Deep Listening

Deep Listening: catalog essay for painter, Sally Linder's exhibition "Pilgrimage"

Every morning I wake torn between the desire to save the world and the inclination to savor it. This makes it difficult to plan the day.      --- EB White

It is not planning the days that are difficult for Sally Linder. Each one finds this prolific painter in her studio. Rather the challenge in Linder’s practice comes with the act of listening deeply to that aching tension between the “desire to save the world and the inclination to savor it.”

The context of this mid-career retrospective reveals her love of earth and what it means to be a human inhabitant and celebrated collaborator with Gaia herself. Linder’s work runs the gamut of environmental activism to intimate personal exploratory painted abstractions. While it might be easier to understand her narrative work within the larger story of these critical times, it is perhaps less obvious to comprehend the abstractions as also reflecting the same empathic relationship with Earth. It is here that I would like to offer a perspective.

 Skipping Stones

The first time I viewed the paintings from the Skipping Stone series I was struck by the clarity of deep listening these mostly diminutive paintings reveal. They possess a kind of gentle humility, maybe due to their scale, maybe due to the series casual title conjuring memories of less encumbered days.  There is more a sense of allowing than pushing for an agenda, more listening than telling. They seem to exemplify the paradox of the profound-simplicity embodied in the act of a moment fully noticed.  In this case, that act is a visually responsive one; making marks, configuring shapes, carving surface texture, and alluding to familiar forms.  Wakeful noticing lays bare the bones of one’s soul. Linder’s paintings celebrate, grieve, and delight, more like an attentive than distracted lover, the lover in this case being Earth herself. At times that palpable edge between despair and joy co-exists in the work.  All of this, of course, exists within the visual language of abstraction.

It is here that I might part ways from EB White’s implication that “savoring” doesn’t save the world.  Perhaps “savoring” can contribute to the “saving.”  Author David Abram, in the Spell of the Sensuous, joins a growing body of literature that speaks to the necessity of maintaining our sensual engagement as critical to cultivating Earth sustaining responses.

Direct sensuous reality, in all of its more-than-human mystery, remains the  sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with  electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky [and can we say here pigment? (Davis)] can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us.  (Abram)

How else can we even notice Earth’s compromise, which in turn is our own interdependent compromise? In this way we might understand Linder’s highly sensate paintings to be a form of ecological practice, both in terms of content and material (world) engagement.


The abstractions of 2009, “Metamorphosis” series, are orchestral in their complexity. The interplay between the inner intuited realms and the outer phenomenal references of flora and fauna, fully rendered, fragmented, and sometimes lost all together, seem to co-arise over time. It is as if they had to wrestle and roil before coming to resolution in these emotionally charged canvases.  It is here where Linder’s use of the word “pilgrimage” in her exhibition title could also be applied to her process. The making of the paintings reveal a sustained journey and a spiritual one. A look back to abstract pioneer Wassily Kandinsky reveals a kindred spirit. Linder echoes Kandinsky in her desire to connect beyond the physical, to a palpably felt metaphysical realm (Ringbom). These paintings however, are not anachronistic, nor ungrounded. I would like to suggest that by necessity we (Humanity) are collectively developing shared concerns. Global climate change alone alters our relationship with nature. We can no longer look at the beauty of a landscape without the knowledge of Earth’s precarious balance hovering closely in our perceptual periphery. Whole systems thinking is infiltrating, appropriately, how we see and understand everything. Critic Elizabeth Thompson refers to a Whole Systems Aesthetic permeating the work of a growing segment of artists. And though Thompson is talking specifically about artists whose work restores or remediates damaged waters and habitats, I would argue that on the level of perception we are beginning to digest images from a whole systems aesthetic as well.  The same alteration of our perception of the landscape is true for the references to the natural world in an image whether we are aware of our anxiety or not. 

When I saw the Skipping Stones paintings at the West Branch Gallery in Stowe, Vermont, I was reminded of my own despair-delight-edge with this Earth-time, and my own neglected longings. The paintings somehow gave me permission to rest, if only briefly, in the delight of savoring the sensuous now.

                                                                                                Cameron Davis, January 2010

The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World, David Abram

The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, exhibition organized by Maurice Tuchman, Assistance Judy Freeman, “Transcending the Visible: The Generation of Abstract Pioneers,” Sixten Ringbom

Ecoventions, Current Art to Transform Ecologies, curated by Sue Spaid, essay “The Art of Whole Systems,” Elizabeth Thompson