The Sublime Through the Eyes of Steven DaLuz

Steven DaLuz's ideas about the sublime are an attempt to weave a thread of continuum through art history. By saying that artists from the Renaissance to the Modernists and beyond were, are, striving for the same thing, the sublime, DaLuz tries to ease the rift between post modern concepts and classical technique into one current of human endeavor, a desire to express that which is just beyond our grasp.

The idea that post modernist art is a progression, an evolution from the Greeks, is one that does not set well with me so when I first came into contact with DaLuz's ideas, which he presented at TRAC2014, I was skeptical. I still am but in order to better understand the philosophical ideas of my contemporaries I asked DaLuz some questions about the sublime. Before we get to those though, here is a shortened version of DaLuz's presentation which he has prepared for us. His full paper on the subject will be included in a soon to be published book from that historic conference which was held in Ventura earlier this year. He has also put together a video in which he talks about his ideas, with visual examples, titled Why Not the Sublime? and which can be found on Youtube.

Descent by Steven DaLuz


Importance of the Sublime in Today's Painting
by Steven DaLuz

Is the Sublime of any importance in today's painting? I definitely think so. We live in a time of much chaos: political friction, economic concerns, environmental issues, terrorism -- there is a lot of anxiety out there. People are bombarded with images and information daily, assaulting our senses with such an overload -- texting, mobile phones, TV, iPads, videogames, social media. We are "connected", yet seemingly more disconnected. There is a kind of longing for something more -- a desire even for art that makes us "feel" -- to connect with something beyond ourselves.

Is it possible to represent something beyond that which we can see with the naked eye -- beyond the banal, cerebral world of much conceptual art, and art that does not speak beyond the surface? Can artists whose focus is in the realm of representation, express the nearly "unpresentable" in this current time in history, and still be relevant? Can they do it with low-tech means?

I suggest we consider an option that has been explored in the Romantic Era, during the period of Modernism, by the Abstract Expressionists and, yes, even by purely conceptual artists. I am suggesting that we consider the Sublime, as a current, accessible, and relevant mode of representational artistic expression.

Great philosophers and scholars in aesthetics refer to the sublime as a quality of greatness. It refers to greatness beyond measure, transcendent and awe-inspiring. Nothing compares to it. It is "ungraspable" Something that is sublime is capable of causing amazement, awe, and wonder. Many have written about it, chief among them, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. For the Romantics, the sublime was evoked by contemplating the spectacle of nature. Its awesome majesty and power raised the spirit beyond the common world. Many of their works pointed to our smallness in the wake of a power far greater than us. The boundless universe came to represent a partial escape from modern realities. Artists of this period used the power and grandeur of NATURE to express the sublime.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (British, 1775 - 1851)
Long Ship's Lighthouse, Land's End, about 1834 - 1835, Watercolor and gouache, scraped by the artist
28.6 x 44 cm (11 1/4 x 17 5/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

One artist, who was very familiar with Edmund Burke's theories, was J.M.W. Turner. According to Burke, anything capable of generating the passions of pain, danger, fear, sickness, horror, death, is of the sublime. Being in actual danger was NOT necessary to produce the sublime. So, art could evoke the sublime in its viewers. If there is enough distance, the sublime can bring delight. So, paintings by their very nature could do this. It is said that Turner could visualize the sublime, making people "feel with their eyes". Does it matter if the Sublime is in the painting itself, or in the viewer? Turner "SECULARIZED" the sense of ecstasy that was once the domain only of the church. He painted BIG themes...big mountains, wild oceans, and references to old Greek or Roman Biblical scenes. He made great use of the "OBSCURE -- not detailed portraits or still life paintngs. He painted extreme situations of nature. He went out to experience the situations -- subjects that raised fear: burning ships, shipwrecks, storms at sea, etc., to great effect.

After the Romantics, many artists abandoned the pursuit of the sublime. After about 1850, "beauty" became the compelling aesthetic ideal. German realism began to emerge, the Pre-Raphaelites, who were more interested in "truth" to nature and accurate depictions of natural phenomena. Artists avoided tempests and such as mediums of sentiment. This went on into the early 20th century, when the aesthetic theories of Kant begin to resurface, but were interpreted in a different way. Kant said: "Every artist must produce something completely new, instead of following a model from the past. " Modernism embraced this. Instead of representing like Friedrich, Turner & the Romantics, Modernists used abstracted color, light and space -- infinite, radiant voids to carry us beyond reason into the realm of the sublime. In 1948, Barnett Newman said, "The impulse of modern art resides in the desire to destroy beauty. The problem with beauty is that it prevents the artist from realizing man's desire for the exalted -- the sublime."

He felt figuration interfered with our ability to perceive the absolute. The unbound mind cannot be represented by an object. In his work, Vir Heroicus Sublimis ("Man, heroic, sublime), man is present. Lytoard says Newman's sublime resides in the "event" of the picture. No hidden deity, no complex meaning -- this is it.

What about now? Everyone probably remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when the twin towers collapsed before their eyes. We had the reality of watching the horror unfold before us thru the safe distance of our televisions. This was a recent event that conjured the sublime. We live in a digital world now. A "technological sublime" is surfacing, yet, many in the world still long for that which is made by human hands -- one of a kind. As representational artists, we are free to express with or without those technologies. However, unlike fast-paced visual effects in film and video clips, a painting slows things down -- not only for the artist, but for the viewer. It freezes a moment in time, allowing for great contemplation.

Collision by Joel Rea

Some figurative painters working today who raise the sublime with their work do so in ways similar to 19th Century Romantics...others approach it from a different perspective, re-imagining what it can mean in the realm of representational art. The massive oil paintings of the sea by Ran Ortner, give rise to the Romantic notions of the sublime. There is a sense of awe. His works have massive scale -- some as large as 8' x 32'. There is no sky, land, boats, figures or points of reference....ONLY the sea! Color is muted. Ortner is a surfer. He spent many hours in the ocean, experiencing it first-hand, his body immersed in it (much like Turner). The artist puts us IN the sea. We are enveloped by it. It has devastating power, vastness--able to crush man's largest creations, yet, the capacity to be gentle and a mother's womb.

White Cosmonaut by Jeremy Geddes

Other artists, like Joel Rea, and Jeremy Geddes, focus upon the figure, placing humanity squarely in the midst of an environment that fits aspects of the theories on the matter. I think they are exciting and fresh, particularly for representational artists. Australian artist, Jeremy Geddes painted a series of works of cosmonauts, some, escorted by a flock of pigeons in a nebulous, earthly realm. The cosmonaut performs a kind of floating dance thru an ambiguous space. Is it post-apocalyptic? Does it speak to the fragility of the planet?...of humankind? There is a sense of awe and wonder here. Fear? Not so much. Sublime? I think so. Counting myself among those who are interested in the sublime, I created a piece called, "Becoming". This work is my effort to depict the feeling in the mind of a woman while in a meditative state. Her corporeal body dissolving away, revealing pure energy and light that comprises the reality of her being. She begins to feel as if floating, in a transcendent state of being. Yes, artists today can use real forms that we see in this world to convey this feeling. But, we can push beyond that, and tap the depths of our imagination as well. In my work, "Siren Song" -- a place conjured from the imagination, there is a distant vastness, and yet a where your whispers could echo off of the canyon walls. The darkness obscures...the light obscures... It's not a real place, but it could be. Only the viewer occupies this world.

Siren Song by Steven DaLuz

Beyond the natural, earthly realm, we can consider the massiveness of the cosmos. Truly, this is something we can barely begin to put in any meaningful perspective. It is sublime, not because it concerns the real, but because it reveals the limitations of our attempts to put our minds around it. As Kant said, we are "A finite humanity cast into an infinite world. " The aesthetic idea is a presentation of the imagination to which no thought is adequate."

There is an incredible and fascinating range of interpretations of the sublime. It is a kind of "doorway" that opens into a realm that produces a sense of wonder. The giants who came before us considered the power of nature -- something fragile yet awe-inspiring, beautiful and still very much available and relevant as a subject today. They also considered man's relationship with the universe. Today, we have awe-inspiring images of the cosmos from the Hubble telescope that remind us of our ability to imagine. They show us a reality that exists beyond our capacity to see with our naked eyes, and should serve as a call to us as artists -- that the possibilities for us to engage our imaginations are truly boundless. I believe the sublime offers a contemporary conduit, for representational artists to explore their ability to transport the viewer in this present age.


Ovum by Steven DaLuz

KRALIK: One of the things that arises for me when I look at some of the images that you hold up as accessing the sublime is that they reach at it by throwing us into the void, as in the work of Jeremy Geddes. While I feel a sense of infinite space that echoes of the sublime, I also feel a confinement, almost claustrophobia and hopelessness in addition to the beauty found in the images. The same with the business man standing in front of the wave by Rea. While it may produce a sense of the sublime, the question arises, is taking us into the void as important or desired as the sense of sublime that derives it's sublimity from nature, from a sensual or peaceful image, one that comforts us? Are we really talking about the same thing?

DALUZ: I think everyone responds to imagery through the filter of their own personal memories and life experiences. What one person sees as "lonely", another sees as "liberating". Some of the images you describe as presenting a sense of hopelessness, evoke a sense of the sublime in that they juxtapose man squarely against the awesome power of nature. It is not so much that life is a "hopeless" endeavor, as it is that we are reminded of our relative smallness against the amazing spectacle of nature -- of the universe of which we are a part. The very planet we call home, spawns and sustains life, yet, it can take it away in a swift instant. There is something spiritual about that realization. The idea of the grandeur of nature, both in its magnificent beauty and in its unimaginable destructive power, was a major tenet in the writings of Edmund Burke. Burke saw the beautiful and the sublime as mutually exclusive. He believed the foundation for the sublime is our sense of our own mortality. He believed it was based upon fear, pain, terror -- the strongest emotions the human mind is capable of feeling. This is something quite different from serene calmness and beauty. He considered beauty a simple, positive pleasure.

Pale Memory by Jeremy Geddes

KRALIK: I feel that there is a sense of sensationalism associated with the sublime here in these images. It is dramatic, almost cinematic and powerful to be sure, but is this the healthiest way to wield that power or could we benefit more from a peaceful path toward the sublime, in your opinion? Your image "Siren Song" for instance, leans toward the romantic notion that the sublime can best be understood through nature. There is calmness, a peace that comes with being bathed in the golden light of the universe.

DALUZ: It is not for me to judge what is or is not healthier when wielding paint brushes to create a work of art that may have the effect of conjuring feelings of the sublime within the viewer. After all, it is physically just paint upon a surface. That said, I think there are many options open to the artist that may incite a strong emotional response or feelings of awe. They can be done with great bravura and power, or with extreme stillness and quiet grandeur. One method is no more relevant than the other, in my opinion. We cannot control the viewer's response to our work, but, we can orchestrate those pigments and substances in such a way as to express what we are thinking, feeling, responding to as we create the work. In my work, "Siren Song", I created a space that existed only in my mind. I played with the light, sense of stillness, and relative vastness of the forms to create a somewhat mysterious setting, with a kind of spiritual feeling. I imagined a space where one could hear their own whispers echoing off the canyon walls. This questioning of the source of the light, and other "mysterious" components play with the unknown -- which is an element often present in the realm of the sublime. In the case of Jeremy Geddes, or Joel Rea, the works pose questions: "What is this space the cosmonaut is floating in? There are pigeons freely maneuvering in flight alongside him...the juxtaposition jars us into the reality that he is in an earthly realm. What does it feel like to float, weightless in that earthly atmosphere, yet needing a suit to provide oxygen? What does this mean"? Rea, places man squarely against the overwhelming forces of nature. We experience the sublime in that frozen moment in time, captured in paint, where only seconds later sure cataclysm would occur in the realm of reality.

Moment of Truth by Joel Rea

KRALIK: I think some would say that it is not the role of art to comfort us but to stir us up? Do you agree with that?

DALUZ: I think art has many roles. It certainly can stir us up. It can cause us to ask questions. It can stimulate us intellectually. It can spur us into action politically or socially. It can be a source of comfort. It can cause us to "feel" something outside of ourselves. It can exist purely to present something beautiful for our enjoyment, and so much more. Currently, I tend to focus my energy in creating works that dance with the sublime or at least provoke some kind of feeling within the viewer. I leave the more intellectual narrative works to artists who are far more clever than I am.

KRALIK: When I look at some of the work of Daniel Sprick, this reclining nude for instance, I can get a feeling of the sublime without the terror factor, without challenging myself with ideas of my own mortality. The same happens when I am overwhelmed by a sunset. Maybe what I want to ask is, does adversity, (or the fear of death), necessarily have to be a pre-requisite to accessing the sublime?

Reclining Nude by Daniel Sprick

DALUZ: Like you, I have immense regard for the work of Daniel Sprick. He is a "painter's painter" in my view. I think the awe I experience when viewing much of his work has less to do with the sublime, and more to do with the sheer technical brilliance he possesses and conveys with his stunningly beautiful work. Sprick has the prowess to paint reality, whether human flesh, interior scenes, whatever he chooses with great fidelity. In some of those works, he chooses to make loose, expressive marks with the brush, calling attention to the surface and reminding us that "this is paint". It is a kind of celebration of the medium and the process. I admire his work greatly for his masterful control and the excruciatingly beautiful results, more than for any sublimity that may be present. Is adversity or fear of death a prerequisite for accessing the sublime? No, I do not believe so. However, the feeling of jaw-dropping awe, ideally stimulating a visceral response to something larger than ourselves is normally at work in the realm of the sublime.

Perfect Balance by Brandon Kralik

DALUZ: Whether intended or not, you have several works that I believe evoke the sublime. In particular, the piece, "Perfect Balance" comes to mind. While you have elements showing the grandeur of nature depicted, and a beautiful nude female form viewed from the back, these things do not ignite feelings of the sublime by themselves. You have placed the woman on a tightrope, crossing the impossibly long expanse between to peaks, miles above the ground. The distant horizon is in the haziness of obscurity. The woman is stepping out, venturing into the unknown. One misstep, and she plummets to her certain death. But, her posture conveys a confidence and ability to make the journey across the crevasse, unscathed. The viewer is left to wonder. If the viewer places herself in the woman's position, vicariously experiencing what you have frozen on your canvas, the sublime is induced. In this instance, I think it has imbued itself with beauty in the process.


Perhaps the problem I have with this is the apparent discord between beauty and the sublime. If Aristotle says that the purpose of form is to create pleasure, and equates beauty with pleasure, and Hegel said that disembodiment and formlessness of, Islamic Art for example, inspire the viewer with an overwhelming sense of awe, how can we call that a current? How can these be the same thing? One is saying that the creations have a beauty unto themselves, and the other is saying that it doesn't matter what the thing is really, only that the experience in the viewers mind when viewing the object is sublime if they want to perceive it that way. In my mind these are two differing ideas.

While I admire DaLuz's efforts at creating a thread that weaves itself through the fabric of art history, I personally find the idea of the sublime as a mode of expression, as a unifying factor, too broad. Just because Barnett Newman says that he is addressing the sublime does not mean that his work evokes that that in me, which it does not. I feel that there is something more universal about the sublime, less subjective. Rather than clarifying things for me, this has led me to a lot of unanswered questions. Are fear, pain and terror then the strongest feelings?

Are they stronger than calmness and beauty? Or could it be said that beauty is a more timeless path, like water carving a canyon out of stone, and that terror is able to evoke the sublime more immediately, like an earthquake? What do you think about the sublime? I believe that Steven and I would both appreciate your comments.