Georgia O’Keeffe and Spirituality of the Sexually Charged Landscape
Presented at Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies, Oxford University, UK, 2016; Exploring Sexuality and Spirituality Conference, Oxford University, UK, 2016; and the 7th Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, NM, 2015
Divinity may be all around us; even so, not all landscape is created equally. Some places simply stand out: a distinct form in space, or distinct space surrounded by form. Some seem about to proposition me – my close encounters with sexually charged landscape; flights more than fancy. It isn’t a sweetened, sanitized symbolism of Mother Earth that intrigues me; rather it’s a trajectory of provocative questions: what I feel about them, why I feel what I feel, and how I can use it. Here, Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe’s spirit provide the perfect opportunity to go more deeply into the mantra messing with my mind: ‘Landscape is all about Sex’. Curious how it unfolds; unbridled, naked, a gritty can of worms and holes.
To clarify, this isn’t about Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s that her landscape paintings provide a platform for aesthetic departure and inspiration. Ghost Ranch Cliff; Black Place, 150 miles NW of here; and the Waterfalls of Iao Valley. Sculpted sensuous contours, curving V-shaped topography; the unrestrained metaphysical passion of nature. Asking: refined geological formations or “an outpouring of sexual juices, loamy hungers of the flesh.” As Lewis Mumford wrote, “One long, loud blast of sex.”
The sexually charged landscape speaks a many-splendoured theme, beckoning me to its erotic shapes and spaces remarkably similar to human sexual organs. Caves and crevices conspicuously sculpted like vaginas, shrub-covered valleys like mounds of pubic hair; smoothly sloped mountains rising like prominent breasts and rock obelisks like erect penises. This raw sexual power: the play of male and female consorts of cosmic consciousness and natural process exciting me in ways I don’t quite understand.
Here in the Buddhist’s Desire realm, almost anything seems layered with sex. Sexually charged male and female geometry isn’t new. Edmund Burke’s 18th century aesthetics merely expressed what was already acknowledged: sublime male-driven linearity pirouetting with beautiful female-driven curves. Upright male and recumbent female stones of Kyoto’s Ryogen-in. The renaissance clarity of Villa Gamberaia tethered to the nymphaeum cave, its fruitful erotic deity birthing the garden’s life force from the uterus of earth.
Paul Shepard’s ‘Cross Valley Syndrome’, a pedagogically priggish term linking geomorphology and psychology, likened a river’s breaching a mountain barrier to passage through a valley into soft and voluptuous enchantment. Why? Because people mentally transform Earth parts into human body parts. An anthropologist’s probe of ‘Flirting with Boulders’ in Yosemite, engaging with landscape ‘pregnant with possibilities’ gives credence to the phrase, ‘getting your rocks off’. Maybe not, but even John Muir was charged by an erotic Yosemite during his First Summer in the Sierra.
Why this urge? Is sexual imagery programmed? Buddhists suggest it’s pre-primal. The sutra called ‘Teaching Nanda about Entry to the Womb’ and the Kalachakra Tantra introduce the bardo, my extremely subtle consciousness migrating through the intermediate state between lifetimes, compulsively focused on the sex organs of a couple so engaged with whom I have a karmic connection. The primal desire for one of them and equally strong aversion for the other determining sex for the subsequent lifetime. Wondering, was Freud completely out of line?
I hear Carl Jung say: How few things there are, nearly everything near and dear, that can’t be reduced to the instinct of sex. Call it libido or primordial psyche, that sexual drive is our own soul – it makes life proceed; it’s the love for life, for the beautiful, for the impulse to make good and avoid the not so good. It’s for Soen Ozeki’s, “I am alive. I am this moment. My future is here and now.” To place ‘who I am’ and ‘where I am’ in the world. Mind as Sex!
Now this Mind as Sex has a visual expression. Expressed where? Right here in the diversity of natural phenomena. Right here in landscape. And that expression, says Jung, takes form as none other than the phallus; and the expression of the natural order of things in which life, creativity and transformation is made possible is the vagina. Right here in landscape: in the sharp, descriptive landmarks that are male, like sheer cliffs emerging from the prairies; in evocative continuity, like ever folding fields of flowers that’s female. Sex as landscape!
I hear James Hillman and fellow eco-psychologists question the boundary between my psyche and the psyche of the earth. I hear William Blake and Merleau-Ponty and Paul Brunton and Rene Magritte say: You see sex outside yourself even though it’s only a mental fabrication of the sex you experience inside. I hear Soto Zen master Dogen say: I came to realize clearly that the sexually charged mind is none other than mountains and rivers and the great earth.
Is all this a delusion? Here, the Buddhist Compendium of Ways of Knowing has me question the validity of objects appearing to consciousness. Hence, Georgia O’Keeffe responds to my fantasies: My paintings erotic? No way! That’s something you yourself put into them. When you read erotic symbols into my paintings you’re really talking about your own affairs.
“Surely, you jest!” I snicker.
Will landscape allow deeper access? I’m struck by the diverse thinkers equating Landscape and Divinity. Plotinus said: All the Beauty and Good of this world comes by Communion with Divinity. Dionysius Areopagite said: The whole of Nature moves together as divine revelation in rest and motion, clarity and brightness brought into existence through the Beautiful and the Good. Jung said: “It seems to me that the high mountains, rivers, lakes, trees, flowers and animals far better exemplifies the essence of God than the clergy.”
Here’s Mind as Sex as Landscape as Divinity! advancing its spiced-up contrarian interpretation of our affairs. That it’s been the sexual prowess of the earth, waters and skies cultivating everyday perceptions, not the other way around. Taking us through the sublime and the beautiful; through the making, abiding and coming apart, divine imagery has gloriously presented landscape’s teachings on her sensuality. Revealing her most private parts, nature’s purpose all along has been to illuminate our providence as sensual and sexual beings. Rather than having succumbed to our allegorical anthro-po-morphizing of hills and valleys as sexual body parts, perhaps it’s that the earth divine has eco-po-morphized human beings. That’s a thought. Georgia O’Keeffe merely painted what landscape intended – painting landscape in all its divine erotic fullness. Unbound wonder and reverence, naked, in the worship of topography, colour and texture; in its midst, you quiver and your belly goes ‘wicked/or/snap, crackle and pop’!
As landscape once again has its way with us, how deeply can this go? What would Georgia O’Keefe do with it?
A Tibetan Buddhist text says:
For those not on spiritual paths, places provoke raw undisciplined passion.
To aberrant minds, landscape is just earth, stone, water, and trees.
To mistaken intellects, it appears as solid, inanimate objects.
To practitioners, it appears with no intrinsic nature.
To pure vision, it is a celestial palace full of deities.
To realization, the radiant luminosity of innate awareness.
And among the signs of confidence that a landscape is truly a sacred place are self-arisen
landforms as penises and vaginas. Signs that it is home to divinity.
I hear Tom Berry say, “Step carefully, for this is the kind of landscape where we are most aware of being present in the universe; where we are most ourselves in the context of our relationship with others.
Skipping over Taoist and Native American landscapes of cavorting female and male animation of earth, waters and skies right to the juicy parts, where the Hindu tantric landscape energizes O’Keeffe in a very different way, with licentious imagery of divinity: cosmic and natural rhythm prakriti animating as female yoni, uniting with primordial consciousness purusha arising as male erect lingam; their uniting producing life-force prana manifesting as form and space; the continuum of creating, abiding and dissolving.
Spiritual geography painted as physical geography, fifty-one body parts of Sati’s cosmic and natural rhythm materialized through Shiva’s dance of dissolution as fifty-one sacred landscapes. Of the fifty-one, Kamakhya in Assam State is her vagina, where a stone in a natural cave at the peak of the mountain of love is moistened by a natural spring and turns red like menstrual blood when mineral deposits are flushed out by monsoon rains. As a Hindu tantrika, O’Keefe’s inner body becomes indivisible with landscape through yogic sex harnessed in its most creative ways. A self-portrait.
Here in the Buddhist centre of cosmology, the Vajrayana landscape energizes Georgia O’Keeffe, as Heruka and Vajravarahi, embodiment of luminosity and knowing in tantric embrace. Channels radiate from eight spokes of their heart chakra to twenty-four component parts of their body. These body parts correspond to a mandala of twenty-four external sacred landscapes. Their sexual organ is Pretapuri in Western Tibet. With its 1,100,000 erotic dakinis, Vajravarahi’s wisdom massages the power of this place. Delicious? Perhaps; how Georgia O’Keeffe could use it.
I hear my teachers say that next to dying, sex with an actual consort in advanced spiritual practice is a most potent force for navigating through life because it can transform ordinary paroxysms of afflictive emotions into spiritual realization. With a firm foundation, sex with a spiritual consort ‘fair-featured, large-eyed, and adorned with youth and beauty, can produce strong mental focus and prolong deep states of consciousness needed to simulate the indivisible tantric embrace of luminosity and knowing.
Spiritual geography transformed into physical geography, O’Keefe paints Vajravarahi’s sexual parts as geomorphology: her ovaries as Lake Manasarovar and Raksas Tal upstream; her fallopian tubes as braiding streambeds; her uterus as the widening valley; her labia as valley walls where sensitive nerve endings are the ‘self-appeared images of stone’; her clitoris as the alluvium where we’d had our first campsite; her vagina as Paul Shepard’s ‘Cross Valley Syndrome’, the breached rock escarpment where she’d orgasmically explode into the broad majestic valley. Heruka’s semen is painted as the absence of suffering and non-duality. A self-portrait.
Here in this place, contemplating the indivisibility of subject, action and object, questioning if the sexually charged landscape merely serves as background to the provocative act, or as the actual consort, itself. O’Keefe, with her embraced meditate: We are Heruka and Vajravarahi, spiritual landscape and tantric couple as one. We generate inner abdominal heat, hold orgasm at our tips, focus on the central channel, the indestructible drop at the heart, and realize the awakened nature of the mind. Infinitely prolonging creativity and beauty in each moment, obviously, this isn’t like ordinary sex. It certainly isn’t ordinary landscape.
Because sacred landscape is blessed with the same essence as the awakened mind, luminosity and knowing is revealed as earth, waters and skies. Georgia O’Keeffe re-paints her self-portrait: her Awakening Mind as Sexual Union; Sexual Union as Purified Landscape; Purified Landscape as Spiritual Realization; Spiritual Realization as Sexual Union – Mind as Sex as Landscape as Divinity! – highly charged transactions with spirituality. Then re-questioning, freshly – Sexual juices or spirituality as landscape?