aside questions of whether the appeal of the Golden Rectangle and the Divine Proportion is an inherent or conditioned response, we find in the above passages themes which relate directly to our topic...Scheele’s works are most often presented in rectangular format, yes, but they also often defy that “enclosing shape” by extending their lines suggestively beyond. Remember Scheele’s remarks about how the shapes met the edge of the picture was important. Very often the landscapist will curve and situate lines to lead the eye not out of but back into the scene, enclosing the gaze, capturing it. Scheele’s lines, however, often convey the sense that the scene continues with a potential of thrusting off of the canvas and proceeding around you as environment. A subtle cue at seahorse level. An instinct to continue the lines; to complete the shapes beyond the boundaries of the picture.

Certainly, her awareness of an obligation to recognize flatness is present, in her own twisting of the term, but so are the shadings and concessions to depth. And where they are missing...where the picture ends “flatly” but the scene continues, there is an unconscious impulse to “place” them...outside of the picture. So, what you have is a capitulation to surface limitations but not strictly to spatial limitations. This, again, strides past illusionist techniques for “tricking” the eye to stimulate a system beyond the visual circuit but intimately entangled with it.

Reaching this area goes a shade beyond merely painting a picture in the same sense that Jean Paul Sartre’s essay on post-colonial theory, which looks at Albert Memmi’s framework of existence in Tunsia, claims Memmi’s book goes beyond mere story telling. Recognizing that Memmi had integrated, within himself, both entities of his title The Colonizer and the Colonized, Sartre felt that “... Memmi’s book does not tell a story: if it is nourished with memories, he has assimilated them all; it gives form to an experience.”

This, I would argue, marks the difference between a stage magician’s illusions and the real “magick” of which occultists and anthropologists speak. Scheele’s most effective work doesn’t operate through intellectual channels, it prowls areas of the Mythic Mind. It is not “mystical” or “spiritual” in the widely accepted sense of those terms but rather, magical. But, I’m afraid, the use of this word requires some hasty elaboration or, inevitably, it will be misheard...

The esteemed critic R.G. Collingwood, who was deeply concerned with theories of perception, had some difficulty in presenting the word “magic” in relation to art and I shall have more shortly, I’m certain, because I mean more by application of the term. But, using the word neither lightly or facetiously, Collingwood embraced it with enthusiasm in The Principles of Art, once he had washed it of its most common misdefinitions.

To begin with, Collingwood dismisses notions of magic as a kind of ineffectual “pseudoscience” as portrayed in the works of Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough. This theory, springing from a colonialist system of perception and evaluation, he felt, “masks a half-conscious conspiracy to bring into ridicule and contempt civilizations different from our own; and, in particular, civilizations in which magic is openly recognized.”

Thomas McEvilley was likewise bothered by colonialist issues in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art show in 1984 and the Centre Pompidou’s Magiciens de la terre show in 1989. As he noted in Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, McEvilley saw Kantian and Hegelian doctrines in the former exhibition and complained that “The fact that so-called ‘primitive’ art resembled Western advanced art seemed to be attributed primarily not to the incontestable fact that Western artists had imitated ‘primitive’ works, but to the idea of an underlying affinity between Western artists and ‘primitives’ that demonstrated the universality of the Modernist canon. The colonized nations were called upon to testify to the superiority of the colonizers. It was a kind of police action.”

It is doubtful that Greenberg, who saw what he called “revolutionary politics” as “philistine,” would have approved of McEvilley’s tilt but he may have able to inform McEvilley on this point. If the modernist approach was somehow implied to be superior to the primitive by the exhibit’s setting, it could not be considered so by motivation of the artists in question. Both examples desire the same result in targeting so-called prelogical response upon some deliberate or intuitive level or by tapping prelogical resources in creating it.

In explaining his premise that “an esthetic judgment can be thought of only as a result that swallows its cause,” Greenberg almost sounds as if he is describing processes of the limbic system: “...when the discursive mind probes a work of art or an esthetic experience in order to account for its specifically esthetic quality or qualities...It comes up always against the value judgment as a brute fact-- ‘brute’ because an act of intuition can’t be taken apart by reason...All this has to do with esthetic experience as seen from the inside, as it were. Backed away from and seen from the outside, esthetic experience arranges itself somewhat differently from thought. Now we see it becoming as it were, rather than being...”

Collingwood is at pains to differentiate between impressions and ideas or what we may express here as sensa (stimulation) and sensation (reaction), noting that “(m)odern philosophers, when they talk of sensation, sensa, and the like are talking about at least two kinds of things which they fail to distinguish.” Writing in the 1930’s, Collingwood was dividing the first two steps of perception mentioned above (looking and seeing) with an activity he calls “attention” but there is another step to the categorization process, which relates the new sensa to a store of previous impressions. This stage must necessarily come before conscious focus superimposes an altered principle of organization and this stage functions instinctually rather than intellectually

Along with Tylor and Frazer, Collingwood also takes Lucien Lévy-Bruhl to task for promoting the notion that the mental processes of primitive people are inferior to those of modern man. This was qualified by Ruth L. Bunzel in the introduction to a 1966 edition of Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think: “The psychic responses which seem so strange to us are not the products of faulty perceptions of reality or lack of ability to think rationally; they are the results of a different kind of thinking which he characterizes as pre-logical or mystical.”

In Lévy-Bruhl’s defense, Bunzel explains that he “does not use mystical in the restricted sense of transcendent religious experience; he uses it to designate all experience which apprehends forces and relationships imperceptible to the senses. All perception in some degree transcends the bare sensual experience and incorporates meanings of the subject. When we ‘see’ a man it is not the physical properties and arrangement of molecules that we ‘see,’ nor even the impression that the light waves emanating from it make on the retina. The object of our perception is encoded and clothed with meaning.”

The first stages of perception, as we have seen, occur upon prelogical limbic levels. These processes remain active within us, even as “civilized” critters. Franz Boas, who was certainly well acquainted with Lévy-Bruhl, addressed this confusion in the preface to Primitive Art, advancing his ethnographical expertise and intimacy with primitive cultures to dispute the notion of a “primitive mind” governed by “lower mental organization.” He even offers an example of his own “magical attitudes” in terms compatible with today’s social comprehensions.

Anthropology has modified considerably its estimation of the intellectual capacities of “primitives” back to and including Stan Gooch’s red-headed Neanderthal step-ancestors and even Lévy-Bruhl, before his death in 1939, sought to rectify his own position. Although most of his papers were lost during the European occupation, surviving fragments include such statements as: “...there is no primitive mentality which is distinct from the other...There is mystical mentality more marked and more easily observed among primitives than in our own society, but present everywhere in the human mind.” Well, perhaps not everywhere but certainly in areas which serve as prologue to consciousness and abide by different rules and guidelines.

“Mystical thinking does not recognize contradictions,” writes Bunzel, “--or rather many things that seem contradictory in terms of Aristotelean logic do not appear contradictory to the mystical mentality.” This is what is often understood as “magical impulse” in art and we must make a clear distinction between this understanding of “magic” and the art of Christie Scheele. Her representations achieve transformations of conscious experience without content which can be viewed as contradictory in terms of logic.

Undoubtedly pondering the mechanisms of mind that the ritual and repetition of magic are meant to address, Collingwood also dismisses, with considerable frustration, Freud’s explanations of a compulsive-neurotic origin for the practice of magic. He underlines the obvious: “(M)agic consists essentially of a system of practices, a technique. No magician believes that he can get what he wants by merely wanting it, or that things come about because he thinks of them as happening. On the contrary: it is because he knows that there is no immediate connexion of this kind between wish and fulfilment (and is therefore unlike Freud’s patient precisely in the point wherein Freud compares them) that he invents or adopts this technique as a middle term to connect the two things.”

Evidently annoyed with an inabililty on the part of civilized minds to cope with magical concepts, Collingwood unleashes a string of rather pointed and pertinent questions: “What force is at work in the scientific consciousness of modern Europeans which makes it so hard for them to think straight about magic? Why should hard-headed Englishmen and Scotsmen like Tylor and Frazer, when they come to tackle it, blind themselves to the very facts they are trying to explain? Why should an acute and philosophical Frenchman like Lévy-Bruhl, when he starts theorizing about it, talk like one of Molière’s prize idiots? Why should Freud, the greatest psychologist of our age, react to it by losing all his power of distinguishing one kind of psychological function from its opposite?”

Collingwood offers “fear” as an operative barrier, warning that “a very strong inclination to think about the subject in a cool and logical manner” will “therefore put every possible obstacle in the way of our accepting a true theory of magic, if one is offered us,” before offering his own theory. Here, I diverge from the drift of his conclusions, preferring some ideas of my own on the interactive design of prelogical and conscious categorization which are too involved to detail here, as indeed I would dispute without hesitation some comprehensions of the thinkers I have so opportunistically extracted from in this exercise. But, at this point, Collingwood conjures a realization which comes intimately close to what I feel Christie Scheele does on canvas.

First, Collingwood declares that “the similarities between magic and art are both strong and intimate. Magical practices invariably contain, not as peripheral elements but as central elements, artistic activities like dances, songs, drawings, or modelling.” Recognizing elements of craft which he feels modify his definition, he declares that art and magic are both “means to a preconceived end” and that “(t)his end is the arousing of emotion.” Bingo.

Moreover; “If we ask how magic produces these emotional effects, the answer is easy. It is done by representation...Magic is a representation where the emotion evoked is an emotion valued on account of its function in practical life...A magical art is an art which is representative and therefore evocative of emotion, and evokes of set purpose some emotions rather than others in order to discharge them into the affairs of practical life.” So, there.

That which happens before a Scheele canvas which has prompted some observers to venture terms like “mystical” or “spiritual” is actually something quite apart from those categories, although emotion can also, of course, be attendant to either. It is a more mysterious “magic” and the “emotion” it evokes is not finely articulated as such; it is not even yet categorized in the limbic sense, let alone passed on for conscious digestion but dwells between stage two, seeing, and stage three, confirming or infirming. Its microsecond stutter-step in this realm, I believe, touches off a mild, cautionary biochemical reaction which has subtle influence in overall brain chemistry. In doing so, it passes beyond conceptual magic, which is not understood by our rationalist experts to have direct physiological effect.

The final step in our analysis is to qualify the type of magic we speak of and that would have to be one whose object, without question, is the alteration of consciousness....Alchemy.

Scheele’s own words, describing her objectives and her procedures, inject references to alchemy only with roundabout connotation: “In my case, theory follows process and product, so anything I have to say about my work is merely reflecting, in retrospect, on what actually happens while I am painting. What does happen during the art making process is dictated by some alchemy of my entire past as an artist, my recent work mode and range of techniques, and my emotional state at the time. All of these combine to create a sort of inner necessity that has little to do with how I view my work objectively, or how I explain it to others.

“However, it is interesting to reflect on both the process and product, and elements that go into the alchemy can be described. I do believe strongly, for example, in painting as dialogue, so that each stroke helps determine the next, and the piece unfolds as if alive and able to converse with the artist. Without this, creating art becomes just another exercise in imposing the will, or ego, and so loses its magic.”

Without including “self” in the formula, we are told by the writ of their own hand, time and again, the traditional alchemist could not achieve the desired result. Sound familiar? “ entire past as an artist, my recent work mode, my emotional state...”

Yes, Christie Scheele is an alchemist. But, if I had started off this essay with that statement, before you had an opportunity to involve yourself in the evidence behind the convolutions of my reasoning, you would have thought I was kidding....Or do you, now? Hmmm...?

-Irv Yarg

2007 Book Art Press