Essays by Mary Carroll Nelson

The Art of Layering

Layering, a term that has penetrated art writing in the past decade, is used here to shed light on a perceivable trend toward complexity and synthesis in postmodern artmaking. In the mid–1970s, I coined the term "Layering" and I founded the Society of Layerists in Multi–Media in 1982 to serve as a network for artists who express a holistic worldview in their art.

While observing and writing about art over the years, I found that certain artists answered almost exactly the same way when I asked them about their inspirations. They would cite the unifying ideas circulating in western society, especially those theories of psychologist Carl C. Jung and Einstein’s theories related to physics. Such concepts had deeply affected my thinking, so I was alert to the fact that these other artists shared an interest of my own. They were diverse in their approach to creating art, but they seemed to be including similar references to various disciplines in the sciences, philosophy and metaphysics. Their effort was to harmonize an array of ideas for philosophical as well as aesthetic reasons. I began thinking of their work as Layered and spoke of them as Layerists.

Jung posited that "the collective unconscious" is a repository for human memory and primordial archetypes. He believed we all have access to the same information through an archaeological exploration of our own consciousness. Einstein’s theory of relativity, and quantum theories, suggest that the essence of the universe can be expressed as energy. Layerists are responding to their perception that we live in a dynamic universe characterized by relationships of energy, thought and image.

As I have written elsewhere, we are no longer in the same mental stage of development that we were in before the Space Age began. "In the late 20th century, no symbol is more potent than the Apollo photograph of Earth from space. This beautiful ‘Blue Marble,’ surfaced with seas and land without boundaries, patterned with clouds and shadows, has altered our visual perspective forever. I believe this picture marks a change in human consciousness and signals the appropriateness of a holistic perspective to a new age of inner and outer exploration." (From the book Bridging Time & Space.)

The layering process is individualistic, but there are relationships among Layerists’ techniques. They frequently add or take away material, layer by layer, as an analogue for aspects of nature, such as sedimentation, erosion, passage of time, recession in space, radiation of light, or energy, simultaneity, synchronicity, and the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Their methods are often complex for reasons other than creating an image. The act of making the layered work takes on a ritual quality.

Layering is an art of synthesis which benefits from earlier art developments — Symbolism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism — that were devoted to probing the psyche for image and metaphor. Distinctly modern materials and processes allow Layerists to create collages, assemblages and other multi–media works with excellent adherents, ink jet printers, acrylic paints and binders, and new modeling clays. Yet, Layering as a mode of thinking about art applies also to pure watercolors and oil paintings, classical printmaking, traditional ceramics and bronze sculpture that depend upon traditional techniques. Therefore, we say that it is not the technique that distinguishes a Layered work of art so much as the mind of the artist who creates it. The layers we refer to are both physical and metaphorical. Layering is an evanescent art, a subtle collection of thoughts brought into relationship through the connections of the artist’s mental filter.

The layer, whether tangible or subliminal, is recognized by the artist as a formal quality in the artwork. Layerists might work transparently so that each layer remains visible from the surface, or they may overlay images that are partially or wholly hidden by successive layers. Sometimes they bury words, symbols, or objects that enhance their intention to create a healing artwork which serves as a prayer as well as an image. Layerists frequently explore the shadow, those dark depths in our memories; however, most layered art is an affirmative, communicative alternative to "art about art" and nihilism.

Most Layerists are mature, proficient artists who have achieved a meditative level of creativity. They imbue their work with meaning. Layerists have usually had a moment of discovery, a "Eureka!"in their lives when suddenly they became aware of their connectedness to All That Is. These personal encounters have led them to a holistic perspective. The unique quality of each artist’s discovery accounts for the diversity of Layering, which grows from the integration of a perception of ultimate connectedness with the flowing, on–going nature of living consciously.

The words whole, holistic, holographic and holism, like health and healing, come from the same Middle English root hal. They relate to oneness and unity, which contrast with separation and disharmony. Because of its holistic intention, Layered art has a spiritual dimension.

I believe that my response to and identification of the Layering instinct comes from my own efforts as an artist. As far back as I can remember, I have sought a means to express the ineffable musings and insights that come unbidden at moments of heightened sensitivity. Like every other artist, I gradually gained more skill and tried more experiments. My Eureka moments were both technical (Ah, that worked!) and also sublime (An answer to a prayer.) When we begin to unite the way we make art with the sublime, we are Layering.

Mary Carroll Nelson

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Essays Listed by Name:

What Lies Beyond? The Art of Layering Art Today, Art History Tomorrow
Can We Believe In Holism and Be a Partisan Too? Words in Their Time Synchronicity and Holism
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