Desire and Longing: Image Artists After Twenty Years

Published by Chris Engler on

Greg Wolfe, Image founder, editor, publisher—and as I occasionally like to tease, indefatigable empire builder—has written many provocative essays. One of my favorites is “The Christian Writer in a Fragmented Culture,” which appeared in issue 7 in 1994. In the beginning of the essay, Greg muses on the dilemma of publishing a journal highlighting the intersection of religion and art:

Perhaps Image is really on a par with magazines like Backpacker or Hot Rod. Or worse, Image might be no better than one of those interminable scholarly journals like Sexual Semiotics Quarterly. Publishing a journal where you can be guaranteed to find half a dozen poems about God in every issue seems artificial. Are you doing justice to the material, or just creating a petting zoo for religious artists? Maybe you had better bow out gracefully and let this material appear where it should, in the New Yorker and the Paris Review.

I loved it. The idea assaults our consciousness like a junkyard dog leaping against a fence. It sharply delineates a divide between religious interests, and the apparently far larger world of “culture.” We are reminded that religion may be seen as a hobby—as idiosyncratic, consuming, and small as the world inhabited by fanatical model railroad enthusiasts. What better picture than this can you get of the great cultural inversion that was born of the Enlightenment and matured during modernity?

In the visual arts, the equivalent of “poems about God” is works of art where religious subjects are clearly evident. But even the most casual Image reader must have noticed that much of the art featured in the journal isn’t overtly religious. Some is, but a great deal of it looks like what you’d find in a “regular” journal. At least one artist—Richard Serra—has been featured in the New Yorker. Of course it is right to point out that Richard Serra isn’t really an Image artist, if by that you mean somebody who might subscribe or would likely be nourished by its core convictions. Thus there are at least two kinds of visual artists found in Image. There are those like Serra whose body of work exhibits some of the cultural values that are championed by Image, and there are those artists who are at home in Image in the sense that they see their work related to religion in some way—even if that’s not obvious.

I am concerned here with the second kind of artist. Before I discuss some of them, it is worth reflecting on what the Image project seeks to accomplish, and what it is still working toward twenty years after its unlikely birth. Simply put, Image is an exercise of the imagination and of interpretation. It is predicated on a belief, or perhaps a faith, that more is there in our arts than is being spoken of in the larger culture. Its project has been to uncover that “more,” to interpret it and give it a place to be seen. Practically speaking, this means Image and its artists are located right about where the fence of the religious petting zoo is thought to exist. Part of Image’s work is to say to people on both sides of the divide, “What fence?”

This makes Image artists a bit hard to characterize. There is not a lot of artistic consistency, though the journal has certainly exhibited a fondness for figurative and narrative painting. But there is no real discernable house style, nothing approaching a movement with manifestos and agendas. Though its artists are contemporary, Image is hardly dedicated to the pursuit of the new. A few of the artists make work that could be called edgy, but many others appear to have a clear attachment to artistic tradition. It might be said that what unifies these artists is a lack of similarity. Or, what is similar can’t be found in appearances. That seems about right for a publication copyrighted by the Center for Religious Humanism and guided by the belief that the Judeo-Christian ethos transcends specific cultures and may weave in and out of time. After all, “The wind bloweth where it listeth.”

However, artistic pluralism—or a belief that more is there than generally recognized—does not mean that anything can be presented as religious if only one is adept enough at creating the right critical discourse. Within its relative lack of style, Image has convictions about the arts that act as a skeleton and a compass. Two are worth mentioning here, because they give some insight into commonalities among the artists discussed below.

Those of us who give explanations of culture that are based on a historical account make a choice. We may see change as the most salient historical principle, or we may believe in an essential historical continuity. Narratives of modern and postmodern art draw heavily on the assumption that change propels art. The idea is easy to demonstrate visually, and at one level is only common sense. On a larger scale, those narratives of art’s ceaseless change are buttressed by modernity’s still lingering faith in progress, as well as its taste for rebellion and revolution. It is hard to find contemporary accounts of the art of our time that identify continuity as a major historical force. Obviously no responsible historical account is driven solely by one principle. Both continuity and change are demonstrably present.

But I believe that most religious visions—or at least those of Abrahamic descent—place more of a premium on continuity in history than on the primacy of change. Perhaps there is a variant of Pascal’s wager operative here. People of faith may wager that human possibilities are circumscribed, and that in some important ways we can’t transcend our origins. Or, if transcendence is possible, the source is divine, not natural. On the other hand, the party of change is betting that the future is limitless, and not tethered to the past or to any essential human condition. Surely Image’s orientation toward the three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty is one example of an assumption of human continuity, even as these are manifested differently through culture and time. This gives the journal a particular flavor, and helps explain something about the art found in its pages.

One consequence of a preference for continuity is that art is naturally viewed in historical succession, with a tendency to see the achievements of the present in light of those of the past. This raises the specter of the canon, of western hegemony, of dead white males, and of elitism. Image is vulnerable to such charges, but one’s conclusion about the truth depends on how closely one looks at the art itself, and whether one subscribes to a hermeneutics of suspicion or of charity.

The other conviction that shapes Image’s engagement of the arts may seem obvious enough to Image readers not to warrant mention. That conviction is the belief that art is a good in itself and isn’t justified by any instrumental value. Thus art’s significance is not proportionate to its ability to clothe an idea or point of view. I mention this because the conviction seems related to, or perhaps derivative of, a cherished tenet of modernism, though its origins are in fact far older. Modernist theories held that real art was purposeless, just autonomously there and unfettered by any social embeddedness. This idea has been questioned and critiqued over the last quarter century or more, and derided by artists, critics, and theorists alike. Thus in large parts of today’s art world the perception of social relevance offers art a kind of redemption from its presumed status as “useless luxury barter objects,” as Marxists used to sneer. Social relevance is an elastic category and can include everything from promoting political commitments, engaging current technologies, making public art, and utilizing popular culture, to being fashionable and seen as a sign of the times. These attributes then figure in critical calculations of importance and quality. It needs to be said that this is not simply an art-world problem. The Christian community I know best has an enormous appetite for art that is useful. For example, the phenomenon of parallel Christian worlds is especially evident in popular music, where “Christian” music apes popular genres but with a different “message.” Some of the students I interact with are predisposed to think of art as a kind of specially coded message that one can understand after enduring sufficient education. Members of the art world and the religious world may both be critical of art that is comfortable being art and in some sense is merely art.

Image’s belief about the value of art being separate from its possible uses doesn’t spring from that modernist ideal of purity and autonomy. Its roots are found in the inherent goodness of the created order. Thus it is not just art that has inherent worth apart from any use or purpose. Looking at a tree and seeing only board feet, or shade, or the ecologically useful absorption of CO2 is equally problematic. All of creation has inherent dignity and value simply by having been brought into existence by a creator. In this framework, the tree can be beautiful, ecologically useful, delightful to cool oneself by, and something to harvest—all at the same time. There is no necessary conflict between artistic value and use. We can have our beauty and build with it too. The conviction that beauty is its own justification is at the heart of the Image project—and its view of art.

As far as I know, Image has no position regarding the useful arts. After all, isn’t the most fleeting experience of beauty useful to the spirit? And why should illustration or liturgical art be seen as anything less than art? Given the vast number of liturgical objects and illustrations in our art’s history, modernity’s uselessness seems like a small aberration over the long haul. The only problem with usefulness occurs when it is trotted out to defend shoddy, meretricious work.

After several e-mail exchanges, Greg and I settled on a group of twelve artists whose work had appeared in Image over the past twenty years, and who are somewhat representative of the spectrum of artists found in its pages. I say “somewhat” because the act of condensation inevitably distorts. But in terms of media, process, style, and imagery, these artists are a fair sample of Image’s history.

The artists were asked to submit a few examples of relatively recent work, and I selected one for each artist from those submissions. The artists are:

Lynn Aldrich, Los Angeles (featured in Image issue 19);
Alfonse Borysewicz, New York (issue 32);
Sam Fentress, Saint Louis (issue 16);
Makoto Fujimura, New York (issue 22);
Tim Hawkinson, Los Angeles (issue 46);
Tobi Kahn, New York (issue 33);
Mary McCleary, Nacogdoches (issue 23);
Joel Sheesley, Wheaton (issue 4);
Stephen de Staebler, Berkeley (issues 2 and 37);
Roger Wagner, London, UK (issue 10);
Ruth Weisberg, Los Angeles (issue 56);
Patty Wickman, Los Angeles (issue 25).

If an interest in continuity and a belief in art as a good in its own right help describe the artists that Image publishes, what kinds of commonalities emerge when we look at the work proper? In what ways might Image artists be related to one another, as well as the project of the journal? How is the work connected to something understood as religious? And just as importantly, what is singular about their work? What feeds the community and provokes the kind of cross-fertilization so important to artistic richness?

The first commonality I see is one of historical allusion, and a conscious reworking of art from the past. Mary McCleary’s mixed-media collage on paper For the Time Being continues her labor-intensive work that simultaneously reads as “real” in the tradition of pictorial painting and as a tactile and visibly constructed image in the manner of early collages by Picasso and Braque [see Plate X].Newer to her work is an evocation of seventeenth-century Dutch floral paintings. These paintings were made to delight the senses, while also reminding viewers of the fleeting nature of beauty, and of life. They aspire to be beautiful and moral. The old Dutch paintings often have a few insects in among the leaves and flowers, but in For the Time Being the insects buzz, flutter, crawl, and alight in a kind of all-over pattern of fecundity and hunger that threatens to overwhelm and deflower the arrangement. Termites gnaw at one leg of the Queen Anne table. A Band-aid box sits enigmatically next to a goldfinch, a traditional symbol of Christ’s passion. Mary says succinctly that the work “is about the mixture of both good and bad in the world…and our inability as humans to totally eliminate evil.”

Ruth Weisberg’s oil and mixed-media painting The Blessing is even more specific in its utilization of art from an earlier epoch [see Plate X]. She was invited by the Norton Simon Museum to choose any painting in its collection and respond to it in her work. She selected Martha Rebuking Mary for Her Vanity from around 1660 by the Italian Baroque artist Guido Cagnacci. She used Cagnacci’s work as the basis for more than twenty paintings, monumental drawings, and monotypes. These are exhibited in Ruth Weisberg: Guido Cagnacci and the Resonant Image, at the museum until March 2, 2009.

In contrast to McCleary, who extends and amplifies the content of her sources, Weisberg uses Cagnacci’s painting as a point of departure. On the museum’s website, Weisberg writes that difference is a good part of the content of The Blessing. She points out the three plus centuries between her source and her works, and the fact that Cagnacci was working in and for a Catholic counter-reformational culture while she is a Jewish woman working in significantly different circumstances. Weisberg sees Martha’s rebuke as an affirmation of belief in original sin and notes that she doesn’t share those assumptions.

Weisberg uses Cagnacci’s composition as an armature on which to build her own, but turns the conflict and tension in his painting into an image of affirmation and comfort. In the original painting, a winged figure of virtue behind the recumbent Mary is driving away vice; here he stands alone, a protective figurehead guarding the blessing. In place of Cagnacci’s scolding Martha, Weisberg herself offers Mary a blessing. The other two figures are based on her family members. Religiously, the painting is layered, as Weisberg has turned a Christian subject back toward its own Jewish roots. The act of blessing is one of the archetypal rituals from the scriptures Jews and Christians share, and the painter has presented herself as a contemporary matriarch, her family’s equivalent of the great patriarch Abraham.

Not all Image artists engage the history of western art—or even have visible concern with the past. The photographer Sam Fentress has been documenting popular Christian expressions for over twenty-five years, traveling to forty-nine states and making thousands of pictures. His 2007 book Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape concentrates our attention on an easily missed—or dismissed—world. These are the so-called fly-over states of American religion: anonymous, spontaneous, crude, weird, humorous, profoundly moving, and apparently without the craft and complexity of art.

That Fentress brings a high sense of art to his photographs is evident in Saint Robert, MO, 2006. A truck rushes towards the fading sun, past the column of an overpass spray-painted with the words “Yaweh Elohim.” An alert driver might see it for a few seconds, a mysterious flash of two Hebraic names of God glimpsed amid the continual unreeling of sight at sixty-five miles per hour. The truck and sky are framed by the overpass and guardrail in such a way as to emphasize the rush of the journey toward…we know not what. Partially obscured by the column is a yellow sign that warns of a steep descent. Fentress’s sharp, compelling photograph points to the eternal within the ebb and flow of ephemera. The numbing experience of the American highway is relieved by a surprising reminder of God’s abiding presence—once a pillar of fire, now a concrete column. Another example of work that seems disconnected from the past, and from standards of any established canon, is Lynn Aldrich’s Biophilia. The sculpture stands about three and a half feet tall and is made up of synthetic cleaning devices—sponges, rubber gloves, bottle brushes, and the like. It lurches as if it is reaching and recalls the organic growth of a coral reef. It is pristine in its newness, like something from nature before humans got hold of it.

Earlier works of Aldrich’s showed that ancient biblical narratives persist within the artifacts of consumer culture. It is easy to look at Biophilia and assume that its antecedents stretch back no further than the 1950s or 60s. But the spirit Aldrich brings to her work is in the line of Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf or Audubon’s Birds of North America. She is scrutinizing our synthetic species with the same intensity and passion with which earlier generations of artists and naturalists looked at the creation. Biophilia is serious, but also humorous in a wide-eyed, giddy way, and its spirit has nothing to do with the “one damn thing after another” attitude found in so many of the world-weary commentaries on popular culture. Biophilia is not a religious sculpture, but it is hardly a secular one either. It is an example of the kind of work that straddles the perceived boundary between religion and culture, resisting simplistic categorical absolutism.

While both secularists and religionists tend to view modern art as progressively a-religious in its practices and intents, there have been pockets within modern art long identified as otherwise. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote about the religious sensibilities of expressionism in the 1920s, and ever since, various expressionisms have provoked religious interpretation. This has certainly been true for the sculptor Stephen De Staebler, whose clay or bronze figures embody the struggle of spiritual aspiration. Figure Column XL stands just over average human height, and the scarred, pitted, and scorched surfaces suggest that the human capacity to stand is not so easily achieved. Like Adam, De Staebler’s figure is made from the earth, but here we have a form whose genesis and growth seems to have been mediated by suffering. It is minimally figural, but conveys a posture and attitude unmistakably human. While it draws on the language of twentieth-century abstraction, it is also linked to the pre-modern artists Tillich admired as being genuinely religious, such as Romanesque sculptors. In De Staebler’s figure the transcendent nobility of human experience is bound to its tragic circumstances.

In 2001 Alfonse Borysewicz wrote in Image about his work, explaining how he gradually came to deal with overt Christian imagery. It was a slow process, given his own sense of privacy and his recognition that the art world did not always welcome religious belief. He had received some very good reviews in mainstream art publications during the 1990s, where his “spiritual intensity,” “language of transcendence,” and “light of optimism” were all praised. But as the work became more clearly Christian in its subjects, critical affirmation declined, leading him to conclude that the art world trivialized and avoided any “serious affirmation of Christian belief.” His recent Madonna and Child is serious, obvious in its subject, and radiates a serene and confident devotion. It is a large painting, eight feet high, made up of three panels. The use of the panels was dictated by the loss of his studio. He was forced to paint in the garden of his apartment building, where he laid panels horizontally on an air-conditioning unit. He continued using panels after finding a new studio because it was a practical way to make big paintings portable, and he liked what fragmentation brings to the content of a picture. Madonna and Child is made with oil and wax on linen. The whitish wax patterns give the figures a wrapped, muffled look. Mary’s simple visage is barely visible behind the markings. The picture has the appearance of having been around for a long time, and yet seems to be prevented from speaking to us fully. Borysewicz sees our culture and its church in a crisis which marginalizes and deforms the faith. He wants his work to lay the groundwork for a future, as yet unknown church, which will speak more truly and fully into its world.

De Staebler’s and Borysewicz’s work depends on an interaction between our capacity to recognize their subjects as figures and our perception of the artists’ handling of forms and materials. Expressionism acts in a gap between the work’s subject and its means of creation. In expressionist art the creative process discernibly affects the subject, rather than serving the illusion of reproducing it, so that exacting resemblance is exchanged for greater emotional charge.

In Makoto Fujimura’s work, the means of making directly mediates his subject, and with a very few exceptions we don’t see recognizable forms in his paintings. His work has been deeply affected by the great mid-century American movement, abstract expressionism. His recent exhibit at the Dillon Gallery in New York included an homage to Willem de Kooning, for whom he has a special affinity. Fujimura has written that it was coming to the Christian faith that allowed him to trust what he saw. “I now had a new conviction, to know for certain that certainty existed, that the ‘substance of things hoped for’ is not a shadow of existence, but the greater reality, more real and weighty than our own.”

Fire and Rose is a visually sumptuous painting, with veils of color spreading through watery transparencies and occasional gestures of more opacity and substance. The title is taken from a phrase in T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, “the fire and the rose are one.” It is not evident in reproduction that Fujimura paints with pulverized minerals, a technique developed in Japan centuries ago. He weds a modern idiom with an ancient process to probe behind appearance and toward an essential reality. Speaking about the problem of getting at fire’s essence, Fujimura says that it “is at once recognizable and yet mysteriously abstract at the same time.” The minerals he uses undergo a physical transformation as the painting is created. This transformation has a spiritual corollary that is part of the poetry and beauty at the heart of Fujimura’s work, as the minerals leave their natural state to embody an image of the reality greater than their own.

Tobi Kahn’s Saphyr II is unique among the works considered here in several ways. First, it exists in nine versions. The first two are found in the collections of the Jewish Museum and Milwaukee Art Museum, and seven more are owned by private organizations and synagogues. Kahn plans to create a larger edition that would be more widely available. So the work is not a singular object, and its size and materials may vary. Then too, its purpose is ceremonial; it is not meant simply to be looked at. Saphyr II is an omer counter, used to mark the forty-nine days between the second day of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot. The first festival celebrates the passage of Israel from slavery to freedom; the second, the giving of the law at Sinai. During the period between, each member of the community is expected to participate in a daily prayer and recite an observation of the calendar’s week and day. Typically, the omer counter is a scroll kept in a box, and the prayer and calendar are read aloud. Kahn changed this by making an object that people could handle and move.

Each shape in Saphyr II is a peg, which fits into a slot corresponding to a day in the calendar. The counter may be used either by beginning with all of the slots empty and progressing to full, or in the opposite direction, proceeding from full to empty. What Kahn desires—and what now happens—is that people interact with the counter, the community observing their ritual together. Each day, one person places or removes a peg, names the week and day, and recites a blessing. Thus the pattern of forty-nine shapes contains an implicit interplay between the importance of the individual and the whole community. It matters to Kahn that the organization of the underlying grid does not create visible uniformity, and thus the difference of each individual is preserved.

The field of shapes in Saphyr II is meant to evoke both a wall and the rooftops of Jerusalem. Its visual language is also unique among the art discussed here. Apparently abstract, it resonates with many twentieth-century sculptural forms. But in the context of the community’s usage, the counter becomes representational, with specific reference and meaning.

One of the problems facing people whose religion is built upon a bedrock of historical events is that in our world religion can seem so past-tense, so out of touch with now. I think each artist here would affirm that the past is alive within our present, even though it may be hard to see, but some artists feel the need to address this problem, and make works that set the narratives of the past within our own context. It is a way of seeing the religious story afresh and affirming that its truth is accessible to us today. Roger Wagner’s Walking on Water is a painting with slightly hallucinatory look and feel. It sets a gospel narrative on the Thames in London..

The river is calm and reflects industrial London with an uncanny clarity. Two figures stand midstream. Far from the shoreline, they stand on the city’s inverted image. The huge complex of buildings partially seen in the background is Battersea Power Station, the largest brick building in Europe, built to contain Europe’s largest steam turbine. The station no longer generates power, but the building is a cherished icon and has appeared in films, on television, and on a Pink Floyd album cover. What is striking here is the play between the two kinds of power generation. The small figure of Christ beckoning Peter to come seems insignificant before the bulk of this great source of civic power and pride. The quiet irony is that the giant turbine no longer has power, while the unremarkable Christ still does. Wagner wrote that “while it wasn’t a direct inspiration for the picture, the Francis Thompson poem ‘In No Strange Land’ was not far from my thoughts while I was painting it.” Its last lines read: “And lo, Christ walking on the water, / not of Genesareth, but of Thames.”

Patty Wickman’s Outside the Garden is not based on a specific narrative, but rather on the idea of a garden and all the rich associations suggested by it. A garden can represent so many things: the Eden we were expelled from, the continual labor which was the expulsion’s consequence, a vision of health and harmony found in nature, or the domestication of nature by civilization. All these are present to some degree in Wickman’s painting, set in a contemporary garden, probably in suburbia. We don’t know what’s on the other side of the fence that stretches across the background and blocks our view of the horizon. In the foreground a gardener rises from his labors in the mud, apparently startled by and drawn to the light coming from outside the picture. His hands and legs are covered with mud, and his body is aging. He is accompanied by—or in some instances observed by—eight birds and three squirrels.

Wickman writes that the origins of the painting were in “repeated passages in the Psalms where the condition of sin is described as being stuck in the miry depths or in mud.” She adds that scenes from B-movies she saw as a child of people sinking into quicksand left a lasting impression, too. Like Ruth Weisberg, Wickman enlisted a member of her family. The gardener is her father-in-law, who identified with the idea of being stuck in the mud, and who later told her he wished that her depiction of his garden had showed the fruits of his labor more positively. So here we are in the twenty-first century, still engaged in the work we were given to do at the beginning of time, and still mired in mud.

The work of the last two artists, Tim Hawkinson and Joel Sheesley, reflects some of the characteristics discussed here. Sheesley’s painting Going Up easily recalls Jacob’s ladder. And Hawkinson’s Bear is an object from popular culture by way of Stonehenge. But each piece may also represent a way religiously oriented artists can approach their work.

Hawkinson’s Bear at the UC San Diego campus is a wonderful contradiction. Something cuddly is depicted in rough granite; a child’s toy normally held easily by small hands now stands twenty-three and a half feet tall and weighs one hundred and eighty-two tons. It certainly provokes wonder and amazement, and the simplicity of its looks belie the considerable engineering behind it. It is remarkably free and direct too; not laden with theory, it seems happy to be itself and does not reach for a statement. It would be silly to try to read either religion or secularity into the Bear. Such a tortured exercise would reduce the considerable delight it offers us in the here and now. In the larger body of Hawkinson’s work there are pieces like Pentecost where religious content is present and should be engaged, but not in this monumental pleasure. My point is that religious conviction in an artist does not necessarily mandate an art of big questions, of transcendence, or of moral motions. Bear’s goodness resides in its being, which is sufficient and complete.

On the other hand, Sheesley’s Going Up, while admirable in its qualities as a painting, seems to want interpretation. Its spatial complexity is intriguing. We are looking down onto the mirror-like surface of a puddle in a driveway. It reflects the dark, largely flat image of someone climbing a ladder. The top and bottom of the ladder are beyond both the picture frame and the puddle, but the top appears to rests on the puddle’s edge. The water also reflects trees and a clouded sky, with a small area of blue. One has the sense that the climber will get up to the edge and be able to peer over it into a new world. The puddle can also read as a hole in the ground.

The idea of ascension is hard-wired into the biblical narratives. What is intriguing about this picture of going up is that it so easily reads as going down. Going down resonates with those scriptural passages about what we must do to grow in faith: the kingdom belongs to the lowest and least. The painting also has a bit of yearning in it, not a yearning to slip the bonds of our earthly existence in some gnostic fashion, but rather to find and see more than is here in our world now. It rejects the notion that this present reality is all we get. But, significantly, it doesn’t try to show us where the climber is headed or what he might see.

Though these Image artists differ in many ways, they are united in an affirmation of this world and the full richness of culture that the arts offer us now—no strings attached. But they also recognize that the Jewish and Christian religions rest on historical foundations which run through our present tense towards a future that is perceived by faith. Art may fulfill our desires for beauty, significance, and knowledge. But art may also give shape and direction to our longings for the larger, better, still-hidden reality that is yet to come. There is no separation between religion and culture in Image—the fence and the junk yard dog don’t exist.

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