24 March 2010

The White Stone Gallery

Today I visited The White Stone Gallery in Philadelphia. I heard about the current exhibit, the 2010 Juried Fine Arts and Faith Exhibit, through the e-update of Image magazine. I’d like to tell you about my visit, discuss the works of art on display, and encourage you to go and visit it yourself.

The gallery is a little storefront on Main Street in Manayunk, along the river just north of Philadelphia, not too far north of the Museum of Fine Art. The street is a quaint little old-world boulevard of expensive shops, coffeeshops, and indie-style dealers in collectibles and second-hand clothing. Inside, the gallery is tiny and bright: a cube of white with a black ceiling that seems to open off and let endless distance into the small, squared-off space. The pieces were hung well, reds and dark russets echoing each other opposite the door, traces of gold and scarlet stringing the pieces on the left-hand wall, darks giving way to silvers, blues, then black-and-white along the right-hand wall. There were about 15 pieces, perhaps, in that front room. I moseyed along, trying to analyze the pieces. The visual arts are my weakest field; I can talk endlessly about writing, music, film, theatre, and even (to some extent) dance, but I haven’t much knowledge about the technical aspects of the visual arts. I found one piece that appealed to me for its delicate use of gold, especially how the metal traced out a Scripture verse in thin, veiny letters against a black backdrop.

I was drawn to the most representative painting in the room (there was also one remarkable photograph): a depiction of the Prodigal Son and his father in modern clothes; the father’s face was pressed to the son’s shoulder in deep, deep pain and relief. The layers of his joy and anguish were well depicted. But it was the son’s face that saved the painting from sappiness: it was completely empty. He stared straight ahead at nothing over his dad’s bowed head. His eyes were meaningless. He was totally drained. In his face I could read the straigraphy of flaunting confidence, angry pride, scornful independence, then flinging lust, followed by a crash into degredation, the flare and burn of shame and guilt, the absolute bottom reached. Then coming home. With nothing left. Stripped of feeling. Deep into that deadness of guilt that tries to push itself off on the other person, and so refuses everything in the end, even forgiveness.

While I was looking at The Prodigal Son” by Ryan Jackson, the curator of the gallery began to talk to me. She drew my attention to the next piece: a really funny, easter-colored picture of a dinosaur climbing out of a vermillion vase. It looked like it belonged in a child’s nursery. So Susan told me the story. The painter, Paul Tepper, is known for his Gothic works. He revels, even wallows, in the dark, the dreary. Then one day he got thinking about how art is a gift from God and therefore should be enjoyed: painting should be fun! It doesn’t always need to be serious; it doesn’t always need to confront the dark side of life. So he deliberately decided to play. Just play. And the result was this quirky, funny, bright piece “Dinosaur: Curious.”

Susan Hooks, the curator-owner along with her husband Derek, is a fantastic story teller. She took me around the gallery, recounting delightful tales of how people have responded to the art, of the artists’ lives and work, and of the vision she and her husband share for their gallery. The two of them both have experience as trained fine artists who have exhibited in galleries themselves. And they both have good business sense and experience. They run White Stone as a business, not as a ministry—but the ministry often seems to make itself, anyway. They know that if they do not compromise either the quality of the work or the orthodoxy of the message, they ministry will follow. If they were running a hardware store, Susan said, they would jolly well sell hammers that would do the job of driving in nails. But if anyone happened to ask about a certain Jewish carpenter, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell His story. Meanwhile, the Lord has given them a business to run, doors to keep open, art to sell. So they will spend their energies hunting down the best artists, those who present their faith subtly through impeccable technique. And now the best artists seek them out.

The artists have to have the technique. But if they don’t have the faith, the works will be wooden, cold. “It’s like when you hear someone sing ‘Amazing Grace’” said Susan. “If they sing it with absolutely flawless technique, you will be impressed and will admire their singing. But if the person who sings ‘Amazing Grace’ has also livedamazing grace, it will move you to tears. We have often had to keep boxes of tissues out around the gallery. People are moved to tears. What they see enables them to open up.” So although the Hooks don’t ask submitting artists for a statement of faith, they can tell. And it works the other way, too: once an art contest asked for submissions responding to the Twenty-Third Psalm. Many artists who were not Christians decided to submit work, and set about studying that Psalm in preparation. And many of them got saved in the process!

Starting next month (April 3 – June 27), three great names will grace White Stone: Makoto Fujimura, Wayne Berger, and The Milans (John & Elli Milan; I guess that makes four names?). I intend to go back to see this show, and to interview the curators officially for another post. But Fujimura?! He alone gives credence and respectability to this little gallery in my mind. And so did Susan’s explanations of what I saw today.

There was a little abstract piece by Melissa Kreism called “Song of the Rain.” It’s highly textured blues and grays speckled with silver somewhat resembling the rain on your window. Two women once came in and stood transfixed by that work. Their clothing, body language, facial expressions, and relationship shouted out their personal agonies to anyone attentive enough to read the silent language. But they stood staring at this work. Then they spoke, saying over and over how much they loved this piece. They pointed out the brighter spot in the middle, saying, “It looks like hope! It looks like Hope.” Hope called out to them, for they had no hope.

Other galleries work very hard to quiet the Christian message, Susan said. One gallery asked Cornelis Monsma to take off the titles that spoke clearly of his Christian faith. On the other hand, White Stone used to have Scripture verses posted with each painting. But they found that drove viewers away; the text preempted the visual experience. And the text got in the way of meaning(s).

Perhaps the most notable artist whose work hangs in White Stone at the moment is Kim Lucci Elbualy. She is a renowned artist whose work who will be selling work at the Smithsonian Craft Show at the Museum Building April, 22-25, 2010, sponsored by Smithsonian's Women's Committee. She had two pieces on display at White Stone today: “Fruits of the Spirit” and “Faith in Him = Fruit”. They consisted of metal boxes, open at the top, nestled together symmetrically and hung on the wall. The first was nine red boxes, three rows/columns of three. One box for each fruit of the Spirit. Empty boxed. Open toward the viewer. The second piece consisted of nine sets of nine boxes; nine within nine. They were arranged, again, in three rows/columns of three. So this work contained the other. But in this one, the central set was gold. And that’s faith, the most important and central fruit of the Spirit.

Then there was the photograph I mentioned earlier: “Serenity” by Nolan McCants. He took this picture just outside of a busy market in Nigeria. It depicts a little boy, exhausted, resting uncomfortably on a dirty bench in stark squalor for a moment before going back to the hustle and bustle of his work in the market. As Susan explained to me, the piece is very well set up. It is framed by dark objects: pieces of wood, a stack of cloth on a vender’s stand, a window. There’s only one splash of color: a flower curtain hanging on the wall. Then there’s the boy, dark in the middle of a central bright patch. Ambiguous chalk drawings whiten the wall around him. I thought the title was ironic, because the boy looks anything but tranquil, in his uncomfortable physical posture and squalid surroundings. And I hoped it was ironic, because otherwise it’s just another poor-black-boy-in-Africa heartsob story that really adds to the distancing of the Other.

But, Susan reminded me, we see art through our own filters. Then, paradoxically enough, she said that visual art, unlike writing, is straight communication. When you’re reading, you have to travel along the linear experience until you come to the “point,” the bit that makes sense of it all or the moment that appeals to you. With visual art, your eyes immediately jump to the part to which you connect. There’s nothing interfering. There’s no Platonic text-at-three-removes. It’s one step closer to the Original (I’ve moved away from Susan’s words now into my own [textual] interpretation).

In closing, I encourage you to go visit this gallery yourself. The current exhibit is on only until this Sunday. Then the gallery closes until April 3rd to set up the Fujimura—Berger—Milan show. All of the works in the gallery are for sale; I glanced at the price list and found the range from around $600 to the top piece, the large Elbualy installation, at $10,000. Most pieces were under $1000, making them affordable for the small private collector. So if you could support faith and the arts by buying a piece, or even just by stopping in and adding your encouragement to this excellent venture, please do so! I will be there again, D. V.

1 comment:

Rosie Perera said...

Makoto Fujimura! Awesome. Don't miss it. His name comes up in all the Christianity and the Arts circles I'm in. I've never seen any of his work in person, but would love to. He's going to be teaching a class at Regent this summer ("The Art of Nihonga: Basic Technique and Theological Implications" -- July 12-30). I'm not going to take it but I hope to meet him while he's in Vancouver, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Regent Lookout Gallery times an exhibition that includes some of his works for while he's here.