Endless Space, Transcendent Light
The painting has the haphazard look of a real place, a run-of-the-mill house with green, weatherbeaten siding on a sandy beach. A rickety old fence, barely able to support its own weight, extends from the corner of the house to the edge of the image. A single strip of wood, somehow separated from the sagging fence, leans precariously against the house. Off in the distance, rising up from the dull brown sand, another house—pure white—glows in the morning light. This building is framed by a thin strip of clouds on the horizon, and a delicate, hazy halo surrounds its simple A-frame roof. The green house and fence in the foreground are deliberately, self-consciously ordinary, victims (as we all are) of wind, weather and time. The white house lives on the same beach, but in a different universe. It’s there, but also not there—tangible, corporeal, yet luminous and other-worldly, like a distant temple or the embodiment of a dream.
There’s a profound tension in this painting, Autumn Equinox (2004), a tension that lurks in almost every one of Randall Exon’s canvases. At first glance Exon appears to be fascinated, to the point of obsession, with commonplace, even banal subject matter. A dark green garden hose, coiled loosely around a hook, dangles from the side of a beach house in Garden Hose (2004). An old aluminum coffee pot rests on a rusty gas stove in Beach House Kitchen (2004). In Sheet on Line I (2004) a single white sheet, suspended from a clothesline, billows and wrinkles gracefully in the wind. Bay Window (2004) features two straight-backed chairs perched on a bare hardwood floor, near a round, three-legged kitchen table. All these objects are painted with a degree of detail and precision that makes their very plainness all the more noticeable.
Surrounding and interpenetrating this everyday stuff is a universe of intense light and infinite space. In Bay Window, just above the kitchen table and straight-backed chairs are three giant windows that look out across a vast ocean vista to a distant cloudbank. Similarly, in Beach House Kitchen, just to the left of the rusty stove and aluminum coffee pot is another large bay window with a thin strip of ocean below the distant horizon. The muted greens and browns that Exon employs in the interior areas of these paintings contrast with the bright blues and whites in the windows, making the ocean and sky all the more spacious and dramatic. Both Garden Hose and Sheet on Line 1 also use a far-off horizon to give a sense of space, but in these two paintings light is the more important element. The green garden hose is bathed in warm afternoon sunlight, which makes every board of the beach house shine. Each fold and wrinkle in the white sheet is highlighted by a soft luminosity that plays lovingly across its surface. Again, Exon’s handling of color in these canvases quietly emphasizes the inherent drama: the soft, muted blues and browns in the background make the sunlit areas even more prominent.
Somehow all these ordinary things manage to be both momentary and eternal, and therein lies the inherent tension in Exon’s paintings. They appear to describe specific places, specific times of day, specific weather conditions. But in Exon’s world these transitory elements look as though they haven’t changed in a thousand years. Every object is encircled by immeasurable space. Every moment is also an eternity, as William Blake famously said, “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.”1
If one had to come up with a single word to describe what Exon is wrestling with in these canvases, it might be transcendentalism.Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great exponent of the transcendentalist movement in the nineteenth century, placed the phenomenon in a more or less religious context: “A spiritual life has been imparted to nature; the solid seeming block of matter has been pervaded and dissolved by a thought.”2 Emerson goes on to utter words that few contemporary artists and writers would dare to say: “I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.”3
Randall Exon would probably be uncomfortable with Emerson’s unrestrained enthusiasm. Yet Exon’s work, more than anything, is an extended meditation on the complexities and paradoxes of the sublime. Unlike some artists, he didn’t come by this fascination while floating down the Hudson River Valley or climbing the Sierra Nevada mountains. Exon is a child of the Great Plains, born in Vermillion, South Dakota, in 1956, and trained at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and the University of Iowa. He has been on the fine arts faculty of Swarthmore College since 1982. While he has made his mark primarily as a landscape painter, Exon also is fond of moody interiors and large-scale figure paintings, the latter tending to integrate people with expansive views of the Pennsylvania landscape or the Jersey shore. He has spent many summers in residence at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation in County Mayo, Ireland, and has a large body of work that grew out of his love of the Irish landscape. Last fall he had his first major New York show, a solo exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern; most of the work discussed in this essay was in the Hirschl & Adler exhibit.
Exon spent a great deal of time as a boy on his grandparents’ farm in South Dakota, near the Missouri River. “Looking back on it now,” he says, “it seemed a place out of time. Theirs was a way of life that was much more about the nineteenth than the twentieth century. When I make a painting today, I’m often drawing upon my memories of their farm and the landscape of the upper Midwest.”4 It’s obvious that the never-ending spaces of the South Dakota plains seeped into his soul. Some landscape painters use space mainly as a way of filling up the gaps between events. But Exon doesn’t think of space as empty. Even his interiors feel roomy, partly because of their spartan simplicity, but also because they invariably contain a brightly lit window or door that faces the horizon or the open sky. In his landscapes, space often becomes the main character on the stage. It’s as though Exon is always telling the houses and fences and trees to move over and make room for that broad, sandy beach or grassy field. Space is a living thing in these paintings—a tangible and timeless presence.
For all their vast stretches of space and time, Exon’s canvases would be cold and lifeless without the light. As he says, “My desire to make paintings has always come from my intense fascination with the land and the evocative effects of light.”5 His light is not the blazing intensity of noon but the calmer, softer radiance of morning and late afternoon, when the shadows are longer. Exon loves light that rakes across surfaces, emphasizing texture and highlights, separating one thing from another. A set of curtains, a dish on a windowsill, a radiator, a sink—each entity is full and distinct, yet living comfortably in its environment. The light makes these mundane objects beautiful; they shine as if they were lit up from the inside.
Exon’s fascination with space, light, and time makes his work something of an anomaly in our current artistic culture. In the visual arts at least, the work that often gets the most attention is very much “in the trenches,” responding directly to political, social and moral issues, employing heavy-handed and confrontational methods as well as cutting-edge technologies. If these artists are soldiers trying to change the world with their art, then Exon is more of a philosopher or, better yet, a monk who withdraws from the battle and contemplates both himself and the universe, grappling with spiritual problems that have preoccupied people since the Neanderthals walked the earth.
Exon is an unconventional figure today, but he would have fit in comfortably in nineteenth-century America. Until the heyday of American Impressionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transcendentalism in one form or another was arguably the dominant aesthetic of the age. While Exon uses softlylit beach scenes and distant horizons to imbue his canvases with a spiritual aura, Frederic Church and Sanford Gifford painted broad, expansive valleys and mountain ranges dotted with glassy lakes and placid streams, with a barely visible sun shining through misty clouds and filling the landscape with divine luminosity.
At certain points in their careers artists such as John F. Kensett, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Hugh Lane became associated with a movement now known as Luminism, a loosely defined style in which light and space predominate and both the human and natural worlds are supernaturally serene. According to scholar Albert Gelpi, in the Luminist universe “the canvases are mostly sky, each object is fixed in the suffusing light, and the light is so organic to man’s world…that it shines equally on the streets and sails and harbors of Gloucester, on the curious hayricks of the Newbury marshes, on the Maine coast and the beaches of Narragansett Bay.”6Even a painter such as George Inness, whose later work appears to be radically different from the Luminists, was swimming in similar transcendental currents. When Inness painted a tree enveloped in cool twilight shadows, whose wrinkled bark burned with light from the setting sun, the tree was as much a part of heaven as of earth.
The progenitor of this movement, Emerson, believed that God is equally present in nature and the soul of man, and that each of us is capable of experiencing a transcendent union with the divine. There’s an ecstatic quality in Emerson’s passages on this subject, as in this famous passage from his essay Nature: “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”7
These words have the deep authenticity of lived experience, and while Randall Exon’s vision is less fiery and more inward-looking, he breathes the same air and drinks from the same cup as Emerson, Inness and the Luminists. Yet Exon has found his own way of expressing these ideas, through a complex visual language that also allows him to give voice to his quirks and strange passions. He paints with an intense, almost photographic realism, and many of his canvases have the feel of places that one might actually encounter during a walk in the woods or a stroll on the beach. He reports that most people believe these places are indeed real, and are visibly disappointed when told that they are not.8
In fact, Exon is in the process of constructing, painting by painting, a very real fantasy world. While bits and pieces of various scenes may have actually been observed and transcribed, the world these things inhabit was born in the artist’s imagination. “I go to certain places to get glimpses of them,” he says, “but [the paintings] are more fictional places than anything real. William Faulkner described himself as ‘sole owner and proprietor’ of the fictional county of ‘Yoknapatawpha,’ and I suppose I desire a similar ownership of a place.”9Why does Exon insist on this peculiar union of the actual and the imaginary? If his goal is to articulate Emerson-like experiences of the transcendental, why doesn’t he simply create a purely transcendent, mystical world of light and space? Why, in the words of the artist, is he so “desperate to keep it real?”10The answer, perhaps, is that he wants his work to reflect the spiritual contradictions and tensions inherent in the human condition.
We are beings of this earth—concrete, transitory, small. What we’re able to see and know is limited by our physical nature. As God said to Adam immediately after the Fall: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Yet the Book of Genesis also says that God “created man in his own image.” We have intimations and intuitions of some other, higher reality. We open our eyes to Emerson’s “blithe air” and “infinite space” and ask ourselves: “What does it say about the world that it is so intensely beautiful?” We have thoughts and dreams that enter our minds unbidden, as if from another place and another consciousness that sees farther and knows more. We’re moved to dance and sing, to worship and create, for no other reason than to celebrate the mystery of our existence. We are both ordinary and divine, and our ordinariness and divinity are not separate, opposing forces, but woven together, both present in every moment.
This is our human predicament, and it is the central obsession of Randall Exon’s paintings. Passionately grounded in the ordinary, they are filled with yearning for a more beautiful place—a place we can see, off in the distance, like the white house in Autumn Equinox—that we know is there but lies just beyond our grasp. This yearning is at the core of what it means to be human, and it has often been the preoccupation of poets, misfits and spiritual seekers of various kinds. William Butler Yeats, for example, had this spiritual tension in mind when he described humanity as “a moment shuddering at eternity,”11or when, after listing all the ways a person could know love in his life, Yeats said that “unveiled Love he never knows.”12
Even Emerson, for all his ecstatic confidence in the individual’s capacity to merge with the divine, said that “souls never touch their objects. An unnavigable sea washes between us and the things we aim at and converse with.”13 In an essay called Circles, Emerson arrives at a surprising insight that appears to be at odds with his “transparent eyeball” experience: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth…[the circle] symbolizes the moral facts of the Unattainable, the flying Perfect, around which the hands of man can never meet.”14
St. Paul, who could be depressingly earthbound at times, was feeling this same yearning for the “Unattainable” when he wrote what are arguably the most famous lines on the subject in his eloquent meditation on love in I Corinthians: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Paul never told us exactly what he meant by “then.” Perhaps, like Emerson, he believed that as mortal beings the door of the divine temple is closed, but at peak moments we can merge with the eternal, becoming “part or particle of God.” More likely Paul, as a Christian, felt that such a sacred and complete union could only occur at the point of death, but until that moment our knowledge is by definition clouded, incomplete.
Whatever context one chooses to understand this problem—philosophical, religious, artistic—the yearning we feel is real, and it would be a mistake to conclude that only poets, painters and saints are struggling to understand this tension between our earthly and godly natures. At one time or another, each one of us must confront our mortality and wonder if there is something more to our existence.
1. William Blake, Auguries of Innocence (1803), lines 3 and 4.
2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the essay Nature, chapter 6, in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 37.
3. Emerson, ibid., chapter 1, p. 12.
4. Randall Exon, from an unpublished personal statement prepared for a 2003 solo exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
5. Exon, ibid.
6. Albert Gelpi, from the essay White Light in the Wilderness: Landscape and Self in Nature’s Nation; in American Light: The Luminist Movement 1850–1875, John Wilmerding, Editor (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1980), p. 302.
7. Emerson, from the essay Nature, chapter 1, in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 12.
8.Transcribed from a telephone interview with Randall Exon on November 12, 2004.
9. Randall Exon, from an unpublished personal statement prepared for a 2003 solo exhibition at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
10. Transcribed from a telephone interview with Randall Exon on November 12, 2004.
11. William Butler Yeats, from the essay Rosa Alchemica, in Mythologies (New York: Collier Books, 1974), p. 278.
12. Yeats, ibid., p. 289.
13. Emerson, from the essay Experience, in Essays and Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004), p. 236 .
14. Emerson, from the essay Circles, ibid., p. 202.