Third Shade of Engagement with Landscape
Presented at the 11th Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, Taliesin West, Scottsdale, AR, 2019
Georgia O’Keeffe … passenger 27, age 51, travels first class from Los Angeles to Honolulu on the Matson Company’s seafaring château, the S.S. Lurline. Her fine, articulated fingers curled around the coarse dark wood railing, she rolls with the Pacific. The Hawaiian Pineapple Company, the ‘pre’ of Dole Pineapple, is covering all expenses. In exchange, she’ll paint pineapples for their national pineapple promotion campaign – with the provision she’ll have time to paint what she wishes. The Great Pineapple Escape of 1939.
The humid subtropical Hawai’i had not been on Georgia O’Keeffe’s agenda. However, painting Hawaiian pineapples is welcome respite from the continuing saga of lurid chatter and innuendos, critics and friends alike labeling her art: – loamy hungers of flesh; testaments to Freud; long, loud, blasts of sex! She’d miss engaging with Elvis by eighteen years.
March 10th. At the precise moment Georgia O’Keeffe meets ‘Īao Valley, from the line on the compass sixty degrees east, from the mountain slopes forty miles behind her, the younger volcanic Haleakalā captures the sun from the clasp of Clouds, and gifts the shaft of light to Mauna Kahalawai, its older by a half million years. Veins of iridescent key lime yellows and 200-watt greens deftly stroke steep wooded cliffs; copper and rust etches outlines of million year old ridges; silently absorbed into a mantle of mauve grey; cloaks the Valley. ‘Īao Valley means ‘Valley of Supreme Clouds. Sister, never seen anything like it. She’ll return eleven days later.
The winding narrow shelf of a road excavated into the mountainside through the cylinder of lush tropical forest, frankly, freaks her out. With her eleven year-old guide, she gratefully arrives at the open meadow on the alluvial terrace at Kepanawai, wide enough to pull over. She succumbs to the splendid private parts of Supreme Clouds Valley. Its soaring green corrugated cliffs of volcanic proportions and deep, wet canyons carved by a million cycles of rain, wind and water shower her with 400 inches of uncontainable bliss. Here, she engages in a many splendoured encounter with the peculiar V-shaped Canyon across the Valley that will initiate her into its Kaona, layers of meaning, its three shades of engagement with landscape.
The first shade: engagement with the physical landscape obvious and evident to the senses. The second shade: engagement with landscape revealed through stories neither evident nor logically understood. The third shade: engagement with the extremely hidden landscape, the sexual play of lands, waters and skies meshed with all aspects of life.
Georgia O’Keeffe sets her easel on level ground a few feet from her car. Inadequately engaged with passions of the Valley, first a sketch, pencil, eleven marks, the external physical body of landscape. This will be ‘Īao Waterfall No. 1 – a descriptive assemblage of topography, geology, hydrology, soils, flora and fauna. She paints the V-shaped canyon and its tributary crevasses, bare magma outcrops and ridges extending into the Valley. She paints rockfall talus covered by tenuous trees and shrubs in the middle, and green patches precipitously hanging on. She paints clouds attenuating otherwise intense sunlight, tropical greens absorbing colour as if holding their breath. The slit of water plunging over the re-entrant lip of rock crest. She paints form rather than space. ‘Īao Waterfall No. 1 – her first shade of engagement with landscape.
Days later, she nervously makes way over her nemesis of a road to the end of the road. Again, first a sketch; again, an economy of line. Then she paints End of Road. Like Waterfall No. 1, End of Road is a cognitive description of the visible external landscape. Like Waterfall No. 1, End of Road is a painting in the vocabulary of the first shade of engagement. Appearing as the most ‘realistic’, it’s the most restrictive, the most conditioned and predictable. It’s the least real; the least ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’.
Beyond the end of the road above the trees, Georgia O’Keeffe eyes an erect pinnacle. Proud, formidable, the pinnacle is called ‘Īao Needle. A splendid specter headlining all the signs of one singular sensation thrust thirteen hundred feet in the air. An officially designated phallus by none other than the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, alas, ‘Īao Needle is an eroded remnant of a winding ridge, a chorus line of basalt.
Georgia O’Keeffe fancies ‘Īao Needle as male consort to the female canyons and waterfalls. Actually, landscape is very real to her this way. Flights more than fancy, the play of male and female hills and valleys; female and male ebbs and swells, affairs and formations. The hermeneutics of geological porn. However, Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t dwell on this brazen protuberate. Unclad, this rock proffers no mystery; neither intrigues nor excites. Georgia O’Keeffe chooses not to paint it.
She returns to the terrace meadow at Kepanawai. This to be ‘Īao Waterfall No. 2. Initiated into the second shade of engagement with landscape, she explores audible stories and silent tales of geology and genealogy; myths and metaphor, melody accorded to the landscape of ‘Īao Valley, intimately and immediately familiar to those who know them. She paints the speech of landscape, more real than the first two paintings.
“She paints a million years of sunshine and darkness, cloud cover and clearing; a million years of global warming and global cooling. She paints magma’s rising from the Pacific Hot Spot and the flow of lava into the ocean. A million years of mounting layers, mass wasting and erosion. A million years of ecological vigour: basalt’s fragmenting into fertility, the evolution of tundra mosses into forests of tropical paradise land; lava’s re-emergence and cinder-covering re-denudation. She paints this because its stories are bedded with the rock.
She paints the bloody encounter that took place here in 1790, the same year Haleakalā last erupted; the hand-to-hand conflict on the alluvial terrace, the noxious spirit of death congealed in the soil and on its rocks, warriors who clawed their way up the canyon’s rock outcrops and precipice, and fell hundreds of meters to their deaths attempting to escape (Kamehameha’s) pursuit; the ground saturated with enough dead bodies to dam the flow of ‘Iao Stream. She paints this because its stories are bedded with the rock. She paints this, her second shade of engagement with landscape.
Okay, here’s the juicy part. Sunday, March 26. Yet once again, Georgia O’Keeffe returns to the terrace meadow. Initiated into the most conscious and conscientious third shade of engagement with landscape, previous paintings now seem quaint, served by familiar techniques and brushwork from the cache of tools and experience brought from the continent. Now looks deeply into the Canyon, into subtleties of spirit, space, wind and movement known by spiritual elders intimately connected to the Valley; as personal and indivisible to their bodies and hearts, as New Mexico is to Georgia O’Keeffe’s. In turn, the Canyon notes her quiet demeanour.
She’s not passed into transcendence, the idea anathema to her anima, a divorce from divinity, a stain on her soul, an incision into her intimacy with landscape that animates and energizes whom she is and what she does right here, right now. No, she’d fully harness the natural totality of all-embracing consciousness optioned to her; engage the full catastrophe – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – of life here, there, everywhere and nowhere, itself. This landscape, just as it is, is her Psalm 84 of which they speak.
Here, and now, Georgia O’Keeffe explores her intimacy with the Canyon –
She paints Waterfall No. III – ‘Īao Valley as Carl Jung’s: – Psyche in accord with the structure of the universe, and what happens in the macrocosm happens in the infinitesimal and most subjective reaches of her psyche.
She paints as Dogen’s Soto Zen’s: – Mind no other than mountains and rivers and the great earth.
She paints as Nagarjuna’s Prajna-paramita: the totality of relative truth, in dependence upon causes and conditions; arising, abiding and abating within as without; the symphonic rhyme of cause and effect.
She paints who she is as where she is. Paints as landscape might paint Georgia O’Keeffe, under her skin, deep in the heart of her. Paints the GEO-PO-MORPHIZING of Georgia O’Keeffe – geologic form and space as human form and space. Muse to landscape, she paints Neruda’s:
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
Geo-po-morphized, Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t paint body parts. She paints the natural erotic engagement of complementary pairs: repose with movement, rise with fall, push with pull, flex with contract, inside with outside, concave with convex, inhale with exhale, sound with silence.
Geo-po-morphized, Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t paint body parts. She paints the natural erotic engagement of complementary pairs. She paints form with space, inner landscape with outer landscape; landscape of the light with landscape of the dark; projecting landscape with embracing landscape; landscape that supplies with landscape that receives; landscape that invites with landscape that repels, landscape that absorbs with landscape that releases. She paints lava plugging vent, rainbow brushing rock, winds whisking water, root penetrating crevasse, rain vaccinating soil, cricket filling quiescence.
Now disciple of the breath of space rather than the weight of form, cloud rather than cliff; mist rather than outcrop; where otherwise she’d think they were just plainly getting in the way. She paints clouds riding wind, creeping over ridges, sliding into folds, penetrating crevasse, the magnetic vibration of Cloud and Cliff, a millimetre of electric breath between.
Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t paint body parts. She paints drizzle blotting sky; mist masking cliffs. She paints the vortex of cloud circling deep recesses of the Canyon, thick sheets of rain where waterfall should be; swirling winds and lateral currents confining its spread; wet margins seriously coiffed, a ‘French curve’. She paints opaque sheets of thick grey molded like an isosceles triangle, elongated from top to bottom, sheathing the Canyon from crest to its midriff talus.
Georgia O’Keeffe doesn’t paint body parts. She paints Cloud split into two, slit from top to bottom, folded and massaged into its succulent wet core, the slit’s wetness painted as a clear white line. The cloud swelling with condensed evaporate on each side; thickening, its outer edges folding back into dark grey, the entirety perforated with wetness. The waterfall released below from the natural erotic engagement of complementary pairs, falling and pooling, falling and pooling.
Appearing to accord with the moniker, ‘abstract’, Waterfall No. III – ‘Īao Valley is to Georgia O’Keeffe the least restrictive, the least insecure, the least conditioned and least expected. Hence, the most embracing, the most reflective, most definite form for the intangible things in herself that she can clarify only in paint.
She paints the most real, the most ‘Georgia O’Keeffe’. Rilke’s: –
Earth, this is what you want. To arise in us, invisible.
Your dream, to enter us wholly
nothing left outside to see
She paints her coming-to-be rather than her having-been.