The Pathfinder and Sojourner rovers were the first Earthling ambassadors to Mars in 1997 and since then they, and subsequent robotic ambassadors, have treated us to a multitude of astonishing images transmitted back to earth. While amazing in their significance, many of the photos displayed a landscape that was not that visibly dissimilar to many arid locations on Earth. In fact the greatest surprise I’ve found from the missions to Mars is the spectacular ordinariness of that planet. Compared to say the Great Barrier reef, Victoria Falls, the Amazon rainforest, and New York City, Mars is rather sparse. The familiarity I feel looking at the crisp snapshots of a land that is 140 million miles away (on average) is disconcerting. One vantage point stands out from the rest though and that is of the Martian sunrise.
The sun in these photos is hauntingly small with a sickly aura expanding to an equally anemic reddish cast of atmospheric dust. Like the phantasmagoric light in Victor Hugo’s ink drawings, it looks more like an apparition than an actual star. The suns’ role instigating life and nourishing it takes on a different significance in this setting. On earth we think of it as our sun, so what is it for a Martian perspective to which it is far stingier with its power? It is this new experience of the sun that makes Mars seem finally alien, and it is that alien quality which is of existential interest.
A large factor in the consideration of perceptual painters is light—its quality, effects and to some it’s meaning. Sun imagery is ubiquitous in art and so often used as sentimental shorthand that to indulge in it feels like bad taste. Like the sun itself, it seems that in art the unspoken conventional wisdom is not to look directly at its image; so overwhelming is the symbolism involved. Yet at the tip of everyone’s tongue to counter that advice is Van Gogh and Monet, whose emotional and psychological investigations of the sun are resoundingly soulful, if not sophisticated—though even they seemed to ride the razors edge of tackiness.
Trying to tease out the subtle nuance in sunlight, explore one’s personal relationship to the daylit moment or ride the bucking bronco of its potency are not easy tasks, and yet each and every person speculates upon those elements from time to time. So complicit is the sun in the existence of our world that its dominance often goes unspoken and assumed in western culture. Yet for our ancestors the sun has been the centerpiece of many religions and rituals. Its sovereignty seems only recognized nowadays when it cuts a ripping flare that messes with our wifi connection. The Martian view of the sun, shrunken and humbled seemed like a way to reconnect with its power.
I created a painting of the Martian sunrise to reflect on this. At first I planned to have the lonesome little rover making its way through the spectral light, but as I got further along that seemed a bit crass. The sun remained the singular focus of the painting with the absence of any responsive life-form the subject. It peers over a blank canvas of land without any audience as an ode to cosmic loneliness.
Since that painting, a curious thing began to happen. The sun began to insert itself into other paintings—something that I haven’t let happen until now for the apprehensions referenced above. It sounds coy to say that something wandered into the context of your painting, but that’s more or less what happens in my studio where subject matter of the mind’s eye is free-range and unrestricted. Of course, as soon as the sun appears in the scene it tends to dominate. I tried to keep it rather small in many of the pieces, but as the brightest light in the space it still stepped in front of all else. I liked this occurrence in spite of myself. It had the effect of unifying the rest of the painting and thus simplifying it.
The force of the sun did not end there. It seemed to have the same effect on the painted world as it does on our own, by energizing and animating things. Bodies began to rise towards it, flora bloomed, and the atmosphere churned over itself. I imagined these painted suns as giving an obvious form to the mysterious force that governs the rectangle. The same obviousness that makes suns a subject of toxic sentimentality was giving focus to things that may only be evident in the hidden life of painting. Seeing the source of the light in my paintings gave an unexpected pause, like being introduced to my own narrator.