Exceedingly Real


Michael Harris’ paintings and photographs deploy Realist idioms for integral expression.1


His landscapes are effectively transcendental:  from  Mist and Light’s  dream-like radiant voidness; to  Breathe’s abstracting blinding shine; to  Force of Nature’s sublime vastness and disclosure of the uncanny wildness of nature.

With the figurative works, Realist surfaces signify an integral robustness that invites multiple lines of interpretative questioning. In  No Boundary a man leans against a tree, resting his head against his hand, apparently asleep. There is an open copy of Wilber’s early masterwork No Boundary (1979) nearby on the ground — as if he had just prior been reading that text and has fallen asleep into contemplation of the text.  Seemingly unbeknownst to the man (a self portrait of the artist), two deer have wandered by, the young one noticing the book, the adult looking directly at us. What are we to make of the activities of these two deer?  Does the young one see the book or, having a different anatomy, sense it via smell? Does this creature’s curiosity about the book have anything to do with its content? What too are we to make of the adult’s gaze meeting ours? And do these two sentient beings have access to the stateless state of “no boundary”? 


The man is in a pose of inner absorption, attention withdrawn from the sensory into more subtle domains – a theme proper to post-medieval Western painting. In Lodovico Carracci’s  The Dream of St. Catherine of Alexandria , St. Catherine rests her head on her hand while asleep, the object of her dream the appearance of Virgin, Child, and angels. The dreamer and contents of the dream are within the same pictorial space, have the same light source and general style, all of a this-worldly sensory kind; only the larger scale of the holy figures, the inclusion of the divine figures in and against a cropped circling aura of seraphim, and the bolder modeling of flesh differentiate the reality spheres of the dreaming Catherine (gross domain) from the holy beings (subtle domain).  The gross-dreamer / subtle-dream boundary blurs: as if Christ is incarnating during dreamtime.


A century and a half earlier, from the 1430s, in paintings by Jan van Eyck —  The Madonna with Canon van der Peale and the  Rolin Madonna — the separation of gross from subtle and embodied seer from the visionary-seen is erased.  In each painting a male donor is engaging in private spiritual practice, the holy figures in the scene being the visionary objects of this devotion. In both pictures the donor, holy figures, and setting are seamlessly of one style. The embodied patron has eyes open, as if the holy figures might be seen with the eye of flesh; while as holy figures appearing during spiritual practice they are properly disclosed via the eyes of mind/spirit (as in Renaissance theories of the faculty of fantasia). The holy beings are thus at once posited as sensory and as visionary. And this dual domain status extends to the patron and setting, given the uniformity of style throughout. The reality status of the representation is thus like a möbius strip flowing so rapidly between the gross and subtle domains that the realms become fused.


Let’s return now to Harris’  No Boundary. Like St. Catherine in Lodovico’s painting, the man is asleep with head in hand, his inner absorption keyed by the contents of the open text. And like the patrons in the van Eycks there is no spatial or style distinction that concretely differentiates reality realms. What are we then to make of the sleeping man in No Boundary? Might his inwardness go even deeper than the subtle domains of these Renaissance and Baroque paintings – the relaxing into and as what Wilber in No Boundary calls Unity Consciousness, the ground of All, and as such the formless source of the pictorial scene as a whole? 

Harris’ paintings and photographs spark such questions, in the end evincing a Mystery that can neither be symbolically shown nor conceptually known, but only directly realized.


Michael Schwartz

March 2012


Michael Schwartz did his graduate work at Columbia University and is currently Professor of History and Philosophy of Art, Augusta State University, Augusta GA. He has published and lectured widely, throughout the United States and Europe, on art history and historiography, integral theory, Continental philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and contemplative studies.

He is co-founder and co-executive director of the Comparative and Continental Philosophy Circle, which among its illustrious Advisory Board are Ken Wilber and Genpo Roshi (Genpo gave the Big Mind transmission to this group of philosophers in 2007). The CCPC also has a twice-yearly Journal and a quickly growing Book Series.

Michael is also on the Board of Directors of The Forge Institute for Trans-Traditional Spirituality (www.theforge.org), serving as well as the Institute’s coordinator of Outreach Teachings.