Scratching the Surface: A Visit to Lascaux and Rouffignac
by I. Murphy Lewis
February 24, 2006
Not many of us have a chance to step back in time thousands of years, to step into a magical cave a child might dream of, and be transported. Santa Barbara artist Mary Heebner, in her poetic journal entries and prints, Scratching the Surface: A Visit to Lasaux and Rouffignac, takes us to France and pulls us into the underbelly, “inside the skull.” Upon her encounter, Heebner becomes that which she sees, “ I want to siphon Lascaux into my emptiness.”
Before entering the cave I wear sunglasses, eyes closed, so that my pupils can begin to dilate and prepare far the dark. I am one of five who are permitted 35 minutes inside Lascaux. For all that I will see, there Is a reservoir of images I won't even begin to comprehend. I want to curl up and sleep inside. To lie on my back and look up. To t ouch. When I enter I am bombarded with images --- so many it is mind-boggling. It is exquisite. I now know that art came full-born into this world.
Whenever I emerge from a cave there is a shock to be above ground. The smells are heavy and wet. Green. Light is strong and warm. Even on a day of milky skies and clotted clouds, the brightness is intense.
Water formed this system of caves that aerates the land beneath the golden soil of the Dordogne. Sediment dissolves, accretes, freezes, breaks apart, mostly through the force of water. Water is the milk of the Earth. It is the coil, the vortex, the invisible spine.
I have been inside of the skull, not just skipping over the hair and eyes and mouth of the grasses and openings and mounds. It is as if I had crawled in through a socket and could see where the brain’s cortex has left a pattern of a shell --- those wiggly lines that indicate intellect etched into the skull.
I have been in the darkest places, where the first marks were made, where memory and narrative were first given physical form. Mark-making is ingrained as deeply within us as these drawing are embedded in the underbelly of the earth.
Heebner’s words, her brown sepia-toned Scratching the Surface images take us “bank into the mother skin,” into the darkness of beginnings. She renders for us the swirling simplicity of memories that are forgotten on the surface but live dreams of remembering deep in the earth. Like these artists of old, she draws from the dust, from the moisture of the womb of the ash, and brings forth images of renewal, of possibility.