Essays/Reviews


MYSTICISM OF THE SELF:
SCHERER & OUPOROV'S
DREAM IKONS

by Donald Kuspit

 

One only wishes one had such beautiful dreams!  In picture after picture one sees a lovely young naked body--sometimes two bodies, coiled together or apart--asleep at the center of a kind of visual storm.  It is obviously the dreamer and his or her vivid dream:  "The image of the dreamer is in the center, while the surrounding, illuminated area represents the dream," write Scherer & Ouporov.  But surely none of the dreamers--the artists themselves, as well as their friends and family--dreamt in such translucent colors and exquisite detail.  Surely the dream did not flash by in a singular, intricate scene, frozen for all eternity.  Surely none of the dreams looked like the bejeweled pages of an illuminated manuscript, which Scherer & Ouporov's pictures consciously emulate, as they tell us.  The strange red birds in Rubedo belong to a realm of fantasy beyond the ordinary dream, as does the giant tortoise skeleton that functions as a grim backdrop--an ironic cloth of honor, as it was called in medieval painting--for the dreamer in such works as  Prima Materia, and  Celestial Tortoise.  Did someone really dream what we see pictured in the magnificent  Archelon:  the giant tortoise skeleton surrounded on all four sides by the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge?  I doubt it.  The sea-sky in which the scene is set, the apparently newborn infant at its center, the restoration of the transcendental meaning and sanctity of the Gothic arch--it soars free of the mundane use to which it has been subject in the modern secular world, lending the animal skeleton sacred wings--are all beyond the emotional and intellectual capacity of any one dreamer.  He or she may dream them, but they come from a source beyond his or her psyche.
        Something more is at stake than the visual record of a private dream.  For Scherer & Ouporov, personal dreams are points of departure for universal vision.  For them, as in many traditional cultures, dreams are "a direct channel to the spirit world," not simply idiosyncratic fantasies. As they tell us, their dream pictures are packed with universal symbols, derived from a variety of esoteric sources.  But some are not so esoteric:  the labyrinth is a familiar symbol of the human predicament.  The animal skeletons that abound are clearly death symbols.  The symbols are mysterious, but readable, and above all emotionally urgent and convincing--profoundly evocative.  Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures are not dry renderings of obsolete symbols, but lively, imaginative presentations of haunting archetypes that convey their continued relevance to our lives.
        Thus everything in their dream pictures is what it seems to be, and much more.  It exists consciously, even self-consciously, but also in the collective unconscious.  Every last thing is vividly immediate yet transcendentally meaningful, the vividness of its appearance making it all the more transcendentally real.  Everything in a Scherer & Ouporov dream picture has an uncanny, hallucinatory edge, giving it an extra dimension of existence.  This is in part because it is constituted or surrounded by saturated color, in part because it is rendered so meticulously that it seems to exist in an abstract space of its own, which gives it an otherworldly sculptural resonance.
        Thus, Archelon pictures--one might even say projects--the "squaring of the circle," which is a geometrical miracle.  The resulting mandala--an abstract representation of the union of opposites--is a traditional way of imagining cosmic unity, which is both enigmatic and self-evident.  Such absolute unity is invariably symbolized by geometry, which is as close to eternity as we can come on earth, as Plato said, that is, as close as we can come to a sense of unchanging, inevitable truth.  It deals with the immanence of eternity in immediate experience--Scherer & Ouporov's experience of the Brooklyn Bridge, "a symbol of [their] existence and life in New York City," and of the death every animal, including the human animal, experiences, and the experience of newborn life.
        It is, then, the interplay of axiomatic symbols that counts in Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures, rather than the temporal flow of the dream narrative.  But individual narrative and universal symbols converge:  we dream in symbols, which tell us about the human condition in general as well as about our own situation.  The transient dream lends the enduring symbols its intensity even as the symbols lend the dream their profound meaning.  Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures are thus empirical as well as speculative.  They are sensuous and intellectual at once--emotionally resonant epiphanies of eternal truth.  They are both observed and revealed--actually experienced dreams, vividly and exactly described, and revelations of spiritual purpose in the universe.
        The best way to understand what is ultimately at stake in the Dream Icons is not by learning the meaning of every symbol in every work, however important those meanings are--they are usually culturally clear, and when not Scherer & Ouporov spell them out in their commentary--but rather to understanding the meaning implicit in the format of the paintings, which is always the same.  Its structure guides our unconscious experience of the paintings more than any particular symbol.  Once one realizes that every dream picture has the hierarchical structure of an icon, it becomes evident that its format "replicates" the journey of self-discovery that is necessary for spiritual salvation.
        The fate of the self is the basic subject matter of Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures, and what they tell us about the self can be readily understood by contrasting their sense of it with that of the Surrealists, who also pictured their dreams.  There is a crucial difference:  the dreams of Scherer & Ouporov are not violent and grotesque like those of the Surrealists, suggesting that the self that has the dreams is not as disturbed and disintegrated as the Surrealist self.  With Scherer & Ouporov we have taken a giant step beyond the morbidly divided modern self toward a healthy new integrity of the self--an integrity that has been the ambition of spiritual practice since time immemorial.   Indeed, for Scherer & Ouporov making pictures is a healing spiritual practice, not, as it was for the Surrealists, a disruptive pathological pr actice--fascinated indulgence in stylized pathology, manufactured for the sake of novelty and to shock the proverbial bourgeoisie, but all too often the crude case.
        I submit that the consistency of the abstract format--the icon structure--in Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures is emblematic of the integrity of self.  The icon structure contains and organizes the pictorial content, however disturbing it may be.  It is crucial to their purpose that the integrated self be represented by an icon, for both are firmly structured while having a flexible content.  Both self and icon incorporate a clear center and a fluid boundary.  That is, both integrate opposites in a stable, enduring structure.
        As Scherer & Ouporov say, "In the tradition of medieval manuscript illumination [that their art emulates] the center is a fixed, rational, or 'real' image and the borders represent the irrational side of the imagination--in this case, the unconscious realm of our amorphous dreams, desires or nightmares."  Yet, like a permeable membrane, the borders allow whatever is outside the self--what seems alien to it--to be experienced at its center, in however imaginative a form.  The core of the self is not closed off from the world; a boundary mediates between them, now allowing the world a glimpse of the core self, now allowing the heterogeneity and irrationality of the world to be absorbed into its unity.  Heterogeneity and irrationality are neutralized without being denied, and the center is enriched without losing is cohesiveness.  In short, the dreamer in effect integrates the irrational world--which includes his or her own irrationality, always operational in relations with the world--into his or her reasonable core by way of the dream.  The icon pictures this entire process as well as the structure that contains it.
        The fact that the icon is a sacred object on which a sacred scene is represented is also relevant:  it is the sanctity of the self that is at stake in Scherer & Ouporov's art, as well as its integrity--a sanctity which is inseparable from its integrity.  When we look at the profane modern world and ask ourselves whether there is anything sacred in it--anything that is inviolable however often it may be violated--the only answer we come up with is the self.  The self alone is sacred, that is, worth preserving and defending and of inherent value.  It alone is not of relative value--no price can be put on its integrity, however often it may be sold short--which is the gist of what it means to be profane.  Scherer & Ouporov's art is about absolute values, especially the absolute value of the integrated self.  If, as the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut has argued, modern art conveys the all but disintegrated self that prevails in the modern world--a self that is on the verge of losing its cohesiveness and with that its structure and differentiation--then Scherer & Ouporov's art is "postmodern" in that it conveys, indeed, advocates by way of its icon format, an integrated, cohesive, subtly differentiated, well-organized self.  Their mysticism of the self is not only an attempt to maintain the mystical traditions of the past--however much their art successful does that, showing how convincing those traditions are--but to address the most pressing emotional problem of our time.  Scherer & Ouporov's "iconic" self is not a vague ideal, but a necessity of survival.
        In virtually all of their images the center is a kind of nest or womb--an inner sanctum and safe haven in one, that is, a sanctuary or sacred space in a profane and dangerous world.  All of Scherer & Ouporov's dreamers yearn for this peaceful enclosed space--the incommunicado core of the True Self, as the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott calls it--but must find their way through the difficult labyrinth of life to reach it.  Their dream pictures are medieval in more ways than one:  they picture different stages in a lifelong development, rather than a once-and-for-all-time scene and  space.   As noted, the first work in the Dream Icons is a Labyrinth, which is a symbol of "the inner journey through the conflicting pathways of the mind" necessary to reach "the centre" and discover "the essential reality of his or her own nature."  The Banyan Tree of the second work, the spreading drapery in Ouroboros, the wreath of bramble--in effect thorns--in Aleksandra's Dream, and the various animal skeletons in the other images, are also implicitly labyrinths.  Scherer & Ouporov's dream pictures are allegories of the inner journey that leads through death--as the animal skeletons strongly suggest--to new life.  They are about spiritual rebirth, as the various central figures, naked as the day they were born, imply.  A new born baby in fact appears in the center of Archelon and a young child in the center of Let the Child Be Born--presumably the same child that can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, according to the New Testament.  All of Scherer & Ouporov's figures are young or in the prime of life.  All of them dream of being spiritually reborn, or are in various states of spiritual renewal.  The dream is in fact the labor pains--labyrinthine process--of their rebirth into a new life.  What we are witnessing in Scherer & Ouporov's Dream Icons is the birth of a new spirit.


Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and Andrew Dixon White Professor at Large at Cornell University.  He is the editor of Art Criticism as well as author of numerous books, articles, exhibition reviews, and catalog essays.  His most recent book is “Idosyncratic Identities:  Artists at the End of the Avant-Garde," published by Cambridge University Press, 1996.