Click on the image below, “Snow Field,” to open Paul LaJeunesse’s exhibit in a resizable browser.
Ideas and Resonance
Beauty and aesthetics are central to what I create; however, my choices of landscape imagery may not be the typical aesthetic for exploring beauty within this genre. What interests me in terms of beauty are the symbiotic relationships that form the structure of our world and my own relationship to space. When creating an image, I hope it will trigger a moment of suspended disbelief in viewers’ brains—a moment where their understanding that they are looking at an image is replaced by a perception of being present in the physical space of the image. I want viewers to feel as though they are in the space, have been there before, and are experiencing the location—where they are no longer only viewers of my created image but now function in ownership of the experience of the image. Whether or not that actually happens isn’t entirely up to me, because it requires the receptivity of the viewer.
In addition to that moment, sometimes called an aesthetic moment, I am interested in the structure of space and how we perceive it, namely within scientific and spiritual terms. At the subatomic level all matter is composed of the same materials, but as matter groups together in various ways, it manifests in many different forms. I find it quite curious and sometimes boggling that the variety of matter we experience daily is composed of only protons, neutrons, and electrons, which according to string theory, may then be composed of a smaller, singular element of vibrating energy. The math can support these claims, but there is no concrete evidence of this being the case because the scale is simply too small to test any of this. However, it is a beautiful and logical argument to me. Science has shown that the universe is orderly, elegant, and simple in its laws and that nature prefers symmetry. This is the guiding force behind entropy, which is out to break apart our complex systems into uniform, even distributions of matter. Simultaneously, this echoes the spiritual beliefs I find most resonance in: that of Buddhism.
I find it very compelling that theoretical physics postulates a similar argument to what Buddhism has been teaching for thousands of years—that everything is composed of pure energy and that the world we perceive is the grandest of illusions. While not a true practicing Buddhist, I do relate very strongly to the Buddhist ideas of what people are, where we come from, and the types of lives we should lead. Buddhism favors simplicity and humility, and it reinforces the idea that we are part of a larger organism rather than being the chosen species to rule and manipulate the planet according to our own vision. It talks of the interconnectedness of all things, of energy that courses through the world, and of a process of reaching enlightenment that requires turning back to the source, becoming one with the source—losing the self.
Coinciding with my resonance in Eastern philosophies, I am visually attracted to the ink paintings of the Song Dynasties in northern and southern China and the philosophies that undergird their creation.
The Northern tradition is steeped in Confucian ideology, which posits (similarly to Buddhism) that the parts work together to create a larger whole. This was a social ideology taken up by artists of the court, and it is manifested in how the imagery was made: through a series of similar linear marks that were executed so masterfully that they created large, beautiful, and serene images that served as objects of deep contemplation and meditation. Additionally, they brought the grandeur of the mountains, rivers, and forest to an interior space as a reminder of humankind’s place in the larger scope of the world.
The Southern Song tradition was a reaction to the order and structure of the court paintings, and it was much more ethereal. Many of the paintings have little to no imagery, with upward of 70 percent of the paper or silk being left blank or with simple value washes on them. The images themselves were of mountains, hills, lakes and other landscape scenes that were shrouded in soft, thick fog. They are perhaps more romantic, intuitive, and sentimental than their Northern counterpart, yet the subject matter and the final goals of conveying the grandeur of the universe and inspiring deep meditation of that universe unify them more than the difference in execution separates them.
The overarching goals of my work carry traces of these various inspirations within them. I would like my paintings to serve as objects that offer viewers space to pause and to contemplate not only the image, but also their own relationship to the image, to family, to society, and to the world. Creating the paintings offers me time to meditate and reflect; it is cathartic, and it helps me to understand my role in the world. Because it is a slow process, I spend a lot of time with the paintings, watching them transform and develop. I become very aware of the necessity of every mark in order for the image to work, as well as the time that is necessary to resolve a painting.
The execution of a painting is a controlled, systematic building process. However, the way in which I choose subject matter is rather intuitive. I am not looking specifically for a place or location—or even an object—but rather, I am more interested in relationships of space and light. My subject matter has a mysterious quality to it because they are often the result of intuitive moments of curiosity that lead me to find interesting relationships that I cannot understand. These moments take me out of my normal level of self-awareness and make me feel more connected to my surroundings, becoming more aware of my position in space and my relationship to the objects within my field of vision. These feelings are not easy to describe, and they are often confusing; but it is within these moments of connection that I decide to paint a subject. The subjects are often places I have been many times, but perhaps because of the time of day, my state of mind (or both), I have a very different reaction to that space. I attempt to capture and hold still that moment of the loss of self, elongating that time by recreating the circumstances in an image.
Painting these places is an investigation. The preliminary drawings and photographs are my gathering of evidence, which I systematically study in my studio to develop a better understanding of that space and my reaction to it. What I often find in the process of painting are unexpected paradoxes and harmonies within the image. I find shapes, values, and colors repeating in different objects and through different materials and spaces, reinforcing my understanding of the unity and harmony that exists in the world. I build in the value as I develop it, but only after I have an understanding of where the shapes are located and when they repeat. The way in which I work is intuitive in discovering the subject matter and very analytical in the execution. To me it is a very holistic way to work, one facet not being given more importance than the other. All of my work focuses on this idea of discovering unity in the world, particularly in objects and spatial relationships that are multifarious to my eye.
I traveled to Iceland as an artist in residence in order to investigate the landscape there and determine how it affected the social structure of the Icelandic people.
Iceland has some of the highest ratings of quality of life indicators including health care, social welfare, education, infant mortality rate, literacy rate, et cetera. It was my idea that the harshness of the landscape, the inhospitable weather, and the lack of agriculture strengthened the social fabric of the community—the harder a place is to live in, the more people have to take care of and help one another. I felt that the current social structure and high quality of life indicators were a direct result of the social structures of their ancestors and the lack of influence from Europe and America by being an island.
Upon my arrival, I quickly discovered that my theory of a lack of American and European influence was incorrect, as Iceland was a seemingly strange hybrid of the two continents, and not necessarily a good hybrid. Capitalism was rampant, and many young people were making good money and using that money. After living there for some time and befriending some people, I was invited into their homes. I found that they were “good” consumers: they bought high-end, comfortable furniture, quality cookware, and wonderful entertainment centers. They spent money on the things that made their homes warm, cozy, and comfortable, which I found to be a direct response to the harsh climate outdoors.
Through conversation, I quickly learned that all Icelanders are very connected with their land: every mountain, every hill, and seemingly every rock has a name—and everyone knows each name. More often than not, everyone has a story about an excursion to whatever rock you happen to be pointing at. They all explore the outdoors, hike, fish, ride horses, ski, surf, and any other activity one can imagine in the snow; and they don’t talk much about it, because everyone does it. It is ingrained within their culture. As my time in Iceland lengthened, I was given a myriad of suggestions of locations to explore and paint, for each person had a favorite place that they wanted to be exalted through the making of a painting.
When initially investigating the landscape, I was taken by how much variety there was, how different each part of the country looked, and how equally surreal each was. It often felt otherworldly, as if straight out of a fantasy novel; stories of elves, gnomes, and trolls seemed entirely natural when looking at the landscape. After making two paintings, I began to become more aware of the similarities in the shapes and patterns I was observing in the physical spaces. I was seeing, more clearly than I ever had before, the same shapes and patterns appearing in fore, middle, and background—in water, ground, and sky.
As winter arrived and the snow began falling, the starkness of the black basalt against the white of the snow made the mountains appear very flat and graphic, almost as a backdrop for a stage production. My perception of space was often challenged, as there were no reference points, no trees nor buildings, just miles and miles of rocks. I began to more purposefully choose subject matter that would play up the patterns and flattening of deep space. The subject seemed to fit my content perfectly, as it was unifying distance and objects through shape and value. Intentionally eschewing color and keeping the paintings similar to ink drawings was another way to speak of the similarities of the matter—that they are all composed of the same elemental units.
Living in Iceland taught me how to see what I had been looking for with all of my work: how to find physical manifestations of unity and harmony, and how to find them in seemingly disparate objects and spaces.