Oh, how you will delight the angels!

Ten artists wrestle with faith in every creative action, knowing today's only the beginning.

Appears in Spring 2008 Issue: All things new
March 1 st 2008

In the closing conversation of Gabriel Axel's film, Babette's Feast, Babette, formerly one of Paris's premier chefs, describes the impetus for her creative compulsion: "Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of (every) artist . . . 'Give me a chance to do my best.' " This desire to realize one's imagination in material form echoes the vocational calling of the ten artists profiled below. Their faith is fundamental to their artistic visions as an invisible but ever present lens through which they behold the world. What they see through this prism is the subject of their art. Employing a diversity of visual strategies they deftly navigate complex personal, social, and theoretical issues. At a historical moment when society questions the form and function of art, their art is a breath of fresh air—both challenging and accessible to the viewer.

Like each of us, Allison Luce's vessels are formed and refined by a tension of internal and external forces. Although works like Adumbration (2007) are not figurative, they address issues of the body, specifically how a person's appearance is shaped by experience. Working in clay, the material out of which humanity was created, her sculptures explore the "ephemeral nature of our existence and the belief in the promise of eternal life." In "creating a dialogue between the beauty and brevity of life, and the mystery of eternity," Luce's fragile forms represent a distinct vision for art that is elegant yet unpretentious. Her elemental constructions and radiant surfaces move sculptural issues of space and process out of the realm of the theoretical into forms of everyday encounter.



Adumbration by Allison Luce | Stoneware
2007 | 23" x 11" x 11" | Photo: Clair Levy
Portfolio: www.allisonluce.com

Hannah LaBorie's art is a visual record of her faith experience of drawing closer to God. She notes, "My drawing process originates from an idea of perfection and the constant effort one makes to become perfect, just as Christ is perfect. Yet, since we are not perfect, these lines are a reflection of our imperfections." LaBorie persists diligently in a daily pursuit of sanctification in part by reading the Psalms. She transcribes this meditation with repeated vertical marks in silver and gold across the page. Each delicate line, a measure of an act in time, is a prayer of joy, sorrow, supplication, and praise. She is collecting 150 drawings in a devotional work entitled The Book of Moore (2007), which resembles a medieval illuminated manuscript in its structure but is thoroughly contemporary in its strategy of drawing the transcendent into the temporal to reveal something beautiful and hidden.

Art's capacity to both delight and challenge the viewer is, in part, rooted in its capability to re-imagine, re-present, and, perhaps, re-invent, the world. While this may sound like a grandiose scheme, for artists it more often involves an attention to small things, for "God is in the details." Dayton Castleman's installations generate environments and experiences in which "the intention of the artist and the imagination of the viewer are mediated and held in tension for a moment by the object itself." His Infinite Bridge (2006) is both absurd, proposing a circular suspension bridge that would serve no functional purpose, and spectacular. Suspended mid-air, Infinite Bridge's negative space mirrors the form of a Gothic rose window. Infinite Bridge is an expression of spiritual longing that suggests, at first, a Sisyphean task. But if we allow ourselves to be drawn in and around its meditative form, the bridge transports us to an infinity by grace in the present moment.



Infinite Bridge by Dayton Castleman | Steel, wire rope, hardware
2006 | 120" x 120" x 9" | Photo: Dayton Castleman
Portfolio: blog.daytonc.com

Art's capacity to reveal the eternal in the elemental is often the result of the arduous creative process. Brenton Good's monotypes on panel, notably Meditation 19 [sonnet] (2003), are the result of a method of conceptual and material layering. This practice involves careful control on the part of the artist and a willingness to allow the organic (perhaps, accidental) process to unfold its own rhythm. As Dorothy Sayers describes it in her book The Mind of the Maker, this is the mystery of determination and free will by which all creation operates in bringing life out of material. His art generates a meditative state of consciousness: "the subtle meditative, devotional, nature of the passages within each piece is much more apparent as one works through the artwork."



Meditation 19 [sonnet] by Brenton Good | Monotype on panel
2003 | 10" x 10" | Photo: Brenton Good
Portfolio: www.brentongood.com

Layering and excavating underlie Summer Merritt's method. Her art, which cannot be categorized as painting nor sculpture, develops from a process-oriented practice that employs formal structure to conceptualize identity formation. Melted wax is applied to three-dimensional structures relating to a corporeal manifestation of geometric forms. Each stratum bears evidence of the process and a network of graphite lines. As surface and line affect the other, forms and patterns present a matrix for a systematically coherent arrangement of parts that signifies a whole. Merritt's titles, as in Question #236 (2005), reference the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 test, and reflect her interest in the responsiveness of human personality. She notes, "An individual's personality and their environment dialectically shift in response to each other. Though different social contexts evoke different facets of an individual, this does not primarily characterize a fractured identity but rather a self that is adaptive and growing. The self is both shaped and divulged through a variety of experiences and contexts."



Question #236 by Summer Merritt | Paraffin, wood, acrylic
2005 | 78" x 24" | Photo: Alex Muccilli
Portfolio: www.summermerritt.com

John Silvis's photographs, as in Husbands and Wives #5 (1999), visualize individual identities shaping and being shaped by fundamental human relationships. The work's triptych format, inherited from church altarpieces, emphasizes the sanctity and mystery of the relationships between subjects and compares them to representations of saints and marriages in art history, as with Jan van Eyck's famous wedding portrait. Silvis adds that "these contemporary portraits invite a fresh perspective on the meaning of this religious, cultural history." The compositions, in which the persons are represented individually to the right and left and jointly in the middle, behold their union.

Trained in methods of classical figuration, Robert Zeller's art revisits his "lifelong exposure to the lowbrow inanities of American pop culture." The painting Self Storage (1994) from The Virgin of the Mall series juxtaposes the history of idealized nude figures with the modern proliferation of strip-mall plazas. The figures both behold and confront a context in which the shopping mall has replaced the museum (which had replaced the church) as the principal point of personal and social reference. Zeller's use of the body as both a barrier and portal between the interior and exterior realms draws us into a dynamic exchange between person and place.



Self Storage by Robert Zeller | Oil on linen
2005 | 24" x 36" | Photo: Robert Zeller
Portfolio: www.robertzeller.com

Brent Dickinson's paintings trace a network of information and are themselves part of larger system or installation, Trivariate Scatter (2007), that he sets up in the gallery. His art tests the language of abstraction inherited from the past century as a viable strategy of rationally and irrationally organizing information. They measure what is lost in translation, as information is exchanged from one form to another, from one person to another. At stake is the possibility of communication and connectedness, the basic building blocks of community. In Dickinson's words:

Legibility is the result of the successful transformation of language from meaningless utterance to meaningful communication. I am fascinated by the alchemists' methodologies; wherein they believed through sequencing the right ingredients one could instigate an elemental transformation of materials. My paintings and sculpture evidence a similar operation in order that through finding the proper sequence of elements, meaningless utterance might be turned into meaningful communication, the word might be turned into flesh and the flesh might be turned into spirit.



Trivariate Scatter by Brent Dickinson | Mixed materials
2007 | Dimensions variable | Photo: Brent Dickinson
Portfolio: nycams.bethel.edu/dickinsonwork.html

Bridging illusion and abstraction, >Wayne Adams's intricate paintings of photographs of crumpled aluminum foil, such as Untitled (Gray Foil) (2002), pushes the conceptual boundaries of how we perceive realities and the empirical boundaries of how what is beheld can be recorded. His renditions of entangled forms of reflected light are at once measured and mysterious. For Adams, "the infinitely reflective and multi-colored surface of the aluminum foil represents the universality and complexity of the human condition as well as the uniqueness of our specific identities." Beyond its shimmering surface, Adams's work possesses urgency in an era when technology and virtual environments shift how we visually and conceptually process experience. Now, more than ever, "perception is reality."



Untitled (Gray Foil) by Wayne Adams | Oil on canvas
2002 | 68" x 84" | Photo: Wayne Adams
Portfolio: www.waynestead.com

Joyce Lee's Within Him Without Her (2006) could be read as the boundless forms of the cosmos observed through a satellite telescope, or the intimate details of cellular microbiology studied under a microscope. Her paintings stress the tension between the natural and manufactured, and "capture the uncanny and violent but beautiful intrusions into human lives that reflect spiritual displacement." But as we journey through these fantastic landscapes, we draw closer to a sense of nuclear and extrinsic equilibrium.



Within Him Without Her by Joyce Lee | Oil on canvas
2006 | 36" x 36" | Photo: Joyce Lee
Portfolio: www.iamny.org

A principal, persistent question for Christian artists is how they may and may not be distinguished from their colleagues who are not. Part of the answer is found in the territory between Babette's "let me do my best" pronouncement and her friend's response: "But this is not the end, Babette. I'm certain of that. In paradise, you will be the great artist that God meant you to be. Ah, how you will delight the angels!" While most artists share the desire to achieve their best and face common obstacles to their realizing that ambition, these ten artists of faith named are marked by the strength and clarity of their conviction regarding the origin and end of their urge and capacity to create. The evidence of their faith, with which they continue to wrestle in every moment of their creative action, is in the work itself, imprinted with humility, not hubris. While faithfully working to fulfill their vocational callings in this moment, these young artists find purpose and persevere in the knowledge that this is only the beginning of an art that will be fully realized in eternity.

Topics: Arts
 

Dr. James Romaine is a New York City based art historian who is an Associate Professor of Art History at Nyack College. He is the cofounder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art.

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