A Visit with Professor Carl Jennings: Art as a Form of Philosophy

“Ideas come from all sorts of places… the eye is the final arbiter.”

Photo courtesy Carl Jennings.

One of my Christmas presents in 2018 was a book intriguingly titled The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. It’s a book about the history of color, with stories and anecdotes about the beauty that colors our world. When I stumbled upon an article about color by a writer on Medium named Carl Jennings, I was intrigued enough to follow the link to his website where color is a primary fascination.

It’s only natural, of course. He’s an artist, an art professor who teaches at Kapi’olani Community College, University of Hawai’i, in Honolulu. His background and experiences prompted me to reach out, that I might share here some of his ideas and work.

How did you come to choose college in San Francisco, having been born in Liverpool?

Carl Jennings: My family moved from Liverpool to the USA when I was 5. At 18, I wasn’t a big fan of the LA life-style, so after high school I moved to San Francisco. I went to San Francisco State University where I studied Art and Philosophy, and met my wife Tammy.

You got your MFA in England in 1998. How did you end up in Hawaii?

Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) — Oil on canvas 48” x 60”, 2018

CJ: After San Francisco, my wife and I moved to England where we had our three kids, and I pursued my MFA at what was then Falmouth College of Arts. Hawai’i happened by accident. After 15 years of not seeing the sun (literally!), we were looking for a move. My wife’s father called out of the blue and said the house he had been renting out in Hawai’i for the past twenty years was falling apart, and would we be interested in moving there to fix it up in exchange for cheap rent, we jumped at the opportunity. Knowing we could come back after six months, or a year if we didn’t like it. I ended up getting a job teaching art within the University of Hawai’i System, and 19 years later I am still there!

I myself started toward a B.A. in Philosophy and switched to Fine Arts. How does philosophy inform your art? Do you have any philosophers that you especially identify with?

CJ: I feel that art is a form of philosophy. Words can be limiting, and I felt that images could say, or communicate, so much more. I was really into Heidegger at the time, and his notion of Being and Openness made a lot of sense to me. I responded to the ideas visually, using an abstract, all over, color-field-like language. I felt that painting was a way of exploring these ideas in a more visceral, sensual and immediate way. I wanted to create experiences of the ineffable, or the ecstatic that would envelop the viewer and provide a space for contemplation, much like Rothko and Motherwell. I saw painting as a way of exploring and having a dialogue with many of the ideas I was interested in at the time, especially Heidegger, but also the Kabbalah and Buddhism.

For me art has always been philosophical — a way of asking questions and exploring meaning. Today my philosophical interests lie more with Deleuze and Rorty (heirs of Heidegger in many respects) and the construction of meaning. I am interested in the human imagination and our propensity to create meanings, interpretations and narratives. Like my earlier work, my current approach also embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, but unlike the earlier abstract paintings my more recent work involves a lot of implied narrative, mythology and metaphor.

Who have been your heroes in the fine arts?

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Death of Charybdis — Ink and acrylic on paper. 22” x 30”, 2019

CJ: As I mentioned earlier the Abstract Expressionists were a big early influence. They were my first encounter with painting as an experience, rather than just an image on the wall. Their works were big, enveloping and powerful; they opened up a whole new dimension to me. Other influences have included Bonnard, as well as Titian and Max Beckman.

Today I am very interested in Munch, and some younger painters like Michael Armitage and Josh Hagler. Munch was a great surprise to me. Obviously, I was aware of his work, but I never really got to know much about his work until I visited Oslo a couple of years ago. His work blew me away because he was such a painter’s painter. The Scream, his most famous work, is in my opinion, one of his least interesting images — it’s lifeless and drab, a one-trick pony in my view. The rest of his oeuvre is so different, his paintings are rich, fresh and very contemporary looking. It was a great revelation to discover his work, and I can’t wait to go back to Oslo to see more.

What is your process for making decisions as regards subject matter for your oil paintings?

CJ: I don’t have any one approach. Ideas come from all sorts of places; from something I see, a dream perhaps, a phrase, a doodle, an old sketch, etc. Looking at the work of other artists is also a great inspiration. In terms of my decision-making — the eye is the final arbiter. It can be a great idea, but if it doesn’t move me visually, I will throw it away or paint over it. At the end of the day it has to connect on a visual level, which for me is the same as an emotional level. I have a little test that often I use; after working on something for a while, I try to approach it fresh after a few days of not looking at it.

Everything rides on my first impression. I have to be wowed, if not — it goes, I paint over it or throw it away. I have to sense that there is something in it besides me, something ‘other’, a little bit of something else that I did not plan, control or orchestrate. I need to feel like the work is more than just me, almost like it is the work of somebody else. I need to be blown way, and it is my feeling, or gut instinct, on my first impression that tells me that.

What is the story behind “The Houses of the Astronomers”?

CJ: This series grew out of my interest in the night sky — which goes back to my early interest in the ineffable, Abstract Expressionism, and the philosophical ‘meaning of it all’. I had been reading about Galileo, Newton, Herschel, Tycho Brahe and Copernicus as well as Gaston Bachelard’s superb book, The Poetics of Space, where he discusses the subconscious power of spaces, like attics, rooms, basements etc. I became aware of the rooms (observatories) these people worked and lived in, and how in these spaces the stars were much ‘closer’ than say their neighbor, or even the books on the bookshelf. I imagined that somehow the heavens filled these rooms; rooms full of stars, worlds, universes. I had a very romantic notion of what these spaces must have been like.

The theme was also connected to the idea behind a drawing I had done twenty years earlier of a man looking through a telescope whilst climbing a ladder that was being held up by a motley cadre of assistants so that he could get ‘closer’ to the heavens, or in this case God (the drawing was called Deus Absconditas, the hidden God). The whole thing reminded me of the folly and absurdity of human endeavors to try and understand things — but at the same time an absurdity that I found endearing, because it is what we do and always have done. So, the series included houses on stilts and dwellings that were full of stars. One of the underlying themes was scale and proximity and how much our understanding of life is tethered to our scale as humans. The series of paintings was a visual riff on ideas that grew out of this starting place.

What are you working on now that has you jazzed?

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Charybdis in Hawai’i (Contact)— Ink and acrylic on paper 22” x 30”, 2019

I am working on a collaborative body of work with my wife, the photographer Tammy Jennings. The working title is Charybdis in Hawai’i, and it deals with the impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise in Hawai’i. Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon and she assisted her father, in his battle with Zeus, by swallowing up land with water. Climate change is going to have a disproportionate effect on many Pacific Island nations and peoples. As I live in the middle of the Pacific, I am acutely aware of what is to come. The work explores, through mythology, art history and climate science the idea of a second coming or ‘contact’ for Hawai’i (the first contact being the ‘discovery’ of Hawai’i by Captain Cook.) So some of the imagery will be derived from some of the earliest images of Cook in the Pacific.

According to recent estimates, places like Waikiki will be underwater by the end of this century, regardless of what we do! The work is a way of visualizing that reality. I am usually a fairly positive and optimistic person, but I find my optimism in human behavior beginning to erode. The project is an attempt to visualize the coming reality — and I think we need to see and feel that.

Related Links

Carl Jennings Art:
Men In Black — The Fear of Color in Western Culture
Carl Jennings here on Medium:

Illustrations courtesy Carl Jennings
Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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