Riding The Dragon


The line in painting is always first and last a mark on the canvas, but the ancestry of the calligraphic mark, revealed in the process of creation, includes a deep connection with the processes of Nature, divination, and cultures across the world.

The awareness of this ancestry comes sometimes as an intuitive flash during the act of painting and sometimes as a recognition during research. Many painters, including Lin Shin-Chek and Jack Wise in Canada, and Morris Graves and Mark Tobey in America have commented on these intuitions.

The ancient Chinese painters were masters of the brush as well as acute observers of nature. Their calligraphic style may have had as much to do with their empirical studies of phenomena and interest in divination as with their personal aesthetics. Before painting became a canonical art in China, artists worked as scientists, diviners, and craftsmen, recording in jade and bone nature-observations and prognostications. According to scholars, oracle bones were used 3,000 years ago, in the Shang Dynasty, to divine outcomes for military strategy, political policy, weather, crop plantation, marriage–basically, the same popular interests we have today. However, the procedure for divination is not something we normally follow.

The ancient Chinese took tortoise shells, specifically the plastron, found beneath the carapace, and scratched cavities into them. Then these cavities were scorched with a red-hot implement to produce cracks. Such patterns were usually a straight vertical with either a diagonal or a horizontal offshoot. The angles formed were either 30 degrees (from the vertical) or 90 degrees.

Later, ox shoulder bones were used in a similar fashion. Some of these bones come to us over the centuries inscribed with various characters made by the diviners. We also know that Chinese script developed from observation of marks produced by the scorching, and that script moved into calligraphic painting (the Chinese character “pu,” to divine, is a rendering of a crack with a 30 degree angle).

Chinese yarrow stalks, usually from 5 to 7 feet in height in China and already prized for their medicinal qualities, were a later development in divination practice. The branches of “Achillea Sibirica” grew at a 30 degree angle from the central stem. The manipulation of these stalks over a period of several hundred years became the system of the “I Ching.” In this system, the hexagrams are related to a hexagon figure, itself the diagram of the very same cracks found in bones and tortoise shells. When one extends the hexagon within a grid, the sides of the hexagon form 30 degree and 90 degree angles.

What is the significance for us of this apparently eccentric tradition? Cracks and creases are everywhere, and physicists tell us they form in regular patterns. Scientists have written papers on sidewalk cracks, on patterns in animal hides and bark, on the markings of river mud as it dries. When slabs of ice are exposed to heat, they crack in ghostly six-rayed flowers and ferns, each with the 30 degree or 60 degree angle. Despite the fact that these marks occur in nature, they are also a two-dimensional phenomenon, an abstraction belonging to the world of mathematics and artistic inscription. Roger Penrose, the eminent mathematician, has studied hexagonal tessalation, and anyone who has looked at tessalation diagrams can see that they have the potential to grow infinitely. Whatever is the original hexagram can produce countless faces as we add lines to the angles.

When I flew to Regina one recent November I could see the frozen prairie fields below stretching out in cracks and crevices, many of them partial hexagons on the vast curved earth, all luminous beneath the open sky. I was filled with a sense of awe and significance, though I had no idea what the patterns signified.

Our knowledge of hexagonal patterning, of the topography of cracks and creases, extends even into the invisible domains. We know that at the molecular level substances transform into other substances through an arithmetic of atoms. We signify this arithmetic by adding atoms, for instance, of hydrogen or oxygen, to the hexagonal structure of the carbon ring. By adding more atoms, we change the shape of the molecules, and hence of the substance. These molecules, especially in their diagrammatic appearance, look like the renderings of cracks from ancient Chinese bones.

I am not suggesting artists are like physicists when they work. What may be ingrained is the pattern of growth or energetic structure, which is expressed through the artist as a tendency toward making certain marks and lines and through the physicist as a tendency to find the laws of nature.

If we think of these patterns as interesting coincidences or as “facts” out there somewhere, then we have missed an opportunity to see the overwhelming meaningful quality of creation.

Nature tends to make itself visible in certain patterns repeated throughout the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms. Just as we can dismiss nature’s patterning as decoration or camouflage, effectively excluding other possibilities, we can also categorize painting by using only historical terms.

The argument between representation and abstraction within art never takes place inside a studio, since artists always work with inclination rather than theory. Outside the confines of art history, all painting is concretion. Even those raised on conventional landscapes can be shown that changing focal point alters what one is allowed to see. So, in principle, landscapes are also found in bark, shells, stone, tidal pools. More than just a shift of subject, this extension of perception can signal a new way of looking at the world.

For almost everyone, progress in art comes through study of what others have done in the past. However, some people continue learning only through study and neglect observation. But only observation could show that cracks are entries into the “other world,” a world of energy rather than form, a world where dreams interface with nature’s laws.

Cracks are the capillaries of the spirit as it traverses nature. Study and observation together allow us to develop the artistic strategies for rendering the energy, or “dragon lines” as they are called in China.

Any kind of painting in which strokes are laid down carefully owes its success to the quality of attention of the painter. The painter Jack Wise used to say he could always recognize the “throwaway lines” in someone else’s painting: those strokes which had been put down inattentively. Such attention identifies a tradition that is different from that of Max Ernst and the Surrealists, who appeared to work similar territory in “frottage,” a technique which incorporates the markings of the material world into the art work. Inspired by Leonardo’s “wall” technique, frottage uses a different approach from the calligraphic efforts of the Chinese masters. The surrealists connect the cracks and creases they see to the world of dream, and with the same improvisational whimsy found in the world of dream they use chance as the selection principle in frottage. Calligraphic artists like Mark Tobey and Jack Wise, however, develop a quality of attention in which every stroke is alive and laid down carefully.

In discussions of the work of Tobey, Wise, or Chin-Shek, the reader’s attention is often directed to affinities of subject (nature and spirit), approach (calligraphic brush work),and theme (Buddhism or Taoism), but such discussions would include, on that basis, even the most sentimental and naïve painters of “mountain and water” pictures and decorative vases. Instead, the artist inspired by a Taoist predecessor learns to look at nature in such a way that affinities in the work occur spontaneously.

Creating art in the Taoist sense is learning to ride the dragon. The dragon is a magical creature linked to fire, at home deep in the earth and high on mountaintops, who can fly in and out of the cracks of appearance, which are otherwise invisible to or overlooked by most. To ride the dragon is to master the fierce energies of the unconscious; to ride the dragon is also to follow the energies of chi wherever they are. In art, riding the dragon is a discipline that is first of all body-based. One learns through movement and meditation to generate chi and to find it through dragon lines anywhere. In nature, dragon lines are sometimes seen in cracks and creases, and in the body the dragon lines are found in the invisible meridian paths.

Taoist masters composed painting diagrams of calligraphic lines meant to revitalize the brain. Such magical diagrams derived their efficacy from the Taoist knowledge of energetics: how to find energy, how to move it, how to transform it. This ability depended on seeing, the ability to perceive innate form and the flow of energy, which, in turn, could be used in healing, design (feng shui), and art.

Waterfalls and rivers in ancient Taoist paintings are usually rendered to show undulating or serpentining spirals of energy. Clouds, trees, pools of water with small eddies are connected to one vascular system of earth spirit. The presence of chi in the painting can be felt through the power and aliveness of the brush strokes, whether they are bold or delicate. Otherwise, superficial affinities of subject and arrangement mean nothing in the context of which I am speaking, a context that links ancient Taoist painters with those contemporary painters like Mark Tobey who use the brush with full attention.

The “ten thousand things” doctrine of Taoism, a commonplace idea for the universe evoked every time a reference is made to Oriental art or philosophy, contains in its very phrasing the difference between English and Chinese views of life. What seems obvious in the words has become generally overlooked. When we use the word “universe,” we imply the totality of everything, the notion of everything moving together in one direction as One: one form, one mind, one concept, vast and awesome as it is. “Ten thousand things,” however, suggests both the metaphorical concept of universe and the particularity of everything in the universe.

The universe, in the Chinese view, is not primarily an idea, but an accessible and sensible domain. We can sense and count the particulars of this domain. Such an idea of the universe is certainly poetic rather than scientific in the Western sense. This idea also promises particular knowledge. We can develop a knowledge of rocks, of trees, of ponds, of cracks and creases that is as much empirical and practical as it is poetic.

The otherwise impetuous act of “riding the dragon” may lead to success in art, but it also depends on the particular knowledge of nature and body-based discipline. The dragon is a magical, transformative being, which can destroy and which can help create through the proper channeling of its fire. The wonderful possibility for the artist in this regard is that transformation comes through the brush, and yet, even without knowing anything more than the next stroke, all the history and knowledge are there in the silent dance.


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