Critical Paranoia and Artistic Vision / by Chris Hall

I came to assist as a spectator at the birth of all my works.  Max Ernst.

You need both a bit of mind and a bit of mindlessness to make a painting. It's a play between control and surrender. Paul deMarrais

Let the painting tell you what it needs. Charles Reid

Painting is stronger than I am. It can make me do whatever it wants. Pablo Picasso

Painting is much like fishing. Sometimes we get hits and sometimes we get a glimpse of the phantom of the deep. Sometimes we sit adrift. But sooner or later, we get a keeper. Paul Allen Taylor

I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of all the senses.  Arthur Rimbaud

Christopher Hall, The Perfect Muse, from the "Divination Series," 1997

Many a great artist has relinquished control in their art making process in order to become a seer and discover psychic truths.  Art can become a doorway and a bridge to the subjective interior psyche, the collective unconscious, as well as objective reality.  By approaching the art making process without any premeditation for the results, you can discover unknown truths, subject matter (archetypal content), and composition.  The Surrealists used this process to great effect.  But this new way of seeing isn’t really new at all.  Leonardo da Vinci would instruct his students to use a perception technique where they would look into the stains and cracks of a plaster wall, or the patterns found on river rocks, and discover landscapes, battles, clouds, faces, and new attitudes, new meaning out of chaos.  This alternative form of observation is akin to divination, rolling bones, and shamanic vision techniques that go back to the dawn of mankind.  Max Ernst would call it “Regarde Irrite,” Dali, "Critical Paranoia.”

I did not need the Surrealists to introduce me to Critical Paranoia, I was already sensitive to the art of Looking/Seeing and I discovered the technique on my own.  Even as a boy I would use my active imagination to transform shapes on a wall into birds, clouds, and human faces.  My real breakthrough in using Critical Paranoia in art came in 1997 with my “Divination Series.”  For this series, consisting of 16 works, I would tear up photocopied pages from a book on Marc Chagall’s art and randomly glue down the pieces on to a prepared panel.  I would turn my Paranoiac Critical eye to the gaps and creases between the torn pieces of paper and seek out images, subject matter, and composition, which I would then develop with crushed and diluted oil pastels.  

Soon afterward I would turn this new process of perception into direct painting.  I would go into the undergraduate studio at night, when it was quiet and free from distraction, and, with the aid of alcohol (only just enough to loosen the brain) I could escape rational thought, shake off notions of reason, taste, and morals.  I could enter into a meditative, trancelike, hallucinatory state of being.  This was my ecstatic working process, my tools necessary for the disruption of the everyday tyranny of the banal.  I would begin by making fluid, random marks onto a canvas or panel.  After the first brush stroke, the canvas began to assume a life of its own and I became both governor and spectator to my own event.  I would look into these marks and begin to see things from deep within my subconscious, and, if I was lucky, deeper still into the collective unconscious.  In the words of Gordon Onslow-Ford, I was a “pioneer artist (who) becomes a SEER with insight into the vast expanses of the inner worlds and their correspondences to the nature of the universe.”  

In my writing from the time I would compare myself to a deep sea diver into the sea of the unconscious, Theseus finding a way through the dark labyrinth (hoping to not lose the string that would guide me back home), an explorer of subterranean worlds, pulling the manhole cover over my head, or a artist-hunter entering the dark woods in search of truths to bring back to civilization.  It takes fortitude to keep painting like this.  I discovered many monsters lurking in the back channels of my mind.  I burned out sometime around 2000 and began to look for other modes of expression.  Around this time I began painting flowers from direct observation.  But that is another story to write about.  I still work, from time to time, using the Critical Paranoia technique, but I no longer use it exclusively.