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?