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 Walter 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 Dr. Walter 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: Raban Maur, comic books, and more

SEMINAR: “The Language of Grace? The Action of God’s Love in Poetry and Art”: On February 6 at 6 p.m., as part of the Catholicism and the Arts York initiative, St. Wilfrid’s Church in Duncombe Place, York, will be hosting back-to-back talks: “Grace and the Poetics of David Jones” by Dr. Elizabeth Powell and “Full of Grace? The Desire of Art for God” by Katherine Hinzman.

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ALBUM FUNDRAISER: Love Secrets by John Mark Pantana: I really enjoyed Pantana’s 2017 debut album, Mighty Grace, so I jumped at the opportunity to support his next project on Indiegogo: Love Secrets. His voice is so soothing! So are his original lyrics, all about God’s love and grace. Visit him at https://www.johnmarkpantana.com/, and listen to one of the songs from his upcoming album, “Abba,” below. Fundraising campaign ends February 9.

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EXHIBITIONS

I love the curatorial approach of these two current exhibitions, which bring art from the Middle Ages or Renaissance into conversation with contemporary art. Rather than doing this to prove a disjunction sparked by modernity, the curators stress continuity between the artists of yesterday and today.

“Make It New: Conversations with Medieval Art,” Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Library of France), Paris, November 5, 2018–February 10, 2019: Curated by Dutch artist Jan Dibbets, “Make It New” explores the relationship between works of contemporary art and the medieval art of Raban Maur (Hrabanus Maurus), a ninth-century monk from Fulda, Germany, and a major figure of the Carolingian renaissance. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Raban Maur’s De laudibus sanctae crucis (In Praise of the Holy Cross), a Latin manuscript comprising twenty-eight highly sophisticated poems whose letters are arranged in simple grids over colorful, geometric cross patterns. At the BnF, these compositions are placed in dialogue with thirty-plus works by some of today’s minimalist, conceptual, and land artists, including Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Niele Toroni, and Franz E. Walther, stressing similarities in form, color, proportion, and perspective. [press release (English)] [compilation of Maur images]

The original figure poem cycle was produced around 810 at the scriptorium in Fulda, and Raban Maur had a hand in making at least five other copies during his lifetime (of which France’s National Library owns two: Lat. 2423 and Lat. 2422); seventy-four additional copies from the Middle Ages are extant. The Burgerbibliothek Bern in Switzerland has digitized its early eleventh-century copy (Cod. 9), and it’s really fascinating! Full-resolution downloads are enabled. According to the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny, “no work more precious to see, more pleasing to read, sweeter to remember, or more laborious to write can or could ever be found.” I don’t know Latin, but visually, I can really appreciate these fine pages. I was hoping to find more information about the work but could really only find a single French lecture given back in 2007 by Denis Hüe, a professor of medieval and Renaissance language and literature at the Université Rennes 2 Haute-Bretagne.

In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany, ca. 822–847. BnF Lat. 2422, fol. 10v.
In Praise of the Holy Cross by Raban Maur
Figure poem by Raban Maur, Fulda, Germany.
Untitled by Sol LeWitt
Sol LeWitt (American, 1928–2007), Untitled, 1970. Ink on paper. © Adagp, Paris.
Work Drawing by Franz Erhard Walther
Franz Erhard Walther (German, 1939–), Werkzeichnungen (Work Drawing), 1967. Watercolor, ink, and pencil on paper. © Adagp, Paris.

“Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth,” Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 26–March 31, 2019: When pioneering video artist Bill Viola saw a collection of Michelangelo’s exquisite drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006, he was astonished by the Renaissance master’s expressive use of the body to convey emotional and spiritual states. Here the two artists are exhibited side by side, showing their common grappling with life’s fundamental questions, albeit in vastly different mediums. “Both artists harness the symbolic power of sacred art, and both show us physical extremes and moments of transcendence.” Among the twelve major installations from Viola, spanning his career, is Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), a sixteen-foot-high projection depicting the ascent of the soul after death.

For February 16, the Royal Academy has organized a full day of events keyed to the exhibition, including poetry readings, a documentary screening, and a panel discussion with cultural historian Marina Warner, theologian Ben Quash, and artist Mariko Mori, titled “Art as fulfilment: the use of religion and spirituality in contemporary art.” Questions for the day include: Does art connect us? Can art be transformative or transcendental? Can art influence society—that is, change opinions or human behavior? Other offerings in addition to this program are a curator’s introduction on February 1, a short course on figure drawing, and a talk on the limitations and opportunities of digital art. Plus, the London Art Salon is hosting a talk on the exhibition by art historian Marie-Anne Mancio.

Tristan's Ascension by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Photo: Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.
The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), The Risen Christ,” ca. 1532–33. Black chalk on paper, 37.2 × 22.1 cm. Royal Collection Trust, UK.

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NEW COMIC BOOK PUBLISHER: Cave Pictures Publishing, founded in fall 2018 by Mark Rodgers, is committed to the telling of “modern myths” that “speak to the soul” through comic books in the genres of action-adventure, sci-fi, historical fiction, and fantasy. Pitched for the spiritually inclined, the stories they publish “seek to make sense of our world . . . draw us toward the source of goodness . . . uncover what we worship.” Says Rodgers in a Hollywood Reporter interview: “Just as cave paintings were humanity’s initial attempt to process through the tough ultimate questions of human existence, we look at our stories as ‘sherpas of the soul,’ to contribute to the individual and collective human journey towards meaning and a greater reality,” the One True Myth. Read more about the company’s influences and aspirations in this Convivium essay. See also the interview in Sojourners.

The Light Princess (Cave Pictures Publishing)

One of their five inaugural series is The Light Princess, an adaptation of one of George MacDonald’s best-loved fairy tales, about a princess who is cursed with weightlessness and is only brought down to earth by a true, sacrificial love. MacDonald was a Scottish author, poet (e.g., here, here, and here), and Christian minister who deeply influenced C. S. Lewis and J R. R. Tolkien. Speaking of Tolkien, I’m really digging this quote of his on Cave Pictures’ website, which affirms the value of story: “Legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth,’ and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode. . . . Long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear.”