What Makes Us Stronger

 

“What the hell are we supposed to do now?!” I asked, panicked and confused. A genuine question – what should a hiker do when posed with such a predicament? Having no experience, I genuinely didn’t know. The worried glances of my friends did nothing to calm me. They knew this was bad.

“Get the hell off the mountain,” one of them said, and we immediately began our frantic, stumbling descent, across boulders now slippery from the melting hail.

“Take care,” someone said, “you don’t want to break an ankle up here, cos then we’ll be in real trouble”.

Real trouble? What the hell was this if not real trouble? As the adrenaline started flowing The happy spell cast by the first half of the day was broken and smashed, and I was dragged writhing, to the the dark side of my brain.

 

This is an exceprt from a guest post I did recently for mental health blog Seeds in the Wasteland which can be found here.

Ordinary

Sometimes, and this is rare, I stumble across an image that begs to be reproduced in a way that arrived fully formed in my mind. Me being me, there was always going to be an element of randomness. I knew that I wanted some drips in the background, but you just can’t control those luscious drips, and I wouldn’t want to either. This took only a few hours to make, it just leaped out of my subconscious. So in many senses, this one made itself. The human brain is just another stochastic system – at the mercy of the environment, manacled to its memorial imprints – and attributing too much (and some would argue any) credit to volition and predetermined wisdom or insight is post-rational hubris. The painting is a product of its environment. Since the source material is a very old photo, there is a irresistible juxtaposition involved too.

Ordinary by Alex Loveless (2018). Acrylic on Canvas. 60cm x 90cm.

The Seeds of Division

This piece could be considered a pendant to another of my works “The Will of the People”. They both features ladies from old horror/sci-fi films and explore themes of enslavement, brain-washing, paranoia and conformity. Both are very much a product of, and a comment upon the confusing, bleak times we find ourselves in.

The Seeds of Division by Alex Loveless (2018). Acrylic on Canvas. 24in x 30in.

The Will of the People

Many of my paintings have a implicit theme or meaning, some more obvious than others. I don’t think good art has to mean anything, but as I tend to have many things to say, painting is one way to get these thoughts, opinions and ideas out there, even if only obliquely. If a painting like this elicits more than aesthetic judgement, if it makes people feel more, positively or negatively, then I consider that a win.

The Will of the People by Alex Loveless (2018). Acrylic on Canvas. 60cm x 90cm.

Self Portrait with Texture

Self Portrait with Texture by Alex Loveless - Acrylic on Canvas Board - 18"x24"

Self Portrait with Texture by Alex Loveless – Acrylic on Canvas Board – 18″x24″

I’m struggling to pin down when this was produced. It was painted using as its reference a Polaroid picture (which I still have) circa 1998/9. I barely remember making this. By the look of it, there was originally a highly textured abstract piece on the board, which presumably I didn’t like. Or perhaps I just ran out of surfaces to deface and decided to arbitrarily recycle. You’ll have to build a time machine and go ask younger me. I find the haphazard blobs of texture and bits of colour from the original work poking through a little disturbing, which of course also means I find them very satisfying. This isn’t a particularly flattering likeness (the Polaroid doesn’t exactly make me look like Brad Pitt either) but I think this choice of image and depiction says something of the slightly distorted and unflattering view I have of my physical appearance. I’m certain this distortion was less apparent in my early 20s, but years of psychological cruelty through my school year about my looks (and intelligence) have left me with a scar tissue over my self-appraising mind’s eye, something that is also very common among those with ADHD. I’m capable of appreciating that I’m a reasonably good looking guy (at least by the standards set by modern society) yet I cannot feel it. The fact that I was likely a perfectly decent-looking kid, yet still was considered a geeky mess (to my recollection), speaks more to how a carried myself – awkward, inward, grumpy, untouchable and odd – than my actual physical appearance. But then, perhaps my memory of events of those years is distorted, and it is only me who ever viewed myself in that way.

Spaceship #1

Spaceship #1 by Alex Loveless (2018) - Acrylic on Canvas - 60x80cm

Spaceship #1 by Alex Loveless (2018) – Acrylic on Canvas – 60x80cm

The theme here, if it’s not obvious, is the relationship between nature, randomness, mechanism and determinism. The title is not whimsical. The 6 cell motif that dominates the half of the painting is a representation of a single state of a cellular automaton, one of infinite number possible, from Conway’s Game of Life. This particular one is of the class of automata called “spaceships”. In his case, its representation is rotated to be balanced on its corners. I did this because I wanted to illustrate symmetry, which although is neither necessary, nor necessarily common in cellular automata (I’ll leave the mathematicians to prove whether the previous statements has any mathematical meaning, let alone is in any way probable one way or the other) is a common in the nature we observe around us, and may be intrinsic to life itself as well as the very fabric of the universe. Further marks are placed to then subvert this similarity placing the automaton in its environment which, as you would observe looking around your own environment, would seem haphazard and incongruous to your own manifestation.

The background to this painting was the result of an effort to create a non-white, homogeneous base for an idea for a different painting. Applying the base coat in my garden I whimsical decided to put down some leaves and other debris picked from my garden among the splashes I was applying, attempting to maximise the disorder of the base coat. Having let it dry I found the finished result so satisfying I immediately discounted my original purpose for this canvas, which would have cover most of the surface, for something that would use this base and its myriad organic forms.

The geometric pattern than I had applied to the untouched canvas for its original purpose suggested the new theme. The juxtopositoning between this regular geometric motif made an interesting counterpoint to the organic mess of the underpainting. I’ve been fascinated for while by the regularity and Mandlebrotian self-similarity displayed everywhere in the world around us. Nature is fractal and non-linear, which counter intuitively breeds a complex and unpredictable type of regularity, that repeats not only from item to item, from scale to scale. It seeming defies entropy through a self-sustaining urge to homeostasis, itself a physical manifestation of regression to the mean. This is mechanical, mathematical, seemingly linear and somewhat predictable, but at any scale or resolution is chaotic, unpredictable and, to the human brain at least, scarcely fathomable. There is geometry here, even where it’s not visible. There is also regularity, via repetition and self-similarity, but also in incremental, barely visible state change via random mutation. This gives the illusion of determinism. A directed progression towards a glorious developmental peak, with homo sapiens perched atop, chin thrust forward with pride and superiority. Creationism via a divine, unfolding plan. But this is an entirely unnecessary and redundant interpretation that makes liberal use post-rationalisation and reeks of self-serving fatalism and self-proclaimed birthright.

Finally, for any system to continue to exist, however fleetingly, it must contain a semblance of a stable state to which it can return. This, of course, is also an illusion. All natural systems constantly mutate, but a system’s existence is predicated on the fact that most facets exist within a standard deviation or two of the mean state. Outliers exist, but are momentary and will always be succeeded by information points closer to the centre of the Gaussian hump. This statistical inevitability gives the illusion of the comforting stability and regularity that allows randomness manifest as something resembling determinism. But systems are inherently unstable, and randomness prevails. To what ends we can only speculate.

An so automaton wonders this world of apparent contradictions, occasionally meeting other automata of varying shape and size, at which point they may merge and mutate, or obliterate each other. New states are created and old one obliterated. And here we have crude illustration of nature. I seek not to capture its likeness, nor create a simile or metaphor, but to illustrate one of its many faces.

Manga Mannequin Considering Jumping Into the Abyss

Here is a picture of my Manga Mannequin stood staring into the abyss.

He seems fearful, hesitant, afraid even. He also has no face to tell us this with. No voice and no story. These Manga Mannequins do suggest a story, or perhaps a character, or element of culture, or something like that. There is strength of pose. It’s hard to get any other type of pose. It’s almost impossible to coerce a pose that suggests deference, or fear or diminution. They’re made to model superheros. The powerful stances and limber contortions of Marvel and Andrew Loomis. There’s vulnerability here, which is satisfying.

 

Here’s another picture.


Here he’s looking a bit more confident. Looking over the edge, trying to decide what to do. You don’t need many cues to derive this sort of information. The mammalian brain is a remarkable machine, capable of extrapolation from very oblique abstractions. You kinda know what this dude is thinking. Your opinion of that (and it is opinion since, we presume, he’s actually thinking nothing at all) will likely differ from mine, but not greatly.

The fact that he’s visibly at the edge of a big drop (in reality, the edge of my desk. I think I was on a conference call at this point. It’s likely that I was paying attention to that more than taking the photo. This type of semi-conscious activity is precisely the sort of thing I need to keep me focused on conference call. Scrolling through Twitter or just daydreaming less so) suggest something of his predicament, or mind set. Were he on an uninterrupted surface, we’d maybe assume he was looking at some object on the floor, surprised or in alarm. Maybe a small dog is barking at him, or he’s noticed a clown in a nearby drain.

The next photo removes some ambiguity.

It’s on odd pose in the dog/clown scenario. He’s not stepping on or towards something, he’s stepping off. Although it’s hard to tell, we’d need to remove the context to know for sure. I’m not going to do that. I’d rather you focused on the what he’s going through at the precipice. That’s where the drama is, and that’s what creates tension and narrative.

Of course I’ve provided little narrative or characterisation, and few visual and textual hints. I needn’t even have done that much, but it’s nice to talk about it, don’t you think? What happens next? Does he jump? If so, why? Will he survive the jump? Will he plummet endlessly? Does he have a parachute? Is this really an abyss, or just a shallow hop? Maybe he’s going to jump from a bridge into water, not knowing how deep the water below is.

I have no further photos. We’ll never know the answer to these, and other questions you might have. You can provide these by creating the rest of the story in your head.

 

Finished

It won’t find it hard to believe that I find it difficult to focus when on conference calls. A random floating piece of dust catching a mote of sunlight is enough to draw me a away from the matter in hand. The ceaseless distraction that is the social web is like a black hole sucking focus to be forever lost among images of kittens and inane chatterings. In reality, I can be distracted by my own thoughts. You can lock me in a featureless, windowless room with load speakers blasting the call at me and I’d still daydream. It’s what I do, how I’m configured. It’s also fair to say that I can easily wonder during in-person meetings, but this is much less of a problem since a) people tend to notice quicker so I’m forced to make more effort, b) what’s going on in the room tends to occupy me – I like to try and read the room, understand the interpersonal dynamics, dissect what’s really happening and c) half the time, everyone else has their nose stuck in their laptop or phone anyway, in which case the etiquette is loosened due to shared defiance of the general order.

Nevertheless, on most occasions, if you’ve been invited to attend, and more so, if I have arranged a conference call, it’s customary to pay attention. To not do so is at best rude and unprofessional, and at worst results in potentially disastrous consequences due to misunderstandings and offense taken should there be someone important on the other end that you are ignoring. That moment when you catch your name being mentioned on the other end of a question, and you’ve been tuned out for 5 minutes, is never a comfortable one. I have strategies to dig myself out of such holes, but I’d rather not need to deploy them. I recognise the need to pay attention, I’m just not very good at it.

So over the years I’ve developed a technique for focusing when on conference calls, that I also use in face-to-face meetings that are especially important to pay attention in: I do something else. It sounds counter intuitive, since “something else” is precisely what gets me into trouble in the first place, but certain types of activity allow me to occupy my fidgeting mind and wondering fingers, while maintaining sufficient focus on the matter in hand. For example, sometimes I put myself on mute and run scales and exercises on my unamplified electric guitar. Fidget spinners really do help for shorter periods. Just pacing is also a short relief. But mainly I doodle. Not in a directed, specific way, I just pick up a pencil and let my hand and subconscious wonder. I have an A3 pad under my keyboard for this very purpose. Sometimes these doodles appear quasi-realistic and/or geometric, sometimes they are haphazard scribbles. Rarely do they resemble anything of this world. Somewhere from deep in my subconscious, odd creatures and bizarre, Escherian landscapes emerge. I don’t try and interpret these, they just are.

I decided to see what would emerge if I unleashed that same odd corner of my cognitive nether-regions upon canvas, which is what you see below. As it emerged over days, my environment and thoughts began to bestow some meaning and it became less “random”, but the marks that appeared continued to be driven by urge rather than conscious intent. The extent to which this is a manifestation of some facet of my subconscious or some Freudian complex I’ll leave to the those psychoanalytical witch-doctors who enjoy such speculation. I know not what it “means” outside a vague sense that there is some statement on evolution, ecosystems, the environment and Man’s influence on this, among the slops and dribbles that adorn the canvas.

I did not know at which point this painting would be finished since I had no sense of what shape the final piece would take. I stopped when I felt that further marks or textures on the canvas would be to the detriment of the painting to that point, and also because of the more practical justification that I had other stuff that I needed/wanted to be getting on with. It is partly for this reason that I named the piece “Finished” as an invitation for the observer to precis this assertion and decide whether it really is. But there is also a metaphor to be eked from that title, the sculpting of which I’ll leave to the Freudians.

Finished by Alex Loveless (2018) - Acrylic on Canvas - 60x80cm

Finished by Alex Loveless (2018) – Acrylic on Canvas – 60x80cm

Violent Random Equilibrium

Mornings are good. Spring is good. Spring mornings are all about change, and I like change. The anti-entropic thrust that brings colour and bustle to outside spaces is merely a part of a conspicuous cycle, but always feels fresh after the dormancy of winter. I walk my dog most mornings in a local park. The very act of being outside – the natural movement of things, the ever changing surroundings, the cacophony of animal and human noise – is tonic any time of the year, but the rapid unfolding of the fresh terrain, as plants and animals awaken, is a daily drama that brings every bit as much excitement and entertainment as the new season of Westworld has, coincidentally occurring at the same time this year. Every morning I see movement and progress, the building of things, and the obscuring of others as ferns spread their low canopy and leaves begin to obscure the heavens. I particularly love the vibrancy of colour, the barrage fluorescent greens, the vibrant antidote to the maudlin ocres of Autumn. Autumn brings resolution, Sprint is all about hope and optimism. You must go out and experience it, as I think many people miss it as it blurs past their car or train.

It’s a form of violence in some ways; an act of carnage. The status quo of the winter months is trampled, stretched and ruptured. Like a grey concrete wall freshly adorned with graffiti, a vibrancy of colour and creation destroys the monotony, a surreptitious act of creation brought forth via an act of destruction. And all creation is destruction. One set of states of affairs is eclipsed by another – creation and destruction go hand in hand. Nature is a consummate non-linear system, fractal at its core, and unpredictable in its essence. Without this reality no life could exist, and change would be wrought by simple (seemingly) linear entropy. It’s as magical as it is mundane.

Shallow talk of creationism is always at the fringes of admiration of nature, which is such a terrible travesty. Not only is such conjecture not required to explain this majesty, but the reduction of the act of creation via the brushstrokes of an anthropomorphic deity seeks to minimise the true artistry of chaos, make it seem so small and mundane. “God did it” is such a dull explanation, so prosaic as to belittle such complexity to the whim of creationist ego. To put man and its Gods above creation and the ecosystem that sustains them is hubris of the highest degree. Such attitudes are the type of process-group-think that is the enemy of all forms of creation. It reminds me of some remarks made by a lady I caught briefly on Radio4 recently who was feverishly asserting her belief that no person could restrain themselves from conducting ill deeds were they not to believe, deep down, in an interventionist deity. This point of view is as puerile and self-serving as it is insulting. Good things happen because of God, end of. Leaving the “what is good?” question aside, the question of the creation of good things needs no further explanation than the appreciation of one’s place within the interconnectedness of all things. Things are good because we appreciate the goodness of the states of affairs that envelopes us. Conjuring (subjective) bad states of affairs from a comfortable, homeostatic equilibrium is counterproductive. I’m not arguing that good things are only good because someone thinks they are, quite the opposite. Good states of affairs, in equilibrium, exist extant of life and sentience. Goodness is intrinsic within the system within which it maintains homeostasis (even if the things that inhabit, and benefit from, that system can’t always agree what constitutes “good”). In essence, goodness is the quality beholden to such things that maintain the current, if fleeting, equilibrium. This works on micro and macro level, individuals to collectives to whole systems. Subjectivity is only really of consequence of observing the forward and rear vanguard of the sliding window of perpetual change. Reality isn’t going anywhere in particular, but it is constantly mutating, and will never repeat itself. The urge to maintain a previously observed stable state, subjectively (and perhaps rightly for a fleeting moment) perceived to be good, is a form of conservatism doomed to failure. Obsession with with the forces of change will likely result in homeostasis being violated, and can have catastrophic results (think about the extinction of species and human cultures at the blunt end of the battering ram of colonialism).

Any stable system is only so because of its tendency to homeostasis, a regression to a sliding mean, so change is, by definition, gradual and continuous, though not always linear. This can be observed in societal systems, ecosystems, physical and biological processes, statistical analysis, and any sort of self perpetuating system. The goodness in that system is characterised by the things that allow that system to continue and flourish. On a micro level, such systems arise and are obliterated in the blink of an eye, or an epoch of history. Your body does this perpetually, trying to hold back the march of time is futile, external threats to homeostasis can be fatal, failure to maintain the homeostasis (by eating poorly or smoking for example) will eventually overcome your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis. At a macro level, systems are longer and more robust (our planet, our star). To observe and to invoke goodness, in the truest sense, is to comprehend the highest level of abstraction of your system to which you are able and consider what is most appropriate to maintain the most incidental level of homeostasis. Essentially, look after the macro system you are in – help it do what it does best, regress to the mean. That could mean, be nice to your planet, or create good conditions to your species. It probably doesn’t mean chop down trees and be an arsehole. It’s not really that complicated. Nevertheless, some groups find it hard to observe past the short horizon of their micro-system – class, tribe, country, genetic make-up, belief set – and seek only to maintain that. History has shown this to be the most disastrous of all outlooks and this, by the framework I have sketched, is the opposite of good  as demonstrated by, among others, the atrocities the reformation, World War II, Stalin’s twisted Marxism, and most recently, unrestrained capitalism.

The complexity of our homeostatic system, its ephemeral nature and infinity-reaching dynamics, transcend the ability of humanity to comprehend it, and thus we tend to reach for analogues. These may be comforting, and afford a level of imagined control, but these are not necessary. Your dogmatism really need extend to no further than “do shit that’s seems most appropriate to create good conditions to all in your systems at any point in time”. OK, that’s a bit of a mouthful. Just reach out and touch something, that’s all you need to do. See what’s around you and appreciate it. Then do what seems right based on that which you experience. You don’t need to think you understand it, or that some being has it all under control, or that you have control. It’s not really like that. Just know that, since you can experience it, so can everyone and everything else in that system. You can comprehend that right? As Master Dogen said “do not view mountains from the scale of human thought”.

The Boxer

This nice man came to a life drawing session and dressed as a boxer. I don’t know how many pensioners continue to box, so in that sense, the concept is a little incongruous. I suppose this old fighter has adorned his kit for one last time, perhaps to relive former glories and feel some of the vitality of youth. Some of the poses were meant to seem triumphant, but it’s hard too capture anything other than melancholy, which suits me fine. This melancholic air was further emphasised by the fact that (as we discovered only at the end of the session) the model had a toothache!

Boxer #1 by Alex Loveless (2018). Charcoal on A2 Paper

Boxer #1 by Alex Loveless (2018). Charcoal on A2 Paper

 

Boxer #2 by Alex Loveless (2018). Charcoal on A2 Paper

Boxer #2 by Alex Loveless (2018). Charcoal on A2 Paper