06 July 2010

Layers of revelation

Fujimura, Berger, and the Milans at White Stone Gallery

Friday-before-last I went to see another exhibit at the White Stone Gallery. The works of four artists were displayed: Makoto Fujimura, Wayne Berger, and the artist-couple John & Elli Milan. I’d like to talk about their work and that of another artist, Bruce Herman, here, focusing on one specific aspect of their works that they have in common. I’m calling this commonality, which is both a technique and a vision, “layers of revelation.”

I don’t know anything about their actual techniques; you can investigate on their websites if you’re interested, and I hope to interview some or all of these artists in the future. However, some of what I’m about to say is obvious even to my uneducated eye, and the curator of the gallery told me about some other aspects.

All four of these artists use literal, physical layers in their works. Three of them (excluding the Milans) use gilding: gold-, silver-, or platinum-leaf in their works. Fujimura’s and Berger’s tend to be more abstract: planes and fields of metal texturing suggesting horizons, corners, architecture, landscape, or even states of mind. Berger’s leans more toward the geometrical, Fujimura’s towards the psychological. Fujimura’s the alive with swirls and curves. Herman’s is shot through with beams of glory. And the Milans use layers of paper, canvas, and paint to create a touchable texture that springs out from the canvas.

Makoto Fujimura works with the colors of the earth. He takes minerals and grinds them to a fine powder, then applies them with a sort of glue. His colors, then, are unmodified from their state in the earth. They are rich, deep, bright, glittering. He layers and layers them in a painstaking process, covering one, revealing another, swirling them into a stratigraphy that the eyes takes almost the way it takes water: as the meaningful surface over great depths. And he uses gold: the tiniest sparkles the peep through granite-black, or miniscule words like those in Medieval manuscripts, almost hidden.

His works reveal more and more over time: they need to be viewed for long long minutes or even hours. The text starts to become clear, figures begin emerging from the shapes and shades, and something like “meaning,” but much more organic, develops. The splashes of rock colors appear random and effortless, but are actually the product of much intense thought and manual labor. Sometimes a recognizable shape, such as a tree, blends with its abstract surroundings. And the colors have an amazing property: in certain lights, they come and go or seem to stand out from the canvas. In one work, blue patches like water and white patches like clouds hover out from their background in low light. His work is richly literary, too, often responding to a work of literature or a passage of Scripture. I was excited to see “Till We Have Faces,” named, as I supposed, after C. S. Lewis’s book. It had no discernable form, and I assume that’s because the face has not yet taken its shape and is as yet unrecognizable.

Wayne Berger’s work is at once intricate and plain. It divides the canvas between two colors or fields. Sometimes a title, such as “Horizon Line” or “Wheat Field” confirms the suggestion of a landscape. But the sky will be made of silver, the ground of gold, and hints of reddish, brownish, or black will peak through the edges of the pieces of metal leaf. Intricacy in simplicity: depth in a two-dimensional surface. Again, as with Fujimura, the colors are the colors of the earth, drawn from lodes of precious materials, from the insides of rocks and the innards of the planet. His pieces suggest maps, parchment, the walls of the Temple, the surfaces of a king’s palace, and also empty meadows, solitary coastlines, caves, and horizons. They look as if they are just longing for stories to occur in them, or remembering stories that happened a long time ago. Occasionally, a clear representative figure will stand out from the textured surface: three red trees, for instance, or a thorn piercing the plane.

John & Elli Milan, a married couple working together on each piece of art, use layers of paper and paint to create vibrant, colorful, active paintings. They like to depict dancers, but so much more cheerful than Degas’ static bronze girls! These dancers are bent with joy, burdened with ecstasy, or tossed upwards on waves of delight. They are scarlet, mango, flamingo, and emerald. They burst from the painting, flinging their arms upward or kicking their toes to the sky. Behind them ripple shiny curtains and thick hangings. The Milans also paint cityscapes and landscape, also with textures and 3-D bits. Another interesting feature is that there will be some small section of the painting done in an entirely different style: a detailed, intricate, thin-lined hand drawing. It might be a bus in the crowded cityscape. It might be the windows of a distant building. Whatever it is, in each piece it adds another layer, both literally and interpretively. And they also scratch through their layers of paint and paper, showing the depth of the textures.

There’s another artist I’d like to discuss just briefly, although his work was not exhibited in this show and I’ve never seen it live. This is Bruce Herman, professor at my alma mater, Gordon College. His art is also composed of layers of color, texture, paint, mineral, mortality, immortality, past, present, flesh, and spirit. If I had to compose just one phrase to describe his work, I think I’d say it is veiled and revelatory. Here’s one example of what I mean by that. There is often a human figure displayed prominently in Herman’s work, but it is never exactly what one thinks of as realistic. Often, the fact is turned away or is in shadow—or in such light that the features are indistinguishable.
And here’s what is most fascinating to me about these people. It’s like how C.S. Lewis described the saved souls, the solid people, in The Great Divorce: “Some were naked, some robed. But the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh.” Similarly, the nude figures in Herman’s work suffer no shame on that account: they are beautiful, clothed in glory, while the clothed figures thereby reveal the loveliness of their image of God. Shafts of abstract color shoot through the paintings, too, suggesting rays of vision or the arrows of martyrdom. Nothing is plain: all is clear. Nothing is overstated; everything is blindingly lucid.

Finally, I’ll just mention another artist whose work is going to be displayed at White Stone in future: Grace Carol Bomer. From the little I’ve seen, I think she might fit into this category of contemporary artists who work in LAYERS OF REVELATION.

I'd like you to comment if you have seen the work of these artists; do you agree with this description here? Did their work strike you this way? And if you're an artist and/or art teacher, I'd love your comments on technique. How do they do it?


Bruce said...

What a wonderful review of the show you attended! I loved your description of the art -- not an easy task. The question that arises in my mind is the same we used to kick around twenty years ago in an arts group -- in what way do these paintings communicate God's truth -- or are they only to speak to His beauty? To name something "Til We Have Faces" begs there to be meaning beyond just the application of the media. So rather than make this a hypothetical question, I'll ask this directly to you, Sorina: how did you sense these paintings communicate a Christian worldview?

Iambic Admonit said...

Great question, Bruce. The answer is different for each artist, and even for each painting. In the context of the gallery, which is a gallery of Faith and the Fine Arts, there was a sort of assumption of Christian truth that helped to interpret piece that otherwise would note have communicated anything particularly Christian.

So, for instance: Wayne Berger's work was, on the whole, the most abstract there. I got a sense of the beauty, order, precious value of the natural world. Simply creating a landscape in gold and silver leaf communicates this message, which is a Biblical one. There was also a suggestion of symmetry and geometrical precision in his images of corners and windows. They were full of light, optimism, and purity that suggested redemption and, I think, would have suggested that to me even if I encountered one of his pieces in another context and knew nothing about his faith.

Fujimura's paintings had obvious Christian messages worked in subtle ways. For instance, he etched Bible verses in tiny gold lettering along several of his works. So this was an explicit way that his work communicated Christian truth--if you could find the text! And he often had Scripture reference titles, too. Many of his pieces, as you noted, made reference to something outside themselves (a Bible verse, a work of fiction by a Christian author) that provided meaning if the viewer got the allusion.

Let me go on a tangent here. In an article I wrote for Comment magazine (, I articulated three different ways Christian truth can be communicated in works of art. They were pretty much the obvious, the subtle, and the implicit. I saw all three of these at White Stone.

Etching Bible verses or giving a Scriptural title is the obvious method, the one I called encoding.
Using the title of a C. S. Lewis book is more like embodiment.

But then there's the third kind, which is the hardest both to define and to achieve in art. I called it an incarnational or sacramental approach. This occurs when there is absolutely no Christin content or message contained in the work, either by outright statements or by subtle interweavings of/allusions to doctrine, Scripture, or religious texts and ideas. Instead, it just shows in how the artists handle their material. They love the stuff they work with and they love this earth they're on, because God made it, sustains it, and show His character through it. I saw a lot of this in this show, too. Maybe in Fujimura's tree piece, maybe in the Milan's dancers.

Hey, you've really got me going on this! Maybe I'll write a whole post about it.... Thanks, Bruce!

Tammy said...

In Philip Ryken's book, "Art for God's Sake", he describes an exibit by Fuimura called, Images of Grace. He states about Fuimura's work, "his artwork carries deep meaning. Gold represents eternal transcendence; silver--a precious metal that tarnishes through time--represents both the value and mutability of human life; and so on." He goes on to say how he uses traditional symbolism to give clear expression to his Christian faith. I like what he said about Christian artwork..."at it's best, art is able to satisfy our deep longing for beauty and communicate profound spiritual, intellectual, and emotional truth about the world that God made for his Glory". Is it necessary for art to communicate these truths clearly, without a doubt, or is it more like a parable where the meaning is hidden and you have to dig deeper. Sorina, I like your thoughts on the different ways Christian art can communicate. Is it always a goal for a Christian artist to create art that will communicate a specific Christian message?