Carlos Alemán is a professional fine artist and novelist. He lives in Sunrise, Florida with his wife Jean and Shih Tzu, Ewok.
I sometimes wish I had grown up a little bit later. But, alas, the Cartoon Network, the internet, cosplay and mainstream geek culture sprang up like a flower garden after one moves away, the petals only half noticing that someone was once there that would have appreciated its splendor. As the dazzling colors mock and turn away in dismissive pride, I continue to observe, almost as an anthropologist would—studying a strange facet of humanity in hopes of better understanding myself as well as finding something beneficial to us all. For I am not a genuine otaku (anime fanatic), merely a fan of the fans.
My interest in anime is limited to Hayao Miyazaki movies and the Mushishi series, works that I’ve found to be almost spiritual and mystical. The vocaloid, Hatsune Miku, also holds a strange fascination for me. But mostly it’s the cosplayers dressing up as their favorite anime characters who captivate my attention, causing me to wonder—what if I had been born three decades later?
My early years consisted of the childcare of public television and later, the three networks. You might say that I was an emotional orphan, but I won’t dwell on that since there have been many with far worse childhoods. My two earliest memories are of being awoken at a nursery and told that I had been singled out among the children to draw with crayons. I did so with great self-satisfaction and joy while the other children slept. The other memory is of leafing through the pages of The Five Chinese Brothers. I couldn’t yet read, but the illustrations seemed to indicate that there were exotic faraway people somewhere in the world who possessed magical powers. I wanted to meet the five brothers and tell them that my special ability had something to do with drawing with crayons.
This feeling that there existed magic somewhere faraway haunted me for a long time. I caught glimpses of something magical while watching Speed Racer, Bruce Lee movies and, every Saturday morning, Godzilla versus some worthy foe on Creature Feature. I grew up shy, rarely talking to anyone, but hoping that someone would eventually notice my drawings. In middle and high school, art classes filled up quickly and were never an option for me since remedial math and English were more important than electives. I knew all too well what this meant—I wasn’t smart—I wouldn’t be going to a good school and therefore having a fabulous life as a hedge fund manager or some sort of master of the universe.
This realization was a discouragement to me, but it was obvious that my brain worked differently than other brains. My thoughts are slow and measured, weighted down by an x and y axis, saturated by a kind of ooze that made the world more than what a hyper sensitive person as myself could process. It seemed others were zipping along in their studies, college-bound, ‘gifted,’ and set for honors, while I was running in last place, ashamed, embarrassed and hoping that maybe one day I would be able to snap out of my strange impairment. This was all long before terms such as ‘ADD,’ ‘learning disabilities’ and bi-polar depression had become mainstream (Well, maybe only slightly bi-polar).
I was finally able to study art at a community college (they’ll let anyone in) and even went on an overseas study program to Italy. My art teacher, who called himself an existential phenomenologist (I’m still not sure what that means), told me to simply abandon all techniques and knowledge about art in order to paint. Those words would become the entirety of my art education, or at least what mattered most.
I returned from Europe astounded and with enough inspiration, it seemed, to create art for the rest of my life. I soon began working part-time at an art gallery. I actually handled works by important artists such as Rauschenberg, Kostabi and Purvis Young. Perhaps because of my delirious state, I almost damaged a painting one day, leaning it up against a chair. I wouldn’t work there much longer after that.
However, during my brief employment, I had the honor of meeting an Argentinian artist by the name of Adriano Lambe. Adriano was a tall blonde man who bore a slight resemblance to Robert Plant. He lived in a tiny shack behind someone’s house. I helped him transport his paintings to the gallery one day. With the leery demeanor of a realist, he told me that what was being said about his work did not concern him. He only cared that someone would buy it. Obviously, he wasn’t a wealthy man and his livelihood depended on sales.
One day, I overheard several art dealers talking about his work. “He paints too well. That’s his problem. Now, Stephen Lack, on the other hand—He can paint!” What they meant was that Lambe’s paintings were very realistic. If you stood about ten feet away, they appeared to be photographs. Their idea of a great painter was Lack, whose loose brushstrokes made no attempt at realism.
It wasn’t until I was looking through a box of postcards to be mailed out before the exhibit that I realized the genius in the explanation of his work. In Lambe’s depiction of tropical jungles, the ferns, palms and other plants were
all competing for sunlight. The healthy plants were tall and green. The plants that weren’t doing as well were being smothered in the shadows, turning yellow and rotting away. It was a summation of life, a competitive struggle to survive, the strong thriving as the weak perished.
I did an internet search of Adriano Lambe recently and found no trace of him. Not even a painting appeared as a thumbnail in an image search. I wonder if he had somehow caused his own self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps feeling that he wasn’t the type of thriver required by a cruel world. As a young man, it puzzled me how some can work so hard when others dismiss their work as inadequate while the artist isn’t around to hear their critique. If the great Lambe couldn’t make it in the art world, my prospects seemed slim.
I continued with school, and after I had taken every art, history and literature class offered, I dropped out in order to devote all my time to painting. Although I had been accepted by art schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design, I had not yet been able to find the emotional balance to consider any further education a real possibility (I also didn’t want to continue to add to my student loan debt). One day, I went to a play entitled Suicide Prohibited in the Spring, and decided to allow life to unfold and simply accept that I didn’t have a future, just a feeling that somewhere in the world, there was magic.
Meanwhile, the pop surrealists were emerging as neo-pop and superflat were establishing themselves as legitimate art movements. I kept up with Keith Haring and the world that Andy Warhol had left behind. Jeff Koons had left his job as a commodities broker and set up his factory in SoHo, preparing to blow the lid of the art world. Creativity unfolded splendidly without me, so I worked on myself, trying to solve the puzzle of my dark emotions and painting all manner of subjects that had nothing to do with anything that was in vogue or part of any art movement.
Years later, as the World Wide Web arose, I was finally able to use my artistic talents to make a living in the technology sector as a web designer. Corporations were realizing that the internet just might be important one day and were hiring anyone with skills, regardless of education. I had taught myself HTML to show my artwork online, which gave me the foundation necessary to get a job.
At about the same time, moved by the exhibits at the Morikami Museum in Florida, I began to develop a deep interest in Asian art. Much like the renaissance art I had encountered in Italy, old world painting and sculpture stirred me once more. Chinese landscape painting, with its sacred mountains veiled in mysterious fog, and Japanese woodblock prints emphasizing feminine beauty and religious devotion to nature, were engrossing me more than any of the modern art being churned out by successful western artists. There seemed to be a spiritual quality to the bold lines and iconic images of Japanese prints and the Chinese abandoning of color in order to capture a subject’s inner essence and life force.
I wanted to know more about eastern philosophy and so I began to read about it. I even went as far as taking up meditation. I suppose wanting to extinguish emotional pain was the ultimate catalyst for embarking on a spiritual journey. My secret depression, hidden behind a smile and slightly obsequious manner, was a part of me that I was incapable of understanding. Life was beautiful, my circumstances devoid of any tragedy—and yet I felt consumed by darkness. In my contemplation of Zen, I had flashes of satori (awakening) and was able to catch a glimpse of what I believe to be the true nature of reality. All was well. I was the problem. My Zen studies were complimented by Taoism, and Taoism led me to Advaita. Advaita, helped me understand the Christian mystics, and somewhere between salvation and the path towards enlightenment, I came to realize that I possessed a self that was separate from God.
Now at the risk of being labeled a spiritual artist, I only mentioned these things because it is a common human experience to seek an end to suffering. Some with certain genetic predispositions medicate themselves with alcohol, others actually seek an encounter with the infinite through Molly or some other drug, chasing powerful ecstatic experiences that last until the body builds up a tolerance and the painful crash begins. There are some that swear by self-help books. There are the philosophers and theologians, and even those who don’t believe in anything at all, all searching for the same thing—happiness.
And yet how many people ever notice that we all perceive ourselves as separate I’s? The same life force fills us all. We breathe the same oxygen. And if Jung is correct, we share the same collective unconscious. But each human head contains a three pound computer that is wired for self-preservation by means of analysis, judgment, suspicion and sometimes xenophobia. We literally think ourselves into misery, convinced we are alone and separate from others. Happiness eludes most, and the depressives, such as me, try a little harder to make sense of it all.
I’ve found that simply being aware of these things is half the battle. However, as years went by, my depression was worsened by health problems. Physical discomfort and discouragement tested my ability to rationally accept that not only does every dark cloud pass, but the mind is merely a separate self, prone to negative clouds of thought. It became harder to detach myself from my overactive mind and emotions, but I eventually found my true self—a place that no longer takes the mind seriously. Whether a person studies non-duality or simply lives and learns, practices
common sense, seeks therapy, or just discovers that they have food allergies, there is always hope.
Also important to my journey of healing were the five novels I wrote, three of which were published by a small press in Hawaii. Very few people purchased them, but the process of writing helped me bring to the surface much that had been buried in my subconscious. Many forms of creative self-expression help people to resolve inner conflicts. As for the things that cannot be expressed in words, painting offered me a way to purge myself of my darkest darkness.
After I returned from a trip to China in 2010, inspired by monochromatic ink wash paintings, I began working in brown tones. I had done one-color work before, mostly in the blue range, but this time the sepia tones seemed warmer and expressed something more profound to me. I can only describe it as the beautiful sadness I’ve seen in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and William Blake. Lighter colors contrasted with dark brown seemed to take on an ethereal quality. Contemporaries, such as the erotic visionary artist, Andrew Gonzalez and the Korean American pop surrealist, Amy Sol, were producing beautiful artwork that captured this otherworldly quality.
My paintings were primarily based on photographs that I took in Shanghai, Beijing and Mount Tai in the Shandong province. 2010 was also the year of the World Expo, which gave me many opportunities to photograph the Chinese and their rich culture of decorative arts and beautiful people.
One of the first paintings I made was of a young woman I had photographed in the China pavilion of the expo. She was wearing a traditional bright and colorful costume with elaborate patterns. I felt as though I was beginning an artistic journey and included butterflies to represent transformation. I drew the girl in brown color pencil and then painted it over in acrylics. I used a craft paint called dark chocolate brown. The figure in the foreground seemed to glow like a wraith in the night. I entitled it The Metamorphosis of Night. The next painting was of a small girl walking away into a dark brown abyss wearing a bunny backpack. To further mark the new brown series, I entitled this “The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step,” after the 64th verse of the Tao Te Ching: “…The giant pine tree grows from a tiny seedling. A tower nine stories high starts with a single brick. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…”
For all practical purposes, the painting was a mess. The paint had dried unevenly and had created blotches around the figure of the girl, and yet there was something pleasing to me about its imperfection. I went on to create many more such works, each time taking pleasure in the imperfect dark chocolate browns and their irregular stains and spots. Backgrounds were abstract, foregrounds were representational. It was an experiential study of something I would understand better as I stumbled upon more of what the east had to offer to me.
In the spring of 2013, I visited Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. I had, without planning it, arrived during cherry blossom season. The blooming and falling of the petals on a sakura tree happen all in a single week. I was fortunate enough to see this and it came at a time when I was learning about wabi-sabi, the Japanese way of seeing the world. Wabi-sabi centers on the idea that the imperfect and impermanent can be beautiful. My understanding of the Japanese aesthetic was further enhanced by the concept of mono no aware, a term coined by Motooori Norinaga expressing the awareness of impermanence. Mono no aware can be described as an appreciation of the beauty and sadness of things eventually passing. This sensitivity to ephemera is something I find unique to the Japanese psyche.
My favorite author, Haruki Murakami, writes stories that contain an element of mono no aware. In his novel, Norwegian Wood—as in many of his books—one moment after another passes by with profound acceptance and awareness. I often think of the story and how there a few things that we can cling to—everything ends, yet like cherry blossoms, life is art.
I’ve also found mono no aware in the somber mood of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films. To capture perfectly the feeling of falling in love over the beauty of impermanence, look no further than to the haunting scene of Chihiro traveling on a train that is moving over the surface of an ocean in the 2001 film, Spirited Away.
Having struggled with depression, the idea of embracing sadness is of interest to me. It has been said that the things we accept lose their power over us, and that which we resist persists. What I find most appealing about the philosophies of the east are the notions of non-judgment and acceptance. And even though Japan never ranks high on the list of countries in the happiness index (despite the large economy, lowest crime rate and one of the best education systems), as far as the arts are concerned, I feel that they are among the most enlightened of painters, designers and craftspeople.
I’ve often thought about this idea of embracing sadness and discovering or creating beauty. The early Christian mystics used the term knowing by darkness, noting that most people fear surrendering their egos too much to move on to more mature stages of understanding. Perhaps it is this darkness that can lead us all to love and accept each other. Let me explain.
My wife happens to be Chinese. She works at an elementary school. She told me that a frightened Asian girl came to school one day for the first time, and that when she saw my wife, her face lit up with joy. I think it’s safe to conclude that my wife reminded the girl of her mother. It would be absurd to accuse an innocent child of racism, but I wonder if the things we consider to racist are often something quite similar: Simply feeling comfortable around those who are most similar to you.
I have the opposite tendency. Not only am I open to experience, but find the dissimilar, exotic, strange and foreign more appealing and actually feel more comfortable around people who are different from me. I’m not sure why this is, but I felt this way when I was in Shanghai, staring into the eyes of young people that were fanatical about anything western, and again in Kyoto crossing the streets with the throng of Japanese. I’ve felt this way much of my life in South Florida where in a single day you can interact with someone of Irish, Korean and Jamaican descent, as well as Hispanics that come in every size, shape and color.
There is something fanciful about looking at other versions of myself. The illusion of separateness or even that we are all different is not that hard to shatter. Perhaps it requires stepping into the darkness for some to know that we are more than genetics, environment and IQ. The analytical mind may insist on judging some people as pathologically insensitive or others as grossly irresponsible, binding us forever to politics and worldviews, but a shift in perception can help us move beyond our need to label and judge the world in order to make ourselves feel safer. Artists can help people to see the same old world in new ways, perhaps expanding our consciousness.
Art explores depth. Sometimes art helps us better see the beauty of nature and our humanity. Sometimes, art is critical of society. The ‘Superflat’ movement was critical of what the artist, Takashi Murakami, called a shallow Japanese consumer culture. Superflat was eventually embraced by South Florida artists (SoFlo Superflat). The valid criticisms of commercial superficiality can also be complimented by art that recognizes the depths of a culture. Despite all the things we can find wrong with a society, it is still the handiwork of talented humans. Often it is thought that you move beyond surface appearances to get to what is real, but there is another compelling perspective: under all the obvious flaws of a society or system, there exist profound traditions, beauty and culture.
Dark chocolate to me represents the good stuff—the nutritious, antioxidant rich form of the deliciousness derived from the seed of a cocoa tree—the best of all chocolates. A Dark Chocolate Japan, for instance, is the Japan westerners have fallen in love with, from Godzilla movies to anime and technology. Although art and media can be seen as frivolous, when one culture falls in love with another, it is a testament that dark chocolate exists and we can love everything that is strange, different and exotic—the cartoons we grew up with, the ancient stories of Samurai and the Geisha, kokeshi dolls and kimonos we have admired from afar. But no matter where we are, even if we see the less than ideal, the sugary cheap chocolate defiling our existence, dark chocolate also exists. It does. It does.
Perhaps the grass is always greener somewhere else, and our distant perceptions are skewed; however there is something about traveling and gazing at unfamiliar things that quiets our minds and moves us past ego. It has been said that to understand a foreign country, a person must live there at least three years. So my brief encounters with Asia could be considered naïve and superficial. And yet, I suspect that anywhere in the world a person goes, we can find a part of ourselves in the people we meet. Or perhaps we may come to the realization that they are indeed us—often a splendid, startling and surprising version of us.
Aya Takano, known as the queen of superflat, once said she believed that there was an existence outside of reality. I wonder if perhaps finding another world has something to do with how we perceive things. As a westerner, discovering something that is the complete opposite of me is like yang finding yin—a mirror to the soul. And so my dark chocolate art is grungy and sometimes not very colorful, sad and lovesick. It is the vision I wish to share—a knowing that underneath all human shortcomings there exists a mystical realm, and one life that we all share.