Rick Harlow’s psychedelic oils stretch deep and wide enough to wade into. Not the way you might walk into a landscape–although some of them, technically, like the satellite’s eye view of South America that dominates the angled wall down the hall from our door (but I’ll say more about that one in a moment) qualify as landscapes–but no, not the way you’d stroll through the saturated sunsets of Monet’s hayfields, say–except, but not unless–you’d have to be high, I think, or umbilically connected to the Amazon Basin. Rick’s paintings offer a different kind of experience. Once the substance of them is ingested, the world comes apart. Not just the play of light across its surfaces, but the deep structure of the light itself, the particulate waves that give rise to visions, intuitions, planets. He paints the energic fabric–he replicates, I want to say–the fabrication of the physical world. Or some small part of it, a wound, a tear, in order to stitch back together what’s come undone. We see the world unfinished, from the backside, as it were, where the seams in all their riotous chaos–somehow, incomprehensibly–produce an image. We witness a communal and therefore divine integrity that we can’t quite make out from here.
We don’t see Rick for weeks at a time. He travels, almost always to Colombia, where he studies with the elders of the indigenous peoples who live at “the heart of the world” in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range of South America. Last year, he brought home a film to show us in the gallery downstairs, a film he co-produced about the journeys of the Mamos, or caretakers, who bring gifts from the mountains to the sea, from the coastlines to the forests, from the streams to the higher elevations, to keep the energies of the world in balance, to keep the heart of the world strong. They show up at the beaches in their long garments, twirling sometimes as they walk, adjusting the energy of the world, tying it together, as I imagine it, the way one might tie off a thread, to keep it from unraveling any further.
Rick travels with them, filming, as they meander through the cities of the modern world, a strange, forgotten people who hold themselves aloof from the imported and amalgamated society they refer to as “younger brother.” According to their tradition, they sent him far away to the other side of the world many, many centuries ago, away from the vital center to a place where he might do less harm. But now, younger brother has come back; he has learned new, more dangerous tricks; he is more disruptive than ever and as serious as a heart attack.
The Kogui, the Arhuaco and the Wiwa are gentle, tolerant peoples, but it’s clear that they consider little brother’s impulsive behavior a risk to everyone, unwise, even disastrous, and they do not approve. They do not approve of his use of the waters of the river to cool his nuclear reactor nor of dumping this overheated water back into the life-stream of the world, where it throws off the Earth’s thermostat and makes it sick. They do not approve of his disregard for the forsts of the Amazon, of the denuding of his own mother, of using his gigantic machinery to rape her and leave her for dead. They have retreated, of necessity, from the contamination that this sibling has brought to their doorsteps and they live secluded at the highest habitable elevations, dirt poor or dirt rich, depending on how you look at it, watching their own children succumb to the influence of the cities, and they do what they can do. They climb down from the mountains and walk, working against the clock to repair the damages they can by traversing the heart of the world, by bearing gifts, by adjusting the imbalances of the heart.
It is this kind of shamanic journey that Rick’s paintings invite us to embark on, a pilgrimage meant to purify more than the individual soul, an untying and retying of the energic threads of all that’s threatened. When you step back from, or approach (as we do from our door down the hall) Rick’s big painting of the South American continent, it does not at first present itself as a land mass. You have to know Rick, I think, know something of what he does, what he’s about, to make the recognition stick, to tie this image to the planet and to the godlike way we little brothers look down at it, or down on it. Then something shifts–something in the eye of the mind–and you see it, and the heart of the world turns, the balance shifts, even if only, in the scheme of things, microscopically–in the synapses of a single disruptive mind–and we are in the hot tangle of vine and sinew at the throbbing, corpuscular level of the heart.
Back in our own continent, when he returns, we see Rick downstairs with a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back, readjusting the energies of the mill where we live, pulling the dirt we bring on the soles of our shoes, up into the canister he wears like a jetpack with its flow reversed. He lives a few steps down the hall and across the land mass, over the isthmus near the equator.