Spirituality has long held a place in human experience, and thus a place in art. Cultures from as early as our primitive beginnings right up to our present day have produced images of deities, visions of Paradise, and the ascendency of the soul. We are in a constant search for the meaning of life and affirmation of the presence of spirit. Artists, as interpreters of human experience, have been at the forefront of this quest to understand the sublime.
ACA Galleries’ inventory of spiritually influenced art runs deep, with art and artists representing worldwide spiritual traditions. The three artists featured here—Pablo Amaringo, Leon Berkowitz and Richard Mayhew—are of particular note among collectors and cultural institutions, and with good reason. Not only do each of these artists bring expansive visions to their work, they are also masters in the art of painting, disciplined practitioners who command the techniques of color, form, and composition.
Pablo Amaringo (b. 1938-d. 2009) of Peru was an Ayahuasquero; that is, a master of brewing the plant-based ayahuasca, an important component of indigenous Amazonian spiritual practice. In this tradition, the visions released by the ayahuasca brew have cosmological significance as well as medicinal purposes. Both attributes are present in Amaringo’s colorful and complex canvasses, which he produced while under the brew’s influence, reciting shamanic songs called icaros as he worked. Though his images conjure expansive varieties of flora and fauna, celestial realms, and extra-terrestrial and shamanic beings, Amaringo brings these metaphysical visions into our lived experience through precision of detail, particularly his precise and accurate renderings of the botanical life found in the Amazon region. In other words, Amaringo’s spiritual visions were not mere ayahuasca induced fantasies, but based on acute observation and understanding of the real, organic world. In this way, Amaringo was able to relate our everyday world to the metaphysical one he believed exists around us. Amaringo unites the heavens and the earth, and the inhabitants of both realms in several works including “Llullon Llaki Supai”. This piece from 2006 features exquisitely detailed plant life, portrait heads, waterborne life, ethereal human forms and celestial bodies. All of these elements exist in a dark yet brilliantly colored environment which seems to rip open here and there, revealing subsequent realms of existence.
Dedicated to keeping Amazonian traditions and spirituality alive through study, spiritual practice and art, in 1988 Amaringo founded the Usko Ayar Amazonian School of Art in Pucallpa, Peru, teaching there and serving as the school’s director until shortly before his death. He instilled in his students not only the discipline of painting but love and respect for the earth’s ecological life. For those efforts, Amaringo was awarded inclusion in the Global 500 Roll of Honor by the United Nations in 1992. With these and other honors, Pablo Amaringo’s work, with its expansiveness of vision, is finding its place among collectors interested in spirituality and environmentalism.
For Leon Berkowitz (b.1911-d.1987), spirituality was expressed as light; light passing through color, light emanating from within color, light turning shape into air. Though born in Philadelphia, Berkowitz made his home in Washington D.C, there he and his first wife, poet Ira Fox Berkowitz, established the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts in 1945. The organization brought together creative practitioners from the visual and performing arts. Among the painters in the group were Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, all of whom became noted artists in their own right. Louis, Noland and Davis went on to establish the Washington Color School Group, with which Berkowitz was often linked. Berkowitz, however, rejected the idea, believing his work to be more about nature and poetry than the Color School Group’s painterly experimentations.
Leon Berkowitz, Seven Lights Series 1
Leon Berkowitz, Seven Lights Series 4
Leon Berkowitz, Seven Lights Series 7
Originally working with straight lines and geometric abstractions during the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, by the 1970s and 80s Berkowitz had moved into more gossamer abstraction, creating mists of color relating more to feeling and spirit than form. He regarded his applications of thin washes of paint flowing across the canvas as acts of meditation. Berkowitz’s canvases therefore invite the viewer to look deeply into the paintings rather than simply looking at them, letting the emitted light which flows through the colors illuminate layers of worlds beyond the canvas’s surface. His “Seven Lights” series, for example, perfectly illustrates this phenomenon, where a burst of yellow or orange or red rises, sun-like, from the lower edge of the canvas and dissipates into a mist of ochres and on into a cosmic blue. For Berkowitz and the viewer, this is not a terrestrial narrative, it is a spiritual one.
After extensive travels in England, Spain, Greece, Wales and Jerusalem, Berkowitz returned to Washington, where he joined the faculty of the Corcoran School of Art, eventually becoming Head of the Painting Department. Remaining in his adopted city, Berkowitz exhibited extensively in various local galleries, including the prestigious Phillips Collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, as well as in major venues in New York City. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Phillips Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His paintings, with their embrace of the spiritual and a poetic expression of nature, continue to be favored by major cultural institutions and sought by collectors.
For Richard Mayhew (b. 1924), landscape painting is more about the experience of a higher consciousness than about mere fact based reality. His canvases, shimmering with light and colors so rich they seem to float in the room, are expressions of spiritual rather than literal truth. Looking at his paintings, we do indeed “see” recognizable elements of the natural world; trees, fields, lakes, mountains, sky. But the particularities of these elements were not formed by the organic forces of wind, rain, sun and air. They emanated through Mayhew’s relationship to the spirituality inherent in his heritage. Though born and raised in the seaside summer resort town of Amityville, New York, Mayhew grew up influenced by the spiritual traditions of his parents: his father, African American and Shinnecock; his mother, African American and Cherokee. This dual Native American and African American heritage imbued Mayhew not only with profound respect for the wonders of the natural world but a sense that the earth and the cosmos have a spiritual dimension as well, and that this spiritual dimension also exists in the human soul. It’s from the spirituality of his soul, then, that Mayhew creates his landscape paintings. They are representations not of what he sees in the world but what he feels. His hand and his brush are guided across the canvas by a flowing spirituality.
Though Mayhew’s method is transcendental and instinctive, he is nevertheless a highly trained artist, having studied at the Brooklyn Museum’s school of art, the prestigious Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. And while his training in color, form, line, and artistic discipline served him well, it was the freedom afforded by the Abstract Expressionist contemporaries of his youth which released Mayhew’s deepest creativity. His studies in Europe also introduced him to the Impressionists, whose understanding of the ethereal qualities of light influenced his thinking. The Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist influences are clear in Mayhew’s oeuvre, and remained with him over the years, as seen in such works as “Above and Beyond” from 2009. Though the forms do indeed suggest the organic world, the shapes, gliding as if weightless, and the mist of colors are redolent of spirit. This is not an earthly landscape. It is a felt one, a landscape existing on a higher plane of consciousness and created by an artist working on that higher plane.
Mayhew’s paintings have taken their place in the narrative of American art history. His paintings continue to be exhibited in major venues, and are represented in important collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and others. Collectors of landscape and spiritually influenced art remain active in acquiring his work.
Though all art aspires to higher meaning, spiritually influenced art explores the human experience by elevating that experience beyond our daily reality. Artists who undertake this quest for the sublime allow themselves a creative adventure unlike any other, exploring realms which others may be unable or are too fearful to see. Artists like Pablo Amaringo, Leon Berkowitz and Richard Mayhew invite viewers to share their courage in entering into mysteries, and we are the better for it. We are enlarged by their visions.
Courtesy Ann Aptaker, ACA Galleries