The extension of a lineage occurs not merely by the repetition of form, but by the intersection of conservation and revolution. Transformation is fundamental to preserving the essence of a given tradition’s rituals and symbols. Therefore, a symbol’s form or essence can outlive the original contextual boundaries that generated its living meaning.
The danger of this idea is that a person could use this reasoning to appropriate another culture’s tradition by extracting the symbol from its ritual and other historic, social, religious, and political contexts. But such appropriation does not preserve a symbol’s legacy, nor does it maintain the symbol’s essence. For example, the swastika is a sacred symbol still relevant in Hindu ritual and culture, despite its corruption by Nazism that has resulted in most of the Western world having complete abhorrence for the sacred symbol. The Nazi swastika did not carry-on the function or meaning of the Indian swastika, nor did it destroy it for Hindu culture.
Displacing a symbol from its tradition or ritual does not degenerate the power of the symbol. Yet, even while being actively engaged within a tradition or a ritual, a symbol can lose its power through habitual routine. This seemingly loss of power is actually the lack of concentration or ignorance on the individual’s part. Despite such ignorance, the symbol’s function as a gateway does not diminish. The gateway serves as an access point either direction. It serves as a means for divinity to come down into this physical world, and it serves as a means for people to peek into the heavens – however you want to define such a mystical experience, whether spiritual or psychological. Regardless of the degeneration of symbolic imagery, what remains constant is the physical world on one side and the spirit world on the other. What remains constant is the will of humanity and divinity making concerted efforts to push through to the other side. The result of humanity reaching for divinity is the creation of religious traditions and rituals. The result of divinity connecting to humanity is the madman.
All images courtesy of Stephen Romano Gallery
A symbol is a space in between worlds. This intermediary space is not always a painted image or a sculpture or a talisman. The human form itself can serve as an otherworldly space through which spiritual revelation occupies. The body is a space between worlds. It is a physical instrument that can access divinity. It is temporary in its physicality, but timeless in its regeneration. The human body not only reproduces chemical compositions, but it also passes on traditions, traumas, and social history. Furthermore, human imagination channels divinity throughout the ages. This sacred lineage is not loyal to bloodline or through initiation. These spiritual archetypes find their temples in the minds of those whose physical vessels are charged with higher consciousness. To create space for becoming such a vessel requires a reduction of one’s ego. By accepting one’s vessel to be occupied requires one to withdraw absolute control of their senses and actions. One must allow themselves to become possessed. The various degrees of surrender allow the projection of spirit to flow through their actions and words. For this reason, priests, shamans, philosophers, and artists go to various lengths to transform their thought patterns and expand their consciousness to become such a vessel.
People are devoted to other people, not symbols. People do commit themselves to higher causes, values, and ideas, but the expression of such loyalty is generally an exchange between people, not literally toward an abstract idea. At the very least, an individual takes upon themselves to be the embodiment of such abstract ideas. We search for the personification of greater abstract concepts within individuals, and therefore, it is through an individual, and ultimately through ourselves, that we realize a particular revelation concentrated in the form of a symbol.
Traditions are not merely conserved through the preservation of symbolism and ritual, but through individuals. Lineage is a line of relationships between people. And so, when Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos claims to be carrying on the legacy of Darcilio Lima, it should be understood that she is not referring to aesthetics or even subject matter. She is assuming a mediumship through the symbolism of visual art that channels spirit into the physical. Darcilio Lima is like an ancestor, who came before her and likewise channeled these spirits through his works of art. The lineage is not biological, but metaphysical.
Neither Lima nor Vasconcelos reinterpret popular ritual imagery. The spirits and mystical concepts they depict are beyond temporary social institutions and remain effective in their relations with humanity regardless of being represented out of their original social context. But these renderings are not appropriations that deny the original purpose of the symbol. To understand how these ancient symbols function in contemporary times and through the works of art by Vasconcelos after Lima, it is important to understand the gateway. You have to understand the madman.
Interpreting Darcilio Lima’s symbolic compositions fails the artwork. When observing Lima’s art, we assume the surface to unlock the mystery by tracing the origins of a given symbol and drawing correlations among them. We use the artistic mark as a springboard to discuss esoteric and social concepts that are not visually apparent in the work or might not have even been apparent in the artist’s mind while rendering the concept. We do these things for the sake of sanity.
Insanity is associated with many of the artists we consider to be geniuses. Artists in general are known for their subversive thinking or non-normative behavior. Such innovators are given space in society for irrationality and nonconformity to transform our rational and normalized culture. We accept this abnormality in society because we believe the greater truth of existence is not contained in our limited social, political, or religious space that we have created, and the only means to touch divinity and to expand our intellectual boundaries is by disrupting conservative patterns. The artist, especially those who are exceptional, is a designated space within society for such disruption and divine intervention.
Genius is not the fullest expression of law, but the ability to expand the potential for others to fail to attain perfection. It is a misconception that the genius operates within the boundaries of intelligence, reason, and knowledge. Though they are not necessarily deficient of these qualities, the genius and the artist operate within emptiness, within the unknown, within darkness, and between worlds. This makes them especially qualified for mediumship.
Naturally, as is the case with Darcilio Lima, operating between worlds has a consequential effect on the physical body and mind. By entering this intermediary space, a person seemingly becomes fractured, split between the physical world and the otherworld. Externally, this so-called fractured state can appear as a mental illness. And perhaps, by all definitions it is. In the mildest form of this abnormality, is an eccentric person. It can be assumed that deep thought can lead to such mental illness as depression or melancholy, or that a mental illness leads to deep thought and expression. What is for certain, is that mental illness is not a requisite for great art, and not all great artists have suffered from mental illness. Yet, various forms and degrees of mental illness, what is generally conceived as mental illness, is common among great artists. But such conditions are common among those who assume the role of divine intermediaries. Of course, not all madmen are transacting spiritual revelation. Some people are simply mad.
Not all madmen are insane.
Darcilio Lima seemed to have quite literally lost his mind by the end of his life. Or perhaps his mind never returned from the other side. We are only left with a few accounts of his wild behavior – his speaking in gibberish or sleeping on a dirt floor of a Catholic church’s back room where he scrawled on the walls. This behavior was precedented by earlier accounts of him sleeping in cemeteries. Toward the end of his life, he was not so far gone that he was unintelligible. The priests were able to communicate to him that his art was an abomination, convincing him to destroy a large body of his work. This condemnation was also precedented when as a young man Lima was expelled from seminary while training for priesthood due to his drawing of a nude woman. Later in his youth, age 22, he was admitted into a mental institution after a breakdown. Coincidently, this event intersected with a shift in his career as an artist as it was at the institution where Lima met his mentor, the artist Ivan Serpa.
Both his mental health and his conflicted relationship with the Catholic church are not only defining stylistic features in his work, but they also define the function of the works as revelations. Lima’s works reference many worldly symbols, most notably, Catholic images, as well as references to alchemy and mythology. The use of symbolism might be the closest language he had to communicate his mental experience. But he understood these symbols in a way closer to their origin than he did their earthly purport. This introduces a problem for Lima. For an artist between worlds, Lima is pressured by symbolism that society has forgotten its purpose but devoted in its convention. His works show this turmoil, reflecting not a perversity of religion, but a struggle to convey divinity.
Lima’s functional role in this world was that of a shaman, in that he served as an intermediary between the physical world and the spirit world. He failed to become a proper priest within Catholicism, but that did not terminate his role as a spiritual intermediary.
Darcilio Lima’s art are works of concentration. They are detailed and balanced. They are not chaotic or irrational as one might assume considering his erratic behavior and mental condition. His works are a paradox. They follow law, yet they are inimical to our perceived reality and institutions that we believe reflect natural and divine truth. Lima’s drawings collapse human artifice. Reason and logic are instruments of the human mind to understand reality, but reality is not limited to this instrumentation. Nor is Lima corrupting religion; he is bringing a spiritual communion to it. The only transgression he might be guilty of is revealing a mystery to the uninitiated – to those who want to detain the spiritual in the physical, rather than pass through the physicality of their sacred imagery.
The viewer can experience Lima’s works in several ways. They can interpret the works as either the Catholic priests who condemned them or the Surrealists who praised them. Or the viewer can experience the works as Lima did when creating them, by losing their mind and having a spiritual experience.
Not all mediums are eccentric as Darcilio Lima. In fact, they might even be conservative in their demeanor and values. It is not in the character of the medium that is valuable, but it is the eccentricity in their aesthetic or conceptions that is valuable. It is the unconventional, the novel, the transgression that revolutionizes a tradition and evolves human thought. This is the madness of Luciana Lupe Vasconcelos.
This revolution of tradition is apparent in the works of Vasconcelos and Lima. What might be perceived as the corruption of form, or the cultural displacement of iconic imagery, is artistically addressed in the malforms of their creatures. In both their works spirituality is expressed through the hybrid creatures that bring together human form with natural powers personified in specific animals, thus creating a universal identity. Hybridization also challenges conservative notions of form, not just of physical bodies, but of intellectual constitutions that are the basis for society and traditions. A monster is a disfigured creature that in Medieval thought were considered inauspicious omens. The relationship between malform and evil was associated with such imagery, especially from those cultures outside of the Christian world. With the exception of angels, the Christian world cast out divinity in hybrid forms. Judaism also cast out such deities when establishing monotheism. And yet, cultures around the world currently, and prior to the Abrahamic religions, access divinity through these divine hybrids. Thus, the hybrid creatures of both Vasconcelos and Lima’s works bring back these gods and spirits into an imbalanced world, while also challenging conservative aesthetics and spiritual traditions.
In Vasconcelos’ Anatomy of Madness an androgynous winged figure is suspended in the air under a black crescent moon before a diffused natural setting. The moon has gone dark, yet the sky is illuminated. The figure’s hands, upon which are eyes, are held out ceremoniously. The figure is clad in robes that are indistinguishable from flesh. Upon its white head is a golden crown, and yet its regality is fractured by the black abstraction on its chest. Furthermore, its angelic body appears to have been splayed open to reveal a serpentine creature within. Thus, the grounded serpent ascends. There is no distinction between the angel and the demon. There is no distinction between above and below. There is no distinction between interior and exterior.
Much of this scene is a paradox, and its inspiration is visceral. The figure encompasses duality. It unifies instinct and intellect, spirit and matter, the animal and the human, the light and the dark. This malformation, this possession of the serpent, is not an antagonistic feature. It is elemental to the ecosystem of an individual’s self-realization. By depicting a fuller range of experience and form that exists physically and psychologically this hybrid of contradiction removes the tendency to edit reality according to the human instinct to survive and the human ego to control. This madness is not the deterioration of the mind, but the advancement of consciousness.
The greatest hybrid represented in this particular work is that of sanity and madness. Madness is equipoised, elevated, divine. Madness is a person. It is a living symbol. It is through madness, through revolution, through relationships that the greater mysteries of the universe are revealed and become embodied within the individual. It is through others, through contradiction, through the unknown that the individual realizes their Self. The anatomy of madness is not the examination of chaos, but the revelation of truth within division.
What Vasconcelos brings to question, is if madness is a possession by a force external to oneself, or if the serpent is inherent. Our DNA is both inherent and an imposition of the external world. Every individual is a corruption and a conservation of their bloodline. What Vasconcelos’ works reveal is how this same biological notion of regeneration applies to metaphysics. By this mystical path, she is in line with a sacred legacy following Darcilio Lima. It is the same spirits that embody her work, that embodied Lima, that embody this world, and that are trying to embody you.
Featured Image: Darcilio Lima, Unknown Lithograph, 1972.
(This work has never been in exhibited in North America until now)
Christopher Ian Lutz is a Los Angeles-based contemporary art writer with a focus on the occult, the Middle East, and Africa. He has written for several art publications, including exhibition catalogs for Stephen Romano Gallery and the Morbid Anatomy Museum.