Notes of Persistent Awe
Columns by Benjamin Terrell
Something With More Volume Than Praise, A Coyote Story:
Essay About Uwe Henneken
by Benjamin Terrell
One day I'm going to crawl out from under this ruddy shell and throw my hands in the air, breathe in all the stars in the cosmos and let myself be consumed by everything that came before me. Until then, see my container as only a cave, a fossil bed from which I must rise, and see the trace of a spine etched in this endocast as only a question mark shape asking if I was ever here at all. On this beach or under this mountain, bottom is often top just as every cave is always the empty shell of some other organism washed away by waves or the full expression of the darkest cloud. Never forget how intimately you too knew the shell or stone that held so tightly what you thought was you but was only another fossil from another forging. Never were we not a blank canvas or a Coca-Cola bottle emptied and asking, were we the liquid or the glass? Are we ever that different from the bird that flew furiously trying to find the sky?
Cave painting #88
2022, mixed media on canvas,160 x 125cm (63" x 49.2")
What could be the aperture of an eye or an optic nerve interpreting for the brain can also be seen as the outer ring of complexity that surrounds even the simplest things in this life. There is an inevitable loss, sea blue and endless as it recedes, that comes from translating everything grand and mysterious into a limited language of what is humanly understandable.
Perhaps leaving this body is the most important expression, our last out-breath resolves like a masterful painting or a plaster cast finally freed from every "like" left as an impression and every "dislike" as an indentation. This thin skin pushed out every thistle or thorn until it didn't, believing in its own vulnerability -- a forcefield forgotten like the removal of the thick black lines around a Georges Rouault-painted figure. Rouault protected each portrait, animal, and person with a bone black outlined armature not as a binder but as an acknowledgment of the mystical margin that surrounds us all. Those borders are not points of preservation, but rather the closest places to momentarily mourn the ephemeral nature of everything. Suffering is supernatural, everything else is human and even a butterfly wears out its wings in the act of flying. The flutter of such graceful wings is at best a reminder in every minute motion we are annihilated and recreated anew.
2022, mixed media on canvas,160 x 125cm (63" x 49.2")
I have read butterflies have "apposition eyes" which gather multiple images which are then pieced together in the brain. Perhaps Henneken's caves are cocoons and here we have emerged but unlike the butterfly, our enlightened and fulfilled states are fleeting and we are forever being welcomed back to the vantage point of our mortal cocoon.
Have you come close because you think I am going soon or have you yourself ever thought of leaving? Perhaps a child never goes far from a parent like a skin that keeps close to its fruit. Remember: absence is only the acknowledgment of existence and existence is merely earthly evidence in between intangible refinement. We have seen each other mostly as echoes but we will continue to intertwine and be connected as reliably as the mouth of a river fills the ocean. This cave was also once a womb, but let us not have the same assumptions as the mice in the mud room that filled our shoes with food for the winter. We walk on emptied -- you too a vase free of flowers and the gift of this life is that we can be filled up and poured out in the same moment. Look lovingly up from the bottom of this bountiful vessel and see also its opening, bright, round, and as opulent as a complex cathedral window.
Cave painting #18
2021, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 125cm (63" x 49.2")
Memory is found in the head but memories are forged in the heart. The heart is the furnace that colors what can't be quantified. Is this heart or head, red given gravity sinks to bottom canvas. A second orb pulses above center like a phosphene (seeing light without light entering the eye) much like what a meditator might see in moments of equanimity.
One thousand eleven pearlescent panels colorfully pulsing light from this world (within reason) to the next (beyond reason). This circle is a wheel, a window but also an eye, opening outward and opposite of the mouth that inhales complete darkness until color is all that remains. Imagine also the round rings seen when a tree is cut and remember just as those rings also run up and down a tree trunk, this prism of dimensionality illumines passageways of acceptance and sees us in our restless places where we feel the most absent from love and light. In this domain, all things are in constant motion and are perpetually being created, from this perspective we see that we too shimmer unburdened of time and outside of anything not unique. As you read this, the colors on the canvases in front of you are each silently being recreated at an uncountable rate. An artist creates from and against the burden of choice whereas the universe is continually recreated for no other reason than that is its way.
The Fall of Icarus
Fresco from Pompeii, 40-79 AD
Beeswax and feathers, every day we choose to take up wings and begin again, like infants destined to become Icarus. Robert Walser wrote of Pieter Brueghel's vision of the fallen flyer, "It is to be assumed he will recover and take up his experiments once more." Lasting transcendence occurs when we contribute to a universe that favors mystery and compassion rather than investing in egoic understanding and acts that embolden a self. I once saw a picture of a similar painting, this one a fresco in Pompeii, and between the outstretched arms of the earthly observers and where Icarus was falling was a missing portion of paint, big as a sinking cloud or perhaps the size and shape of a skull in profile, absent and long since exhumed. As for Icarus and us, we need pursuit, the forging and the flame, to feel worth. "Work was something that thrived on fire'" poet Philip Levine describes in his poem, Smoke, "that without fire (he) couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life."
Pattern Interrupt #3
2022, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 125cm (63" x 49.2")
We are neither the cave nor what cannot be contained, we are forever found in-between. Here is a segment of a much larger circle, like a colorful cropping of a cross cut history of the center of a tree. Or the amplitude of elevation achieved when we can see something free of the fictions found in all of our mortal filters.
I can remember another photo, this one of a mountain climber's body that remained frozen and visible for a decade after her ascent and final fall. Others who later passed the body while climbing had reported that her hair blew in the wind and she reclined as if resting. To summit and plummet, some die trying and others are left like empty temples or subfossils without favor, sold short of total consumption. Cold and hallucinating, would one see the self or something beyond it? For the newly departed I hope and imagine vivid colors in the snow where there are none. Rusty reds and pumping organ pink circling, cycling, and creating warmth, illuminating a safe cavern for the unconscious. From within I'd wish to burn wings and all other things no longer needed for flying. Centered from this kind of fire floats a yellow orb that emanates the cosmogonic circle, the hero's heart and everything else destroyed that will be rebuilt.
Cave painting #82
2022, oil and acrylic on canvas, 80x60 cm (31.5" x 23.5")
"Coyote looked out the new hole (that the Yellowhammer pecked) but he couldn't see anyone. 'If anyone is out there, listen. Open this tree up. I will give lots of blankets and Warrior's medicine to the person who cuts this tree down.' But no one came."
Barry Lopez retelling a Takelma legend of how Coyote came to take himself apart
A lake is a mountain inverted but a pond is a puddle that longs to be a cave, wishing to hold tight everything that ever took off or landed within. Once, a domestic dog met a wild coyote in the empty bed of what was once a large pond and this is what happened. The brush built the barrier of a circle as the coyote danced to the dog, who thinking of them the same, ran to come closer. When they met, something amazing occurred, each turned multiple opposite colors. The dusky blue of a military jacket, prairie green with electric orange piping, plush purple of the inside of an important box, spiraling canary yellow ridges, and finally gray blue mountain peaks opening to a hovering sun where suddenly both disappeared. After, I recalled the story of how the coyote had brought fire to the frog who hid it in the wood, to bring warmth to all the creatures of the forest. He had stolen it from the mountain people who had thought giving away the fire was the same as giving away their power.
An earlier work by Uwe Henneken
The same stars that shine on this side of the mountain illuminate the field where the elk have flattened the grass with their nighttime crossing. How is it tonight the air is so unbelievably still yet voices speak, as if in the wind? The whispers are those of the elders retelling the numerous stories of the coyote, forever the ultimate trickster, both hero and villain but also, as Carl Jung has described him, "undifferentiated human consciousness." He is a central character in many tales of all Native American tribes and to speak of him is to illuminate our own potentiality before the limitations of everything earthly and analytical. According to the Caddo tribe, coyote selfishly created death and as punishment he goes hungry and because of him, spirits wander the earth before they find the path to the spirit land. In another story, this one Takelma, while climbing in the snowy mountains, coyote asked a hollow pine tree to close around him as shelter from a storm. The tree's closing caused a trap and only when passing birds burrowed holes in the trunk could he see the world again, as if looking out mini mouths of multiple caves.
Under a similar sky, in a different part of the world, and in a separate story, a restless man seeks refuge in nature after selling his shadow to the devil. The character is Peter Schlemihl (authored by Adelbert von Chamisso) and his elusive reflection directly inspired another retelling, this time shown as independent and self-aware as the subject of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Later still, Carl Jung sees the same shadow as an unconscious extension of our personalities, an inner trickster we are meant to meet, merge with, and eventually integrate. To descend and ascend -- a dream or vision started and ending in a collective cave, meditation and expression raising awareness until a tight passage dilates into individuation, outward acceptance, and eventual unity. We each are the author and the untamed animal of our own stories and we continually meet in the fire and the falling snow of our spiraling continual coalescence.
The caterpillar consumes itself before becoming a butterfly but a snail wears its shell coiled and external and, like the snail, we assimilate our shadow-self through a maelstrom of our own spirals. From within Peter finally meets the coyote, but unlike Peter and the Wolf, where the story ends with the animal locked up in a zoo, ours is a story of epic inversion where the beast sets the human free. Another spiritual station is freed of its dweller, an active and passive geometry united in an empty ellipse that births every other subsequent form. Pattern interrupted; pattern resolved. Creation enjoys itself and looks fondly back at each interlocking petal of its fullest blossom. A painting of an unoccupied cave is also then the eye of another and I wonder if we'd recognize each other, seen free of these quarried coats, floating like autumn insects.
2022, acrylic on canvas, 93 x 71cm (36.5" x 28")
"Symmetry and rhythm are combined in motion, as in a wave. The rhythm is time, its place is space, and its motion the soul moving between the two..the wave.. will beat softly and calmly with ever-increasing impact... theophanies make(s).. separate..blue from yellow.. the spiral from the shell..both exist simultaneously in the infinite."
from Freedom of Boundaries, The Sense of Unity The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture
I will admit to often feeling intimidated when I'm in an empty river bed or alone in a vast uninhabited field. Within the sincerity of my vulnerability is also where I feel most human. Once, slowing down halfway up a hill, I swear I saw myself descending and I remember feeling incredible endless sadness. Another time, approaching a body of water I saw rising a slow-moving shell of significant size. But before I could approach and investigate a large blue heron landed on its back and the grace of its shape created the perfect question mark. It was one of those gray days where sky and water appear the same and in the bird's silhouetted reflection appeared another question mark. This one was upside down, of course, as if to answer the essential question - was I ever out walking at all?
Creation Enjoying Itself
2022, oil and acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm (19.5" x 15.75")
Even after the most tragic of fires, the birds still sing and creation enjoys itself. To understand our dispensability is to see that the flower
drops its most mature petals for the benefit of its bloom. The smallest finger touches the vastest ocean and again we are at the outermost edge of the immeasurable awkwardness that comes from being alive. Death is woven even in our greatest expression, not as an ending but a lamp always relit to illuminate, something with more volume than praise.
Uwe Henneken will be showing work at Cermak Eiesenkraft
from 11/24/2022 - 01/27/2022.
Gallery Instagram: @cermak_eisenkraft