“… such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea”.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
1757 Part II Section v
It is a great idea, isn’t it? To be sensorially banjaxed, laid waste just by the power of a stimulus striking one’s eyes. A great idea, but not a recommended practice out there in the world; the familiar warning to small children: "don't look at the sun". Learn it early and be careful. Sun-gazing is a sure path to retinal damage. And not just the sun. What about Snow blindness, arc eye, welder's flash, bake eyes? All waiting for that unwise, lingering glance. So, we don't do it... except under certain circumstances:
From The New York Times, May 19, 1967
FOUR STUDENTS UNDER LSD
HURT EYES BY SUN-GAZING
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. May 18 (AP) -
The vision of four users of LSD has been impaired for life because they stared at the sun while under the drug's influence, a spokesman for the Santa Barbara Opthalmological Society said today.
The spokesman said the sun-gazing resulted in the burning of the macula, a small part of the cornea, and caused total loss of reading vision.
Four students at the University of California campus here and a City College student reportedly sought treatment for eye injuries and said they stared at the sun while under the influence of the hallucinatory drug*.
But we can look at representations, we can look at paintings; there’s our safe realm, our imaginative space. That feeling of being overpowered, as Burke has it, the surrender to experience – that’s what art’s for, isn’t it? And here I am looking, looking at Slowburn and Range, Laura Madera’s big watercolours, chasing that feeling of liberation, of letting go, giving in to the power of light – just like those UCSB kids, seeking a beautiful annihilation. Ken Johnson, who wrote “Are You Experienced? How psychedelic consciousness transformed Modern Art”, thinks that altered states like this are fundamental to creative practice and far more pervasive in our culture than might first appear.
“Is it possible then to escape the apparatus, as the hippies thought they could, by dropping out and tuning in? What would it mean to escape the apparatus?”
It’s an attractive proposition; Johnson figures that “the apparatus” comprises all modern technologies and functional elements of society - at least a holiday from all that would fit my itinerary this weekend.
I guess my contention is that these pictures offer us another kind of experience, one distinctly removed from the quotidian eye-on-screen, traffic watching, phone-fixated attitudes of most of our hours. Of course they start with our eyes, our vision leading us to reflect on expansive states of mind, conditions full of possibility of alternatives.
Because they’re pictures they can exist as a paradox; showing to us phenomena in a painting that are more than we could see with the human eye (which is a useful short definition of the pictorial sublime, by the way). Literally, visionary then. And, in case this all sounds like too much Merry Pranksters, there is a more meditative aspect to Madera’s work than that of tripped out surrender. Moon, a smaller watercolour has a gentle, child-like quality. If Purple Haze was an appropriate soundtrack earlier, now its Dear Prudence. It’s where her work reaches back to a historical romantic tradition, that of Palmer through Klee, for example. Afterglow is a small show, but a rich experience for the viewer; a knowing exploration of varieties of altered state… tune in, turn on…
Martin Pearce, November 2014
* Later on the story was shown to be a hoax. A doctor from an Institute of the Blind in Pennsylvania admitted he had made up the story "because I am concerned about the illicit use of LSD and other drugs".
Martin Pearce has been exhibiting paintings and drawings for 25 years. He is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph and a regular reviewer for Border Crossings magazine.