Historians admit that, while we look to the future, we have barely scratched the surface of the past—professionals in the field are constantly re-interpreting what they thought they knew. Some of us spend our entire lives searching for purpose and wondering why we are here. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”
I recently asked Shane Guffogg what he thinks the meaning of life is, and he said that, in order to find that answer, you must learn to ask the right question. “At 17, I came to the realization that the answer is life. It is the question we need to learn to ask. Without the question, the answer is meaningless. We learn to ask the questions through the process of living. If I tell you the answer is blue, it doesn’t mean anything. But if I ask what is the color of the sky, then the answer makes sense”
From the beginning of Guffogg’s career, he began exploring the iconography of the Ancient, Classical, Renaissance, Modern, and Contemporary cultures, as well as the relationships among the various times and peoples. He also realized that painting is one of the few art forms that can express what language cannot, leading to the question of what thoughts look like before we attach language to them. This was the first step in a journey to create his own language of sign and symbol. His patterning, visual depth, and light all simultaneously refer to emotion, the human spirit, and the unseen worlds that Guffogg has become deeply inspired by: Quantum Physics and Super String Theory.
I first met Guffogg in 2002 when I did a studio visit at his then downtown LA studio. Since that first visit I have given a lot of thought to Guffogg’s paintings, and I came to realize what his work reflects. Whether they were being informed by past civilizations, spirituality, or philosophy, they were all questions; he was asking a question with each brushstroke. These questions are slowly and thoughtfully fulfilled, answered by layer upon layer of paint-application. In some paintings there would be a unique question, but in other works a single question is focused on through a series that can last for years.
In 1987 Guffogg made a painting of 100 individually painted walnuts, each with its own identity and composition. This work truly lingers on the origin of identity, while bridging a non-verbal space that exists between abstraction and realism. The rows that make up 100 Walnuts were later reconfigured into other, more complex patterns that would be both figurative and abstract – Tapejara, Swallow, and Xingu being prime examples. These paintings are large, with concentrated hues of deep red creating a powerful depth to get lost in. I can’t help but wonder if these works were about communing with past civilizations?
Guffogg’s John Milton-inspired series, When I Consider How my Light is Spent, explores time through light. Guffogg created many paintings in this series exploring the life he has led, examining what the purpose of seeing is, and offering a way we can open our eyes to the world around us.
What life meant to Guffogg in 1980, based on his evolution in painting, remains the same in 2017 – he is still asking questions, and still slowly revealing answers to himself through his creative process. So much so that Guffogg built another art studio outside of Los Angeles. He went back to his childhood ranch in Strathmore, California, where he grew up on an exotic bird farm, surrounded by fields of wheat, corn, cotton and fruit orchards at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This area is often referred to as Steinbeck country, because it was the promise-land and final destination for the migrant farmers in The Grapes of Wrath. Vast horizons of fertile land still inhabit this area and farming remains the driving force of the economy. In 2004, Guffogg began converting an old barn on the family property into an art studio. Here, once again, he would revisit his early thoughts. Surrounded by silence and self-discovery, he turned to the poet TS Eliot to break clear of his previous 15 year exploration of patterns. The new series took a line from Eliot’s Four Quartets, serving as the impetus to create a visual moment that flutters between chaos and order. The painting titled At the Still Point of the Turning World (Time Present is Time Past) shimmers with light that passes between the visual layering of lines that depict the summation of thought and action. The fine lines of the Still Point paintings created a pendulum effect setting the stage for the counter balance of Amor Fati (“to love your fate”), which were inspired by a quote from Nietzsche: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful.” These paintings, all saturated in red and gold, are made of wide brushstrokes that are hover between the human form and calligraphy from a language that is yet to be discovered.
Guffogg’s current series, Sapere Aude (“dare to be wise”) is a visual contemplation of enlightenment. Horace, the Roman poet, first wrote about it in First Book of Letters (20 BCE). Immanuel Kant brought it to our attention in his essay Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784). We now live in the tech age, and some of us have become lost in the media – with the loss of our inner voice becoming the casualty of the bombardment of information. Guffogg manages to draw us back; to inspire us to look inside ourselves; to find the missing piece, or void, that is our own. It is our own stillness and peace of mind, or as Guffogg likes to state, it is being in the Now, that really matters.
Guffogg’s paintings explore questions about life in the 21st century. The lines and ribbons take us a step beyond the pictorial field. When I stare at Guffogg’s 2016 painting, At the Still Point of the Turning World (Time Present and Time Past), I am balanced between the here and the now, transported on a journey of my own accord. I have witnessed quite a few people having “spiritual” experiences before his works.
“Art is when you hear a knocking at your soul and you answer,” Terri Guillemets wrote. Thankfully, Guffogg answered, by providing us with the gift of his paintings.