• Ron Mills-Pinyas

Photopsia; I shut my eyes in order to see.

Goethe's "subjective halos", phosphenes, entoptics, photopsia, awe and wonder. Toward a new series of paintings:

I shut my eyes in order to see. Paul Gauguin

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While teaching concrete/non-objective forms of painting this week I realized that more than play, per se, more than conceptualism, historicism or ideology (all given due attention), my personal efforts in the studio—while informed by all of this—are at this stage in my career more toward a renewed experience of awe, wonder, aesthetic arrest, a peculiar form of ecstatic sensory experience that makes me feel most alive and present in the world—with a brush in my hand. I return to painting for such moments of grace, moments in which I realize the limits of mind and intention, when I suspend mental chatter and reconnect to the primacy of perception in gratitude; the art as a vehicle, a meditation, a prayer that grounds me--and I hope others. While laying in the sun with Isabel recently at Salishan on the Siletz Bay I enjoyed the flow of color on the back of my eyelids, the flow, intricate luminosity and floaters witnessed as a phenomenon worth noticing. Of course everyone has done so for fun, pressing here and there to create blushes and swells of color: orange, yellow, hot pinks, deep purple, etc... in fact Goethe wrote about it and other aspects of color theory in a work published in 1810. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to engage such optical phenomena as a point of departure, much as I did the water in the bay, toward a new palette with new inspiration, flow, luminosity...about the liminal visual realm between interior and exterior sight, possibly even bioluminescent biophotons, the leaky boundary that blurs what we normally consider distinctly different interior visual stuff and the visible exterior world.


I remember in graduate school learning, though my old mentor Carl Hertel at Pitzer College, about optical "phosphenes", the geometric configurations that form under certain circumstances, such as when there is especially bright light, physical pressure on the eye ball, or when one is in an altered state of consciousness, or when configurations of light occur to consciousness while in total darkness. Since there is a limited set of such configurations, some have speculated about its influence on early petroglyphs and pictographs. Jungians especially are always looking for support for the idea of the "collective unconscious" that animates archetypal imagery. I suspect most of this is what people call "seeing stars" after a trauma, a fall, light-headedness, drinking too much, drugs, sexual orgasm, etc. Indeed. While it is easy to attribute phosphenes to retinal nervous discharges, they nevertheless they give us insight into structures that are part of our shared makeup. (See this link for information about the science of entoptics, including muscae voliantes, photopsia and other related optical phenomena by Gauri Shankar Shrestha, Opthomologist.


For many years it has seemed interesting to me that such configurations bear such a strong similarity to 17th Century yogic and tantric meditation watercolors. That the Tantrics sought ecstatic imagery is no surprise; apparently they believed in the healing power of ecstasy in all forms, most famously sexual. While I do not see phosphenes nearly so sharply as they painted them, so delineated and crisp, so graphic, I do observe more organically-infused optical phenomena of a similar nature, optical phenomena I have yet to paint about. Perhaps, if the ancients were correct about the influence of such imagery on the somatic state of the painter and observer, the work will be useful socially in the context of the gallery gaze, perceptual meditation, benign benevolence.

"The eye is a sense organ that can be readily turned off" (Oster 1970:83)From Suzanne Carr, citing Oster and others: these form constants and phosphenes are derived from the human nervous system, "all people who entertain altered states of consciousness, no matter what their cultural background, are liable to perceive them"(Eichmeier and Höfer 1974; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978)."As Knoll varied the frequency of the pulses the patterns changed, and by altering the frequency Knoll's group identified 15 classes of figures and a number of variations within each class. For each person tested the spectrum of phosphenes (the kind of pattern at each frequency) was repeatable, even after six months"(Oster 1970:85).

17th Century Tantric paintings.

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Increasing the pressure on the eyeball produces more dramatic phosphenes. One procedure is to apply the index fingers at the inner edge of the eyeballs and press in and toward the temples. The visual field lights up and then, as pressure is maintained for a few seconds, a scintillating design appears - a kind of checkerboard or shifting field of glowing dots, sometimes with elaborate substructures arrayed around a luminous centre. When the pressure is released, the checkerboard fades away, sometimes leaving the central luminosity. If the pressure is then renewed, a pattern of bright, irregular lines appears that resembles a system of blood vessels. When the pressure is again released, a fine filigree image appears and remains for some time. The checkerboard design is probably some manifestation of the orderliness of the neural network of the retina; it shifts in the visual field as the gaze is shifted. The filigree, on the other hand, may be generated farther along the visual pathway, since it remains stationary regardless of where one looks. However, there is a degree of individual sensitivity; some people can make phosphenes occur regularly with little provocation and after-images which last a long time, others cannot (Oster 1970:83-4; Brindley 1963).

I also am inspired by my old friend from graduate school, the German thinker Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (August 31, 1821 – September 8, 1894) who wrote: "Under suitable conditions light falling on the eye may render visible certain objects within the eye itself. These perceptions are called entoptical." An additional reference from painter and former student Zach Mitlas: "I’ve been reading your recent painter’s blog and I find your reference to phosphene phenomenon a very rich resource for your own continued painting project. It reminds me much of J.W. Goethe’s Treatise on Colour, ( especially his section on “Pathological Colour” (pg. 45 or so). Goethe makes references to various ways one’s color vision is affected in sickness or in altered states. I think you may find it interesting." Thanks Zach! To me, a somewhat better citation would be Goethe's previous section in the same treatise on what he calls "subjective halos", adding to Descartes' description of objective halos.

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