Passersby linger outside Old South Church in Boston, where the grounds—designed by gardener Jim Hood—offer a visual witness to the life of the church. During the bleak winter months, a stick garden maintains a profound presence. Carpenters create "whips" of spruce, 7 feet tall, covered in shades of red opaque stain, to form an abstract sculpture resembling red osier dogwood, which is common in New England. The shock of color provides a promise that a nearby sign articulates: "The garden is also a proclamation of our faith, that beauty will spring from barrenness and form out of chaos, life out of death. Here in the coldest and darkest time we make bold to proclaim that spring and life are on their way."
When I started the work,” writes video artist/photographer Eija-Liisa Ahtila, “the aim was to do a remake of the annunciation paintings with moving images to see what this powerful image in our culture would turn out to be and what it would mean in present-day Western society.” The result, The Annunciation, is a three-channel multimedia installation exhibited at the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York. A mixture of stills of familiar paintings of the annunciation and acted scenes—with angels, a patron, donkeys, Mary, cultural Christmas snapshots and layers of angel wings—creates a layered narrative. In the 33-minute installation, Ahtila’s work runs through cultural allusions and histories, moving in and through the natural and supernatural.
Melding seriousness with wry joy, Michigan artist Rick Beerhorst creates location out of dislocation, dislocation out of location. His preparatory sketches are artworks in their own right. "When I am working up an idea for a new painting," he writes in his blog, "I am in a very vulnerable place. I don't like it there, but if I don't go there, there are simply no new paintings." In some of his writing, Beerhorst mentions divine appointments, those things we make plans for even as something else shows up that is "infinitely more interesting."
The artwork of Chicago artist Clare Rosean packs a psychological wallop that leaves viewers confused and uneasy. Rosean's ink and pencil works feature images of transportation gone awry, stairways that don't lead anywhere—a dream gone bad. Hers is a world in which narratives are suspended. About her series After the Bomb, she writes, "My original intention was to map out a city devastated after an enormous bomb. I assign no time period to this setting; past, present and future are meshed into one hazy era. It is a gray place, and you cannot trust anyone here. Your neighbor is a wolf in sheep's clothing; behind every mild-mannered gentleman is a salivating dog."
John Freeman, who watched the events of 9/11 from his home in Australia, brings a child's eye to art. It's an approach that he says allows him to display "an honesty and clarity which is often lost in sophisticated Western art." About Impact he writes that he used "a bird as a symbol of 'God' or the Holy Spirit. It is the 'otherness' beyond the human experience that pervades all things. The bird is beautiful, fragile beyond man's control and dominion. It possesses qualities man does not—freedom of flight, and like God, observes all things from a different perspective, seemingly in an impartial and nonintrusive way."
For ten years Minnesota artist Sonja Olson has been building a body of artwork for a fictional character—Buelah Reidun Kelbison, a Midwestern farm woman and midwife. The project began with recurring dreams Olson had of a character working through layers of grief. Beulah's life is witnessed through artifacts: a book of hours, a birthing chair, an examination/funeral/dissection table, an obituary, an altar, prayer cloths. Olson's intention is that these objects be seen not solely as artworks but as remnants of a life. Olson's explorations of Luke's Gospel continually surface, providing commentary on the project.
German painter and sculptor Egino Weinert (b. 1920) began his artistic training after entering the monastery of the Benedictine Missionaries. He left the order before taking final vows. In 1941 he was imprisoned after refusing to utter "Heil Hitler." Several years later he lost his right hand in an accident. He taught himself to work with his opposite hand and began his art career anew. Whether working in cloisonné-style enamel paint with bronze thread details (see above left) or in bronze sculpture (see upper right), Weinert offers luminous images of figures in church history and the Bible.
An outgrowth of New Life Church in Stockholm, Synergy is a network of people interested in connecting Christian faith with the work of musicians, painters, writers, actors and other artists. Members connect with one another via Facebook; they meet in coffee houses and sometimes in desolate urban spaces, such as under bridges, where they seek to engage graffiti artists. The aim is to encourage creative expression and to make public witness to Christian faith. The group receives funding from some community sources (such as a light company and a local newspaper) and is able to offer stipends to some artists.
On March 5, 2007, a car bomb exploded on al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an area of booksellers that is the literary heart of the city. The bomb killed 30 people and wounded others. In response, a group of U.S. printers and artists formed the Al-Mutanabbi Street Coalition. The coalition honors the dead as well as the role of literature in preserving culture and forming the conscience of a people. The coalition's work is housed at the Arthur and Mata Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University. This particular broadside or poster, by Frank Riccio, an illustrator, and Garrett Queen, who typeset and printed the work on letterpress, was produced at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. It features a text from Akiba ben Joseph, one of the great scholars and founders of rabbinic Judaism.
My expectations only serve me when they are thwarted," says Michelle Mackey about her current work. Mackey, who is based in New York and teaches at Southern Methodist University, says she came to this realization after wondering why she felt "secure with familiarity and insecure with change." Mackey's current series of acrylic paintings in a limited palette explores memory as though memory were fragments of geography. She works with polyurethane and sandpaper. Every small movement on the surface affects the entire work. For someone uneasy about change, she incessantly explores it, even as she explores that to which we are bound: memory. The viewer is given a small segment of a larger whole: a window, a door, a wall, markings. Each work also looks like a storehouse of memory. "If 'through a glass darkly' one can glimpse the whole," writes Mackey, "the portal of these moments must be glowing."
When Boston-area artist Linda Burke first fired a gun, it kicked back, offloading a hot cartridge that went down her shirt. As she scrambled to save herself, she forgot that she was holding a gun with the safety catch off. She had a new sense of lives being "thin and fine as filament." She considered "that whether it's a gun or an act we do, or an illness and how we respond—whatever we do affects another thing." For Untitled 7, she placed a small copy of Leonardo da Vinci's Face of Christ study on top of the "Scoring for Training" box.
How to comprehend the Holy Trinity? Reflecting on her woodblock and linoleum print, Holly Meade writes, "Well, there is no comprehending the Holy Trinity. And picturing the Holy Trinity? That's not to be either. On the other hand, we've all been given imagination, and a sense of wonder and play. And so here they are, as colorful, holy personalities compelled forward on our behalf—lovely, watchful, tireless." Best known for illustrating children's books (she was awarded a Caldecott Honor), Meade has recently turned to printmaking. "Printing with woodblocks is a somewhat indirect path to take to arrive at an image. In spite of this, it frequently results in images of great immediacy." This indirect path and great immediacy meet in Holy Trinity, which unites artistic medium and an energetic sense of spirit, presence, being and the personhood of God.
The dynamic of Elisa D'Arrigo's work seems simple: yellow squares sewn together, with the thread bringing out a sculptural dimension. But a specific memory underlies each piece. Writes D'Arrigo: "These memories are of images I once observed, and then held in mind . . . sometimes for decades, and are the subtext of the work." Sometimes the memory is directly related to a piece of fabric of her past, or the past of friends in her community. A narrative is developed through abstraction. There's something appropriate about meeting D'Arrigo's sculpture during Ordinary Time, for this is a season for building a calendar of squares. In these weeks we understand that formation comes as small threads pull and bind and connect and shape us. This in turn causes planes to pop out or angle in, looking as though they were in a constant dynamic of subtle changes of light. In a season that is about formation and process, D'Arrigo's work extends the spiritual plane through the physical.
The description of Shannon Newby's outdoor installation Incarne reads: "Abandoned refrigerator, light, and sheep casings stuffed with acrylic gel medium and shredded Bible pages set in the forest of Leavenworth, Washington." The sheep casings hold words of scripture, and the surrounding trees make their own dark scribbles against the remaining light in the sky. Newby writes, "The materials are like tactile stand-ins that have the capacity to point to more ethereal, intangible constructs." With Incarne, it's as though we were meeting the New Testament in forested dusk. The eternal dwells in what is broken and temporal.
A series of oil paintings titled Yan' Guan Town, by Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong, explores two families, one Christian and one Muslim, both living in a region of China considered a "crossroads of cultures." At the center of the series are two paintings: large family portraits. The Christian family—"Z's Family"—is shown in their church, while "H's Family," the Muslim family, is seen in the café that the family runs. (Painting was not allowed in their mosque.) The series is filled in by studies of individual family members. Through these studies Xiaodong patiently builds a picture of religious practices and of common and private spaces. He offers reportage, not interpretation. In one interview, Xiaodong said, "The artist has a responsibility to use his critical powers to cut through social issues for a dispassionate standpoint. . . . You don't need to condone or blindly eulogize."
These photos by Tim Lisko bring to mind fields of birch trees, beaches, ocean and skylines—or they may be seen as elements of pure design, strips and strings of light and dark, of shading and repetition. The Indiana-based Lisko took these photos while traveling on a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. High train speeds and lengthened exposures create an image so blurred as to produce strong patterns, lines, colors, depths—"something," the photographer notes, that "turned out to be a sense of balance, of simplicity, of stillness." A quote from poet and professor Lionel Basney speaks of the profound reengagement that photographs like these hint toward: "The question is, have you met whatever you take to be nonnegotiable—God, the divine, death, the ultimate ground of being—and held that encounter until the other declared its name?"
The New Mexican artist Vicente Telles stands in a line of Southwest religious workers going back to the 1700s. He mixes classic and contemporary understandings comfortably, working with nontraditional forms—such as painting an image of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child as a comic book cover or an image of Jesus the King in a mirrorlike meeting, as on a set of poker cards. Despite his whimsy, each work is punctuated by surprising reverence. The dynamic combination of faithfulness to convention and experimentation with materials can be seen in Telles's signature piece The Last Supper. The table scene is treated within a larger theological tradition. Yet rather than working on wood, as is customary, Telles paints on cold-rolled steel. A water-based patina creates a light acid effect on the steel (shown in the detail), and through chemical reaction the effect is reminiscent of early frescoes.
Working with found objects of metal, stone and glass, Leroy E. Fresquez Jr. finds his materials in wrecking yards and demolition sites. He makes use of old farm equipment, long-abandoned trucks and railroad spikes, building new narrative from these materials while incorporating and acknowledging their original purpose. He calls his work "a recycled art"—the discarded pieces he discovers already hold their own inherent beauty and history. Scrap-heaped materials become dignified through re-visioning, selection, and placement. In Sacred Heart Cross, he combines an exhaust manifold from a 1920s pickup and barbed wire.
Video installations at museums and galleries evoke fascination and unease. Often we are torn between our desire for a traditional cinematic experience and curiosity about something deliciously unfamiliar. In Landscapes, Illinois artist L. Ashwyn Collins presents overly amplified sound coupled with spare visual planes. As from a distance, we watch a solitary soul walk across one screen and return back through the other screen in unexpected close-up. The use of slow motion undermines expectation (and increases desire and anxiety). The slower the work becomes, the more viewers become aware of an interior tension. "One of the goals of my work," Collins writes, "is to unsettle the viewer's expectations and visual confidence—to make art that surprises."
In a series of postcard-sized paintings titled Hello Masterpieces! Leslie Holt places
pop culture icon Hello Kitty into familiar artworks. While this placement may
have us giggling at an Andy Warhol piece, the appearance of this image within
Caravaggio's painting may stun, anger or silence us. The juxtaposition of the
two images challenges our long-held aesthetic categories. Holt's work suggests
that we cannot always separate pop culture from sacred and artistic moments. In
describing this series, the word that Holt uses is dislocation. As Holt notes, her work "often displays an unsettling
intersection of childhood and the adult world."