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“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

––T.S. Eliot


Vanitas and Viriditas is an exploration of two divergent perspectives on wisdom, and how we might flourish in a modern society filled with facts but mired in confusion.


The Vanitas paintings include a figure named Qohelet (Hebrew for “Teacher"). Inspired by the Jewish wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, these works represent the vanity of human striving for power, wealth, and knowledge, often at the expense of the earth. The art historical vanitas genre, popularized by 17th century Dutch still life painters, is based on the refrain in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” These images often included motifs such as skulls, moths, and ephemera to remind viewers of the temporality of life and inevitability of death. Similarly in my works, Qohelet seeks to deconstruct all the ways in which we find meaning and purpose in life, that inescapably let us down. He chases after modern idols of science, technology, material consumption and pleasure, ultimately finding them wanting. Is it all just smoke and mirrors? Is there wisdom in being at peace with the endless paradoxes, or is it cause for despair? The philosophy behind the Vanitas paintings is visually symbolized through an achromatic colour palette, Japanese zen rock gardens, and barren nihilistic landscapes.


The Viriditas paintings comprise a figure named Sophia (Greek for “wisdom”) inspired by the female personification of wisdom from the book of Proverbs. These works espouse virtues such as simplicity, humility, wonder, and awe, vital for cultivating ecological wisdom. The 12th century nature mystic Hildegard of Bingen informed the character development of Sophia, from whom the Latin expression viriditas (translated as “holy greening”) originates. Sophia lives in a harmonious relationship with the natural world, attuning herself to the seasonal rhythms of nature. The vernal colour palette in these paintings is bright and cheery—emerald, sienna, yellow and amethyst, accompanied by Celtic and Gothic Revival aesthetics.


Both Qohelet and Sophia are complemented by animal companions. As Qohelet grapples through his existential crisis, a diminutive Elf Owl perches on his cap in Swallowed by Knowledge. When he explores the metaverse, a Jaguar glares across the apocalyptic fate of the technocracy in Nirvana 5G. A dying Pelican, caught in a fishing line, is surrounded by her chicks after a human-caused oil spill in All Creatures Lament. A ferret lies motionless on the science lab table, a casualty of animal testing in The Ferret Trials. Qohelet is disenchanted with the natural world and ambivalent toward his fellow creatures, since ‘there is nothing new under the sun’. In the words of Søren Kierkegaard, “the lonely wanderer is everywhere surrounded in nature by that which does not understand him, even though it always seems as if an understanding must be arrived at.”


Sophia seeks to learn from the symphony of creation, heeding the advice of the ancient sage named Job:


“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
   the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you,
   and the fish of the sea will declare to you.

Who among all these does not know
   that the hand of the Lord has done this?

In his hand is the life of every living thing
   and the breath of every human being.”


She discovers an old hymn by St. Francis of Assisi, depicted in the painting All Creatures Praise surrounded by a plethora of flora and fauna. In Greening the White Cube Sophia is beckoned into an abandoned art gallery by a doe observing nature’s reclamation of material possessions.


For Qohelet, wisdom is pursued with “fear and trembling,” accepting the sobering truth that everything in this world is fleeting. For Sophia, the path to wisdom is re-enchantment with the earth and its Creator, manifested in embodied skillful living (the Hebrew understanding of wisdom). The original meaning of the word philosophy––“love of wisdom,” is thereby restored. Flourishing can occur when we align ourselves with the wise grain of the universe.


Comprising 5,000 hours of painting over the course of three years, Vanitas and Viriditas consists of 23 meticulously crafted paintings and drawings accompanied by written artist statements. The series debuted at the new gallery space of Rehs Contemporary in New York City, April 28 - May 26, 2023.

Josh Tiessen

Streams in the Wasteland
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