Thomas Lyon Mills: Liminal Space

11 July - 7 September 2019
Press release

Despite increasingly precise measurements, contemporary maps of the cosmos or the minutiae of the sub-atomic world will likely be no more accurate in the future than ancient seafaring maps picturing half-remembered landscapes and sea monsters.


Like a mapmaker, I find that my paintings inevitably cross over into the unknown. This then, is my region—where the visible meets the invisible and where the seen pays a constant debt to the unseen.


Maps are akin to drawing: they are specific, not vague, revealing ideas with precision and authority. Ironically, it is the discrepancy between one’s unfocussed marks—one’s lack of precision compared with the purity of the subject, full of complexity and invisible forces at work—that leads to the prolonged search.


Everything is heightened when I work: my sight, hearing, touch, breathing, heart rate, neurological paths… Limits dissolve between the senses. Along with this synesthesia, primordial forces rush in.


I learn from myriad artists. Fan Kuan and Hasegawa Tōhaku emphasize breathing; Piero della Francesca creates silence through intricate geometry; Olivier Messiaen composes with an ecstatic mysticism. Above all, I learn from the endless surprises of Rome. I first moved to Rome in 1989 as a young professor at the Rhode Island School of Design when I was chosen to be the academic head of the college’s European Honors Program. Since then, I have lived in Rome for a total of nine years adding together sabbaticals and summers.


I can imagine why Freud went to Rome to dream. I consider Rome my spiritual home, especially its underground, given how my dreams have become one with its palimpsest. With official permission, I explore and paint alone in many archeological sites, especially the catacombs—burial sites for Rome’s early Christian and Jewish population. Like an insect instinctively drawn to the scent of a certain flower, I must go to these places.


Catacombs exist in absolute darkness, with a silence so complete I can hear my heartbeat. What do I find? Borgesian mazes intersect and form many levels filled with dank odors and high humidity. Skeletons nearly two thousand years old embrace one another in their tombs. Paintings and carvings form a nascent spiritual language. I find the strangest of wildlife: long, worm-like creatures with millipede-like legs coexist with ten-inch tall phosphorescent mantises that give off an eerie green light. Half-inch milk-colored poisonous spiders crawl into my shoes and make me a regular customer at the pharmacy. Blind transparent spiders the size of my hand click along the walls. Like fireflies, luminous aphids skitter by the thousands up and down the stalagmites and stalactites that enshroud tombs.


In the catacombs, time is no longer linear, but rather elastic, circular and liminal. Trees and mosses dissolve into tunnels and roots. Walls go transparent, tilt and levitate. Apparitions abound. In one space I frequently hear hundreds of marching feet. In another I always feel, and often see, a presence watching over me.


In spite of being diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis—which in my case has manifested itself with hand tremors, balance issues, and fatigue—I have so many ideas that I will do whatever it takes to work. In the studio I cross-pollinate my catacomb paintings with other sites in which I have worked: Mythraeums (caves of the sun god Mithras where worship included animal sacrifices) and innumerable other pagan sites. I have gone high up into the Pantheon’s inner rooms and down into the lower regions of the Colosseum and its connected Cloaca Maxima (in Latin, Greatest Sewer). I made drawings (where my hand shook with adrenalin) on the ceiling restoration of the Sistine Chapel. I have worked throughout Italy, Turkey, Russia, and in Mexico. My work in Greece has taken me to the Cycladic quarries on Paros and Naxos (now forgotten like extinct volcanoes) and to the top of the Parthenon in Athens. On top of this marble high wire I learned through my drawings that its structure—not just its robust, convex columns—bends convexly with entasis. This is a perfect example of architectural genius, invisible to the naked eye: an unforgettable lesson about subtlety. I also saw fifth-century BCE chicken bones (a worker’s preserved lunch!) tucked under a capital, while other capitals had bright paint fragments.


In the Adirondack Mountains I work in a swamp that reminds me of the underground with its watery smells, populated by iridescent moss-covered yellow birches. There I have witnessed a doe give birth fifteen feet away, an eagle landing close to me and perhaps thinking of me as food; bears, porcupines, and snakes passing by, accompanied by a panoply of birds and their songs.


I love paper. I can piece it, tear it and fold it. I can add and subtract it. It travels with ease into the narrowest, hard-to-reach tunnels underground. My paper and watercolors remain damp due to the high humidity below ground and disintegrate—in the best sense—under repeated erasing and sanding. Back in my studio I often work on my papers for years, growing and shrinking them as the images coalesce. Sometimes woodcuts and etchings, found objects, paper scraps and children’s drawings are introduced like musical instruments, to further orchestrate the psychic necessities of my work.


I have built an archive of images from museums, archeological sites, and landscapes. The studio is the perfect place for these images to integrate into my work. Most importantly, I have my library of unconscious states. I document my dreams in sketchbooks with narratives and drawings. Often these dreams have proven to be disturbingly prophetic: precise images of sites in which I have not yet worked. When I enter a space and discover that I had already dreamt it, I think, “how marvelously the brain works!” Ultimately, all of my sites are transformed into one world—one cosmology. This is my preferred world, the shadow world of memory, time and dreams.


Perhaps the Russian mystic, Pavel Florensky, describes this boundary region best when he writes “we experience moments … when … two worlds grow so very near in us that we can see their intimate touching … [where] the veil of visibility is torn apart, and through that tear … we can sense that the invisible world (still unearthly, still invisible) is breathing: and that both this and another world are dissolving into each other”.

-Thomas Lyon Mills

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