Bruce Wilshire, in The Primal Roots of American Philosophy, argues that even though the US government almost completely eradicated Native American religion and culture, there were those among the white, dominant culture who became deeply influenced by Native American thought. Indeed, Wilshire argues that the influence was so deep that Native American thought forms the core of the American philosophical tradition and differentiates US philosophy significantly from European philosophy. To Wilshire this is seen most clearly in folks like Emerson, Thoreau, James and Dewey. I mention all this because Anne Siems appears to play with the notion that women and children from the dominant culture might just be one short step away from full blown paganism, or, perhaps, might be there already. Her marvelous, winsome and enchanting work, currently on display at Littlejohn Contemporary in Chelsea, appears to take the historically unique American artistic tradition of folk art portraiture and to deliberately infuse it with shamanistic and transcendental meaning.
Folk art portraiture from early 19th century America possessed certain conspicuous characteristics. Perspective was abandoned for a flatness of finely defined, boldly colored and symmetrically arranged images within the context of a non-specific source of lighting. The painters were shooting for a semi-idealized likeness which displayed identity without reflecting personality or emotional state, but which might betray class status. These painters were, generally, craftsmen meeting the needs of their sitters. Animals often are presented in the paintings but they tend to serve moralistic or emblematic functions and nature is a pleasant backdrop often denoting property ownership. These were basically pre-photographic images serving the function daguerreotypes would soon serve as personal and occupational photography. Psychological insight into the sitter was not the point. Documenting the person’s attainment of a social niche within the burgeoning American society was the goal.
So Anne Siems starts with the elements of this strikingly unique and white, dominant culture American tradition, in which nature tends to serve a decorative function, and subverts its elements and conventions to remove the sitter from a social niche to a deeply embedded place within nature. Wilshire points out that science views nature in a limited manner by using what is “orderable and predictable and quantifiable”. We thus become folks “…who appear to ourselves as those who order, predict, quantify, manage and control.” We lose an “intimacy with the world” that folks in a pre-scientific setting often employ to add layers to their experience, insight and relationships. Therefore, Siems often makes the bodies of her women and children transparent or translucent, perhaps as a stylized counter-convention to indicate how indistinguishable we are, in reality, from the natural world.
She might be alluding to the fact that despite the reality that most people now live in cities, we are still biological organisms and the result of the processes of natural selection. All of the emotions we use daily were naturally selected before we built cities, just as much as our prehensile thumbs or other physical features, so that they could serve a survival function. These emotions, combined with advanced communication and cognitive processing skills, allowed our development as social creatures capable of radically altering our environment – but this does not remove us from nature. Even the cognitive abilities which have provided the illusion that we are divorced from nature were selected by nature to ensure our survival. Science has brought with it an anti-nature or anti-transcendental ideology which we have inadvertently and unquestioningly adopted. Siems’ sitters are, however, the ideologically liberated who openly enjoy their participation in a direct awareness and interaction with the natural world.
Even the delicate “whiteness” of the faces of the women and children in these paintings was selected by nature. You probably read that England’s “Cheddar Man” had brown skin, showing that 10,000 years ago whiteness did not yet exist in Europe. Whiteness became a new development due to the lack of harsh sunlight in northern latitudes. A dark skin tone is due to the presence of the pigment melanin in one’s skin, as melanin protects one’s skin from the UV rays in sunlight. An abundance of melanin in one’s skin was not needed as folks moved northward where sunlight is less intense than in equatorial regions and darker skin colors disappeared to a great extent in Europe just as the eyes of fish living in darkness disappear over many generations. In nature if a trait is not used an organism tends to lose it over generations. These lily-white women and children in these paintings are as connected to nature as a mud dauber, and possibly more so, as they can comprehend and accept nature.
Whereas nature was used emblematically in folk art, Siems tends to use it to invoke a sense of union with other aspects of the natural world as well as a type of shamanism. We see, for instance, a child covered in mushrooms. The mushrooms in the painting visually compliment the girl’s being as mushrooms still compliment the beings of those in non-industrial societies who use mushrooms not only to provide sustenance but also to provide visions. These visions constituted the first human religious experience as some shamans used mushrooms to help them reach a hallucinogenic state to connect to a spiritual realm where supernatural assistance could be obtained to alleviate suffering in their community. Nature itself has not just provided humanity with nourishment and survival but has continually provided the means to uplift, console and heal. It is part of the partnership we entered into and which we have violated through a world economy that does not function within the sustainable parameters set by the natural world.
We also see a child riding a bear and another standing amicably with one. The bear, to ancient folks, was a symbol of death and resurrection. Our first symbols came from a close observation of nature and the death and resurrection theme was begun at the point where folks perceived the cyclical nature of the natural world. The bear literally goes underground and disappears for a period of time during cold weather to re-emerge in the spring, mirroring the change of seasons and the renewal of life. James Frazer, in fact, believed that it was agricultural rituals around the theme of the resurrection of crops which ultimately provided humanity with their first gods and mythological heroes – Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz et al.
By beginning with the American folk-art tradition and tweaking it in this manner, Siems is demonstrating a possible shift in perspective that can nudge us away from the delusion that we are separate from nature merely because we have separated ourselves from most of it. She invites a new approach to rediscovering nature for ourselves wherever we may be located. We are all connected, we are in union with nature every moment of the day, we simply refuse to recognize this or allow this awareness to take root and develop. The creatures with whom the sitters in Siems’ paintings interact seem to welcome their human companions with an esprit de corps as we would be welcomed. Indeed, the cognitive capacities which have lead to the delusion that we are apart from nature and can only measure and exploit nature to our profit and comfort may, in fact, hold the key to leading us back to a greater union and relationship with nature. Siems appears to affirm the capacity for the type of consciousness that can ensure that graceful reunion.