Secrets Beneath Our Feet:

The Artwork of Luke O’Sullivan

At first, a tree is just a tree. You don’t think twice about it.

Later, in college, a tree becomes something else. It’s actually a perception of a tree, and in order to perceive something unconscious events must happen in your brain first. As Erwin Schrodinger wrote in My View of the World, “… we can state with certainty that the tree is seen and perceived if and only if certain events, quite unknown to us in detail, occur in the observer’s central nervous system.” It’s weird at first, but makes sense. We are physical things with internal mechanisms. Our experience of the world is processed information.

But, after college, a tree is just a plain ol’ tree again. All that stuff about processed information is interesting, but, really, irrelevant. We just see the tree. No matter how much we know about preconscious brain activity, we never experience it. The unconscious remains unconscious.

If only we could go below. Many of us long to descend to unknown depths, to discover secret knowledge. We all sometimes have a feeling that everyday life is a façade. Preceding his theory of the collective unconscious, Carl Jung had a dream, recounted in his memoir Memories, Dreams, Reflections. He found himself on the top floor of a house full of antiques. As he descended, the artifacts became more and more ancient. The ground floor was medieval, the stone basement was Ancient Roman, and the sub-basement was a narrow cave. At the dusty nadir he discovered pottery, bones, and two human skulls. Then he woke up.

Phaeton felled by Zeus, by Hendrick Goltzius

Occasionally we glimpse an inner depth, like Jung did in his dream. More frequently, we get simulations in myths and art. Our heroes are either pulled under, like Jesus in the “Harrowing of Hell” between the crucifixion and resurrection, or go down by choice, like Neo taking the red pill. Joseph Campbell called it “Abyss,” where the adventurer is “swallowed into the unknown,” only to be born again. Orpheus descends to rescue Eurydice, Dante recounts the torturous inner chambers, Maheo summons life from the lake of creation, Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, and artist Luke O’Sullivan lays bare an underground infrastructure.

O’Sullivan’s new show Cool Shelter, at Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia, features sculptures of fictional cities. He presents a parody of the urban skyline — intricate skyscrapers of brick and glass in an architectural hodgepodge. Pipes surface here and there to spew sludge down the sides of buildings. In the layers of decayed facades the viewer senses the numbing indifference of progress.

The eye is drawn downward, from precise lines to simple subterranean levels. Beneath the decrepit city, through trap doors and down ladders, narrow platforms hang, adorned with sparse, primitive houses. Though cluttered, these underground levels offer the only open spaces in O’Sullivan’s sculptures.

We wonder about the function. Do wires indicate an underground power source? Are the pipes a sewage system, or do they pull up some thick coolant to contaminate the city above? Who are the people who live below? We consider Native American pit houses, underground military bases, the maintenance required for a massive city, and the elusive ‘mole’ outcasts living in abandoned subway tunnels. We note that the underground layers are constructed from the same material as the city above — evidence that the subterranean is essential in some way.

O’Sullivan’s work is different from other depictions of the underworld because of its apparent objectivity. It’s too obvious to notice at first, but eventually the viewer asks, “where is everybody?” There are no people anywhere, no signs of life. The display is too impersonal, like a scientist dissecting a human brain. This is where the preconscious brain events occur, the scientist reveals. But of course, the subject is dead.

Cool Shelter is a physical representation of the limits of perception. In the sculptures we sacrifice the personal experience of going through a city for the bird’s eye view of the entire structure. O’Sullivan shows us the city in a way that we never could see as inhabitants of the city itself. Instead of Jung’s dream, we get a blueprint of his era-spanning house. O’Sullivan teaches us that we can only simulate our environment by removing ourselves from it.

Exiting the gallery onto the streets of Philadelphia, we’re painfully aware that we can never see exactly where we are, only where we’ve been. What could be beneath us right now? We can only guess. And our guesses won’t be as interesting as Luke O’Sullivan’s.

Check out his new show Cool Shelter at Paradigm Gallery in Philadelphia, through August 22nd. Here is an interview with O’Sullivan.

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