Nativity Revisited . . . from page 1
Kershisnik's nativity is probably the oldest work here; it is definitely the largest, and makes the greatest departure from orthodoxy. I find Brian Kershisnik
fascinating precisely because he is a devout Latter Day Saint who seemingly only wants to provide public images of elements of his faith: he carefully limns how Jesus labors to perform miracles, and visually signifies such everyday transcendental implications of faith as encounters in the afterlife and flight lessons for those whose spirits aspire to soar. Yet because these supposedly conservative ideas are unconventional subjects in art, he must present them in radical ways that contrast with his conventional mode of representation. The Catholic Church taught that Mary was given a dispensation from the curse brought on women by Eve: "In pain shalt thou bring forth children," and so the traditional Madonna is a model of tranquility. But Kershisnik's Mary is flushed, sweaty, and dazed from an ordeal: an ordeal shared by her husband, who holds one hand to his face while the other rests on her shoulder, and by her midwives, who have washed away the blood of delivery but not yet removed it. That these are the artist's views and not (yet?) common understandings can be shown by pointing them out to students visiting the gallery. I did this repeatedly, and each time I was met by an eager sense of discovery. Kershisnik's position as artist is directly analogous to those second- or third-century Christian artists who had to discover the proper way to represent their unpictured faith. Is Christ old or young? Bearded or clean-shaven? Remote or intimate? A god or a man? By opting for the latter choice, Kershisnik argues against austerity and authority in favor of a being one can encounter: someone like us. I'm not religious, but I believe in presenting mysteries in graspable visual forms, and if I belonged to a church I'd insist it throw out sentimental plaster images in favor of portraits that live the way these do.
Many of Larsen's chosen artists apparently agree. Themselves parents, several chose to focus on the connection between mother and child. Kathleen Peterson's career is precisely contemporary with Kershisnik's, but they proceed in opposite directions. Where he anchors abstract, symbolic scenes by inserting specific details, she creates specific scenes (a church in Hawaii, her neighbor's fence, women in conversation) and imbues them with universal significance. Her "Deliverer" is an unusually tall, slender figurean effect not of distortion but of close croppingwhose posture generates two equilateral triangles that, superimposed, generate a Shield of David.|1|
At its center, the child's forehead touches his mother's collar. Directly above, her chin penetrates his halo to touch the crown of his head. But the intimacy of the moment isn't all geometry; at least one viewer commented on how accurately Peterson captures the way his round, diapered bottom nests in the mother's dovelike hands.
"Bristlecone" and Holly Hooper's "Immanuel" both explore the Virgin's expression as she gazes on her newborn son. Hoover, whose painting is odd where it's not creepy, explores one of the story's implications: what must it have been like to be a mother without a sexual connection to her pregnancy, and with the knowledge that her child isn't conventionally human? It's an unsettling vision that she nevertheless meets with a gaze as calm as it is curious. Hooper's virgin mother also gazes on a miracle, but hers is the real deal: God's child aside, Hooper asks, how is any of us so incredibly blessed as to be alive and be aware of it? Hooper is an artist who aims for small effects that she routinely exceeds.
Not everything in the gallery takes such a literal approach. Glass artist Andrew Kosorok
views "The Birth" through the sacred text of the Qur’an. While fundamentalists of all four faiths may refuse to embrace the connections between (in chronological order) Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Latter Day perspectives, this translucent, three-dimensional diagram of a stream flowing through an oasis, where a simple chalice waits to assuage the traveler's thirst, is a luminous (and universal) vision of how the spiritual might coincide with the physical. Completing a trio of sculptures, Jason Lanegan's
two reliquariesone containing straw, the other fragments of blue clothhave the look of ancient, found objects recently retrofitted to hold in glass something that has become precious with the passage of time.|2|
Glass is the entire (but virtual) material of Ed Bateman's
computer generated "photograph," made without either camera or film, in which he represents the figures present at the birth as vessels: specifically bottles, connected by ambiguous strands that arc through the air between them or loop into circles that suggest halos.|3|
It's the one truly precedent-shattering work in the show, creating as it does a visual metaphor for the parallel, yet disjunct realms of the real and the knowable. Tradition believes that the spiritual world is the real one; that it wears the material world, which is an illusion, like a glove that it animates. The modern view is that our knowledge of reality (which reality resides in the material realm) is limited to what we learn of it indirectly, through our senses and our reason. Bateman's vision accommodates either view by showing how the pattern becomes visible to the mind as it comes to see through and understand what it sees.
Not everything here works on its own terms. Osral Allred's "And It Came to Pass" and Lee Bennion's
"First Night" |4|
both suffer from the complacency that has mired these two local legends in their tracks for years. Fans (both have plenty) will disagree, perhaps pointing out that Allred makes effective use here of the prepared ground technique that has become a mainstay of teaching art at Snow. But when an audience meets an artist more than half way, they do him or her a disservice. In fact, Allred's two figures, despite their exquisite profiles, fail as anatomical figures, let alone a convincing mother and child. Robert DeGroff's "Nativity" transports elements of the traditional presentation into present-day Palestine, evidently intending to produce a shocking contrast, but the shock fails to materialize and the narrative becomes a victim of circumstances. Steve Stones locates sentimental religiosity among elements of our consumer culture and savages both.|5|
He dares to thumb his nose at his audience's pieties, but these cartoons feel like ensembles of easy shots, through which one searches in vain for any reason to hope.
If Stones' satirical humor demolishes whatever it finds, Adam Larsen argues that children, with their limited understanding and boundless energy for play, can create something new while striving to master established forms. In "Immaculate Dispensation," |6|
only their hands can be seen manipulating the toys with which they re-enact the story to make it their own, while the relief printing medium's high contrast and, in this case, relatively schematic visual quality reinforces the clarity of a child's knowledge that, in play, things are both what they are and what we want them to be.
That a new world is created by seemingly trivial acts taking place near the periphery of the old one is one theme of the Nativity, and it is the image of greatness born in squalor and obscurity that gives this story emotional power. While each of these twenty works implies it in some way, some make it an aesthetic fact as well. Neither Sean Hardman's "Interpretation" of a medieval diptych nor Bill Paterson's painting over photos ("Now as Then; Then as Now") quite reaches its destination, but each achieves a charming detail or effect along the way. In "Bowls with de la Tour," Ron Richmond sets a hyper-realistic trio of symbolic objects like an altar before one of his favorite Baroque paintings, contrasting the elaborate iconography of the earlier work, visibly flattened onto canvas, with the simpler, yet vibrant visual presence of a living faith.|7|