Roundup: Saar installation, Christian themes in Australian and New Zealand art, “heart of God” chant, jazz Communion song

VISUAL MEDITATION: On The Alpha & The Omega by Betye Saar: A few weeks ago my commentary on a Betye Saar installation was published on ArtWay.eu. The idiomatic Hebrew in the title is a reference not to Christ but to the beginning and the end of life, a theme Saar explored by arranging around a blue-painted room such found objects as an antique cradle, dried hydrangeas, a boat shell, a mammy figurine, a washboard, empty apothecary bottles, books, clocks, a moon-phase diagram, etc.

Saar, Betye_Alpha and Omega installation
Betye Saar, The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End, 2013. Installation at Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

With an educational background in design, Saar began her career as a printmaker and working in theater on costumes and sets. She then ventured into collage, which led to assemblage (for which she is most celebrated), sculpture, and installations. With installations, she likes how “the whole body has the experience”—how you are quite literally inside the work. Saar is one of today’s leading American contemporary artists, with two exhibitions currently running in the United States: one at MoMA, and the other at LACMA. I first encountered her in a college art history course, through her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Race, memory, and spirituality are recurring themes in her oeuvre.

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ESSAY: “‘A pretty decent sort of bloke’: Towards the quest for an Australian Jesus” by Jason A. Goroncy: “What happens to religious images and symbols when they get employed outside of their traditional contexts and charged with unapproved and heterodox interpretations?” asks Goroncy. “From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely anti-Jesus’. But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.” [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Dowling, Julie_Black Madonna, Omega
Julie Dowling (Badimaya/Yamatji/Widi, 1969–), Black Madonna: Omega, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint, red ocher, glitter, and metallic paint on canvas, 120 × 100 cm. Art Gallery of Western Australia. “I painted this in honour of First Nation mothers who have their children stolen from them by white governments in order to assimilate their children.”
Mombassa, Reg_Jesus Is Stripped Bare
Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) (Australian, 1951–), Australian Jesus Is Stripped Bare, station 10 from the Stations of the Cross cycle. Chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Barton, ACT, Australia. Photo: Katherine Spackman.

Goroncy quotes Wilson Yates, who says that Jesus has become “a part of the culture and life far beyond the final control of the church, . . . imaged in diverse ways by non-Christian as well as Christian artists, often contrary to the church’s dominant interpretation. . . . This should not be viewed as threatening,” however, but rather as “a means by which, paradoxically, the traditional symbols are kept vital – are kept alive in the midst of human life.”

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AUDIO INTERVIEW: Justin Paton on New Zealand artist Colin McCahon: In celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, art critic and curator Justin Paton has published McCahon Country, which examines nearly two hundred of the artist’s paintings and drawings. In this Saturday Morning (RNZ) interview, Paton says that McCahon is one of the great modern religious artists; an unabashed Christian, he grappled with how to make religious art in a post-religious age, often interweaving biblical themes and texts with New Zealand landscapes. His paintings, Paton says, are “an unequivocal statement of faith,” painted at times with “sophisticated unsophistication.” In 1948 one critic described them dismissively as “like graffiti in some celestial lavatory”—a comparison Paton affirms but sees as commendatory.

McCahon, Colin_The days and the nights in the wilderness
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), The days and the nights in the wilderness showing the constant flow of light passing into a dark landscape, 1971
McCahon, Colin_The Resurrection of Lazarus
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), Practical religion: The resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1969–70. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 207.5 × 807 cm. Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand), Wellington.

I was familiar with McCahon’s early works—Annunciations, Crucifixions—but not so much the later ones featured here. For example, The days and the nights, about which Paton says,

You could take a first look at this thing and you could think it’s not so exciting, in a way. It’s . . . smeary blacks and then there’s this . . . kind of clay color—muddy, you might say. . . . The form is this kind of ocher cross with black surrounding it. But give it some time, and you realize that the space above describes a horizon line. You can see the riffle of clouds along that horizon. If you know Muriwai on the West Coast, you can recognize it as a West Coast landscape, which is of course the spirit landscape up which souls travel in Maori mythology. And then you realize that this cross is also a kind of estuary, that it is descending through to areas or gates. So it is at once the Christian cross, it’s the Buddhist idea of light as grace which descends towards us . . .

About Lazarus:

McCahon said the Lazarus story was one of the great stories about seeing: all those people who were witnesses to this event saw as never before. What’s wonderful in the work is, as you read your way from left to right—and it really is this kind of epic telling of the story—when you’re about two-thirds of the way across, he almost makes you into Lazarus. He puts you into the position of this person who is emerging from the tomb, because there’s this sliver of light that opens up and bursts then fills the right-hand third of the painting. It’s like coming out of a dark space and suddenly being blinded by sunlight.

It’s a great example of what a great reader he was. He got into these texts with the avidity of a fan. You really felt he was there with these people in this ancient story and then tries to put us inside it as we stand and walk in front of this giant canvas. It has a terrific oscillation between something worldly and vernacular and then something exalted and sacred at the other end.

For more on McCahon, see “Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon” by Rex Butler (2012), The Spirit of Colin McCahon by Zoe Alderton (2015), and Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (2003).

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CHANT: “I Am Here in the Heart of God” by Erin McGaughan, adapt. & arr. Chandra Rule: At the Singing Beloved Community workshop held in September in Cincinnati, song leader Chanda Rule led participants in a chant that she adapted from Erin McGaughan. To McGaughan’s original, Rule added three new verses with a modulation between each, and she presented the whole of it in a call-and-response format. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I am here in the heart of God
God is here in the heart of me
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

I am here in the breath of God
God is here in the breath of me
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
I am here in the breath of God

I am here in the soul of God
God is here in the soul of me
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
I am here in the soul of God

I am here in the mind of God
God is here in the mind of me
Like the earth in my body and my body in the earth
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

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SONG: “I Hunger and I Thirst,” words by John S. B. Monsell (1866), with new music by Wally Brath: I was listening to the video recording of the Grace College Worship Arts jazz vespers service that took place November 8 at Warsaw First United Methodist Church in Indiana, when I heard this striking hymn. Written by a nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, it was set to music by Wally Brath, an assistant professor of worship arts at Grace College, who’s playing the piano in the video. The performance features Grammy Award–winning bassist John Patitucci, and vocalist Ethan Leininger. Click here to listen to the whole service and to see the full list of musicians. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I hunger and I thirst:
Jesu, my manna be;
ye living waters, burst
out of the rock for me.

Thou bruised and broken Bread,
my life-long wants supply;
as living souls are fed,
O feed me, or I die.

Thou true life-giving Vine,
let me thy sweetness prove;
renew my life with thine,
refresh my soul with love.

Rough paths my feet have trod
since first their course began:
feed me, thou Bread of God;
help me, thou Son of Man.

For still the desert lies
my thirsting soul before:
O living waters, rise
within me evermore.

Roundup: Visual lament, shalom chant, song for the displaced, unfinished art, and “Roma”

The Arts of Lament (lecture)

UPCOMING LECTURE: “The Arts of Lament” by Margaret Adams Parker: I’m one of the artistic directors of the Eliot Society, a DC-based nonprofit that promotes spiritual formation through the arts. Our next event is a lecture on April 6, 2019, by printmaker and sculptor Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker (previously), which I’m really looking forward to.

Most especially during Lent, we recall the prominence of lament in Scripture: the psalms of lament; David’s lament for Jonathan; the Lamentations of Jeremiah; Christ’s lament over Jerusalem. These laments bear witness to outrage, sorrow, suffering, fear, desolation. And through these passionate cries, the biblical authors allow us to experience and express—in God’s holy presence—our own stories of brokenness and loss.

The visual arts make these laments visible. In this program Parker will present images by Grünewald, Rembrandt, Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, Jacob Lawrence, and others, as well as some of her own work. We will ask, How might these depictions of the horrors of war, displacement, oppression, sickness, and death enlarge our appreciation of the scriptural laments and in turn illuminate our understanding of suffering? Further, we will explore the spiritual significance of the practice: how lament might ultimately serve to console and strengthen, helping to lead us out of dark places into the light.

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SHALOM CHANT: At the 2019 Brehm Conference, “Worship, Theology, and the Arts in a Divided World,” liturgist Julie Tai led attendees in a group chant of the word shalom, an exercise she picked up from the author, speaker, psychotherapist, songwriter, and Episcopal priest Ian Morgan Cron. I streamed in from afar, and even from this distance, I found it really moving. “Really think about the places and spaces that need shalom—shalom meaning not our flat language of just ‘peace,’” Tai said by way of preface. “It’s an embodied word, a disruptive word. And we don’t get to see the completeness of shalom until all of us are at the table.” She instructs that after chanting shalom in unison three times, everyone is to find a note, any note, and sing it. Dissonance is welcome. The thick texture and distinctive timbre that result are possible only because each and every person is contributing their unique selves. The exercise is about listening to your neighbor, seeing your neighbor, and praying for and committing to pursuing shalom, wholeness, in this world. It expresses, in community, a shared hope and intention.

Chanting is a practice found in almost all spiritual traditions. Through rhythmical repetition, a word or short phrase washes over you and settles into the mind. When done in a group, everyone’s biorhythms become synchronized; individual breaths and sound vibrations unite, a physical manifestation of a spiritual communion.

“Julie Tai is the director of chapel at Fuller Theological Seminary. She received a BA in Asian American Studies and studied vocal jazz at UCLA before earning an MA in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. She is a songwriter, worship leader, and liturgist who loves to explore creative and integrative ways to engage diverse people in worship. A proud second-generation Korean American, Julie has led worship experiences at Urbana, the Calvin Worship Symposium, and SIM’s Global Assembly. She passionately trains worship leaders, seminarians, and pastors to see liturgy as a unifying and artistic act of justice . . . the reordering of glory, honor, and praise to the One seated on the throne.” [source]

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NEW SONG: “Jesus, See the Traveler” by Sara Groves: “I wanted a way for Ruby [my daughter] and me to remember the number of people who are on the road, displaced and wandering on any given night,” said Sara Groves about this new song she wrote. “Due to war and violence, there are more displaced people right now than any other time in history, and I want to be in the number who are responding in love—both in person in my community, and in my music.” The official music video is below; purchase the single on iTunes or stream on Spotify. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy, A Sacramental Life]

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ARTICLE: “Art Interrupted” by Sophie Haigney: Unfinished artworks, like La Sagrada Familia (whose architect was hit by a tram when the cathedral was only a quarter of the way done) or Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s famous FDR portrait (the president slumped over mid-portrait-sitting and died of a brain hemorrhage), are reminders of our mortality. [HT: Michael Wright, Still Life]

La Sagrada Familia
Cranes hover over the spires of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, whose construction began in 1882 under architect Antoni Gaudí and is still going on.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Roma,” Sunday Morning Matinee, January 22, 2019: To help me think more deeply and articulately about movies, I appreciate the work of, among others, Sunday Morning Matinee (formerly Technicolor Jesus), hosted by Matt Gaventa and Adam Hearlson. Back in January they discussed a movie that was one of my favorites of 2018, which is Roma, written, directed, and shot by Alfonso Cuarón. Set in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in the early ’70s, it focuses on Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), a Mixtec domestic servant for a middle-class family. It was a very personal project for Cuarón, who based the character of Cleo on the real-life nanny who helped raise him, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez.

Roma film still
This still frame from Roma captures a climactic moment of shared intimacy as Cleo (center), grieving a recent trauma, receives love and support from the family she works for.

“As artists, our job is to look where others don’t,” Cuarón said in his acceptance speech last month for the Academy Award for Best Director. (The movie also won Best Foreign Language Film and Best Achievement in Cinematography.) As an adult, Cuarón looked back and realized that Libo had another life, both internal and external, that he had not been aware of as a child, and this is his way of honoring Libo’s beautiful complexity. This podcast episode discusses the opening and closing shots of the movie, water symbolism, the contrast of the terrestrial and the heavenly, the role of memory, Cleo’s interiority and who gets access to it, the possibilities and limits of employer-employee relationships, and more.

Click here to listen to the podcast episode.