Previous posts have referenced the typical representations of dolphins in New Age art, but today we’re going to delve into the ouvre of one specific artist whose paintings are some of the most influential depictions of dolphins and whales ever created. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his art. Born in California and raised in Lahaina on Maui, “the art capital of the Pacific Rim”, Christian Riese Lassen combines his two passions of painting and surfing to create art that expresses his deep connection to the ocean. His signature hyper-realistic rendering of marine life paired with highly saturated dreamlike colours have become one of the defining motifs of New Age poster art. But is Christian himself a New Age artist? In this post, we’ll explore themes in the cetacean art of one of the world’s most famous marine artists.
Christian is known for his “Two Worlds” compositions wherein he shows underwater life and the sky simultaneously. Many of these works feature dolphins or whales bridging the gap by leaping out of the ocean into the air. He first began painting dolphins and whales in the mid-1980s. The painting Our World first launched his international career when Japanese art collectors noticed it on display in Lahaina. Since then, he has become one of the most famous foreign artists ever in Japan, and his fame spread worldwide to the point that in 1998 he was chosen as Goodwill Ambassador by the UN for the International Year of the Ocean. Growing up near a marine reservation in Lahaina, he was an avid surfer who took inspiration from the local dolphins, who he describes as “the greatest surfers in the world”. He strives in his art to capture the way light plays on the uniquely textured skin of cetaceans, describing it as “one of my big challenges in life”. Christian attributes his ability to render marine life in such naturalistic detail to his lifetime of being on the waves:
My surfing has brought me a closeness and an affinity to the ocean that I think most marine artists never get. I think most artists don’t have that passion to get in the water every day, immersed in it, and be part of the sea like I have been. I’ve been lucky to live in Hawaii all my life and have the ocean at my back door, so my subject matter’s just right there for me and I’m pretty much in it every day.
Two of the major themes that emerge from his cetacean-themed art are maternal love and spirituality. Christian’s relationship with his late mother has always been central to his life. Living with polio, his mother was told she would probably die when she became pregnant with him, but she prayed that she and her son would survive. When they both lived through the birth, she named him Christian to honour God’s role in his miraculous survival. She told her son that God had given his life as a gift, both to her and to the world, and Christian internalised that belief. That gift was Christian’s art, and his mother remained his staunchest supporter until she passed away in 2009 while Christian was on a soul-searching journey in Indonesia. She championed his art when teachers worried he spent too much time doodling in class, telling them that he would be a famous artist one day. She also served as the executive director of the Sea Vision Foundation, an environmental charity Christian founded in 1990 to “give back to the ocean that has given so much to [him]”. The motif of a young whale or dolphin calf swimming with its mother appears again and again in his art, likely rooted in the deep relationship he has his with mother. Cetaceans are fitting conduits for conveying this connection since most species exhibit strong mother-calf bonds.
Paintings featuring mothers and calves
That relationship also informs the second major theme of his work: spirituality. In the documentary The Gift, Christian Riese Lassen describes his mother as a “prophet”:
While Christian never labels his mother’s spirituality — or his own — his work and outlook on life reveal elements of both Christianity and New Age beliefs. His name carries an obvious religious connotation, and he sometimes uses Christian language in naming his pieces, such as the works Paternoster and The Trinity. However, there are strong elements from other belief systems that run through his work. Earlier in the documentary the narrator relates, “Inspired by Mother Nature and supported by his mother, Christian was taught that what you visualize is what your life becomes.” Christian elaborates on this philosophy later when he says:
I’ve always had a vision for what I wanted to achieve in my life. Not saying I’ve achieved everything, and I still have goals to achieve. But visualizing and seeing it as already finished, visualizing yourself being there and accomplishing your goals and knowing that you’re capable and it’s right for you, having that sort of confidence and trust in the universe – that’s how I have attained the things that I have.
Regular readers of this blog might recognise this language as typical of New Thought, a philosophical tradition analysed in the Magical Mermaids and Dolphins article. For those who haven’t read it or aren’t familiar with the term, New Thought is a close relative of Christian Science. Both are philosophical systems that originated in the 19th century and championed the power of positive thinking to manifest physical outcomes. According to New Thought, visualization of the desired outcome as already fulfilled is key to achieving it – imagining something as reality is what makes it reality. The parallels between this outlook and Christian’s worldview are strong enough to suggest that he and his mother were both exposed to New Thought, whether directly through a missionary centre or indirectly through other related movements.
New Age is a strong contender. A separate religious phenomenon which nonetheless has borrowed much from New Thought, New Age has been popular in Hawai’i for decades. Maui, Christian’s home island, is the hub of this activity in the archipelago. A hippie haven since the 1960s, Maui drew many visitors during the alleged Harmonic Convergence in 1987, an astrological event which some believed to signal the beginning of a new era. Harmonic Convergence was based on American interpretations of Aztec mythology and was not supported by even “mainstream” astrologists, but among believers, power centres like Haleakala Crater on Maui were thought to emanate special energy in response to alignments in the stars and attract extraterrestrial visitors. New Agers believe that the crater continues to be a source of healing energy, and Maui thrives as a hotspot for New Age-themed businesses. Many New Age developments specific to Hawai’i appropriate native Hawaiian beliefs, refashioned into something highly marketable to tourists already seeking a tropical escape from their regular lives. Huna, for example, was invented by Max Freedom Long who claimed it was an esoteric Hawaiian tradition; in reality, after being denied access to the knowledge of trained cultural practitioners, Long came up with new concepts and attached them to Hawaiian words in the hope of passing Huna off as an ancient system. The lucrative New Age industry in Hawai’i often seeks legitimacy in native Hawaiian beliefs while contributing to a tourism industry that drives up prices which keep many native Hawaiians impoverished.
Christian’s art is obviously influenced by New Age, but it is difficult to find explicit references in his artwork that align him with particular belief systems such as Huna. There are only broad nods to native Hawaiian religion in his work, such as a volcanic eruption being described as the dawn of Pele. He also appears to avoid the extremes of New Age belief — there are no extraterrestrials in his paintings, nor references to Lemuria, Atlantis, or other popular alternative homes for otherworldly dolphins. His cetaceans aren’t explicitly telepathic or extraterrestrial, but they do often travel through space. As discussed previously on this blog, many New Agers believe that dolphins travel from outer space to bring messages to humankind. Christian’s Cosmic Voyagers painting comes closest to suggesting this, but overall, his paintings of cetaceans in space are vague enough to be interpreted metaphorically rather than as expressing the literal belief that dolphins engage in intergalactic travel.
Paintings featuring cetaceans interacting with space
If Christian isn’t trying to claim that dolphins are aliens with his paintings, then why put them in space? Although the most hardcore New Agers subscribe to ideas about hyperintelligent alien dolphins, the general theme of cetaceans in space enjoys much wider popularity. As Rebecca Onion puts it in her article The Fantastical Allure of the Space Whale:
To fans of space whales, these scenes pack heavy meaning. There is a bigness, infinity, and possibility in both space and the ocean. The whale is also big, and its ways mysterious, but its presence in the void has a way of concentrating those intimidating qualities, serving them up to the viewer in a legible way.
Onion sees the space whale art phenomenon as resulting from a perfect storm of space exploration, environmentalism, and “psychedelic mind-expansion” in the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, environmentalism is the only one of these themes featured in The Gift documentary about Christian’s life. His commentary about his work always focusses on his intense relationship with the ocean and only ever alludes briefly to supernatural beliefs. From what I could ascertain, he hasn’t commented publicly on the exact nature of the spirituality that informs his art. New Agers across the world have embraced his art, which adorns websites about everything from the lost continent of Lemuria to extraterrestrial encounters, but Christian’s own relationship with the most fantastical of these ideas remains unknown.