The pineal gland resembles a pine cone, hence its name. It produces melatonin, which helps regulate the individual’s sleep patterns. René Descartes believed the gland was the “Principal seat of the soul.” In the dharmic tradition, it is the third eye of Shiva, the Supreme Being who creates, destroys, transforms, and protects the universe. In many religious traditions the third eye is the gateway to higher consciousness as well as the inner self. For enlightenment to occur, the third eye must be opened.
While I don’t think it is necessary to understand the function or symbolism of the pineal gland before going to the exhibition Shawn Thornton: Pareidolia at CUE (April 13 – May 24, 2017), thoughtfully curated by Tom Burckhardt, you might find yourself looking deeper into the matter after leaving this show of densely layered paintings, altered musical instruments, reliquaries, videos, and an altar. This search for significance would be in keeping with the exhibition’s title Pareidola, which the dictionary defines as “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where none actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features.” We are always looking for patterns, for evidence that reality is not indifferent to our presence in the universe.
Thornton’s art is the result of his research into the ways different religious traditions convey the underlying nature of mystical and occult experiences. Bringing together different kinds of visual signs, images, art historical references (particularly Renaissance art), and realism, his work is syncretic, with a layered, compressed density comparable to Adolf Wölfli’s intricate and complex compositions. The difference is that Wölfli worked in colored pencils on paper, with his largely symmetrical works conveying a horror vacui that culminates in a feeling of inescapable claustrophobia, while Thornton works in oil on panel, which affords him some breathing room as he layers his compositions with elaborate linear patterns and repeated images and signs. You cannot enter a Wölfli work, but you can imagine roaming through one of Thornton’s layered paintings.
Like Forrest Bess, Thornton’s deep connection to hallucinatory visions is inseparable from his body, a bond he conveys through a group of seven individually titled paintings done on panels measuring 5 by 7 inches, and collectively titled Brain Tumor Series (2017). They are clustered together on one end of a long wall. On the adjacent wall, there is a video of Rick Strassman, a medical doctor and author of DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near Death and Mystical Experiences (2000), talking about his research into such areas as the pineal gland as the biological origin of spiritual experiences; the naturally occurring drug DMT; and other potent hallucinogenic substances. Art, life, sickness, visions, recovery, and death are entwined in Thornton’s work.
This is how Burckhardt describes what the artist is up to: “Thornton creates a Gesamtkunstwerk around his life and studio, making paintings, music, ritual-like pop objects, and clothes. All of this in service of rebuilding his metal pathways after a serious illness — a kind of tantric idea of how to hold an image in one’s mind as a tool of consciousness.” The serious illness Burckhardt cites necessitated the surgical removal of the artist’s pineal gland ten years ago. Five of the seven paintings refer to events shortly before and after the surgery. They include a painting of twelve brain scans arranged in a grid, two self-portraits showing his scar, and two others that depict him waiting to be pushed into an MRI machine. The other two paintings bring the whole group into someplace unexpected. One is titled “Trepanned Skull” and features skull with a hashtag carved into its forehead, and the other, which is based on an anonymous engraving from the 1600s, is called “Expulsion of the Demons.” In this grisaille painting, a man lying on a stretcher is shoved into an oven-like enclosure that bears an uncanny resemblance to an MRI scanner.
These paintings, which are no bigger than a note card, display Thornton’s mastery of a tight, precise realism. Although the group is dated 2017, individual paintings are dated as early as 2004-2006. It is apparent, then, that Thornton’s interest in visionary states preceded his illness. As Becky Huff Hunter writes in her catalogue essay: “In numerous interviews, Thornton described this body of work’s germination in traumatic medical and psychiatric experiences that persisted throughout his twenties.” And while the paintings are connected to traumatic experiences, they are the opposite of an unexamined outpouring. In their scrupulousness, it is hard not to feel the artist’s desire to slow down time as much as possible, to be attentive to each detail, no matter how minuscule, within the welter of visual information he is bringing together.
Done on panels in saturated colors, these paintings take years for the artist to complete despite their relatively small size (the largest, “Witch Doctor at the Eye of the Solar Epoch,” 2008-2010, measures 12 by 29 inches). This requires that he maintain control of his color while attending to every inch of the composition.
The subject of “Witch Doctor at the Eye of the Solar Epoch” is slow to reveal itself. An Egyptian felucca sails from right to left, with a full sail and three oars. The stylized boat is set within a ground partitioned into swirling bands, each of which is filled with symbols, pictographs, and signs derived from a wide range of sources. Eyes, human and animal skulls, and flames that seem inspired by race car pinstriping are just some of what can be discerned from the multitude of images. Entwined by a single serpent, the ship’s mast is the staff of Asclepius, the Greek god associated with healing and the medicinal arts.
What is remarkable about this and other paintings in the show is how much the artist can get into them, from the Aztec glyphs to Greek symbols to Native American signs to precise depictions of insects and butterflies, as well as beautiful, miniature renditions of Renaissance paintings. He is a master at barely perceptible shifts in scale and visual language, so that you remain alert to every detail, focusing and refocusing to keep from missing anything. It is like staring at multiple mazes overlapping and intersecting each other: if you follow a row of repeated signs, you soon find your attention darting around, like a fish, before settling down again. Everywhere there is something to see.
Thornton has likened his work to a “cosmos of small tantric paintings that come together as anthropomorphic circuit boards.” In a number of the paintings, he overlays these circuit boards onto his self-portrait, so that they become tattoo-like markings that extend beyond his face. While many of the symbols are now familiar to us, Thornton’s repetition of them imbues the work with throbbing presence, a visual hum. Urgency, patience, faith, and control manifest themselves as a detailed map of his splintered journey and the prayer that accompanies him. The voyage he has undertaken gestures towards the aether, even as he turns inward.
Shawn Thornton: Pareidolia continues at CUE (137 West 25th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 24.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.