Friday, December 20, 2013

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

Formed in Faith: One God, Many Voices

By Tom Wachunas 

    “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  -Hebrews 11:1

    EXHIBIT: Sacred Voices, at the Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH MARCH 2, 2014, 1001 Market Avenue North. (330) 453-7666

    Long before acquiring any substantial understanding of Christian theology (grade school Catechism notwithstanding), my love for God was largely informed by my boyhood passion for looking at pictures of religious Renaissance and Baroque-era art. I remember being gently scolded by nuns for laughing at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rear-view rendering of the Creator of the cosmos. Here was God, after making the sun and stars, seemingly floating away from the viewer, and dressed in a garment so clingy and sheer that you could see his butt, not to mention the bottoms of his bare feet. Oh, those curvaceous cheeks! Why, they must be the size of planets!

    Still, my reaction was not then, nor is it now, a vapid laughter, but rather a giddy reverence. For here was art that presented God as all-powerful, enigmatic and infinite, yet somehow still earthy, familiar and accessible.

    Mixed among his heroic Sistine portraits of Biblical prophets, Michelangelo saw fit to include five Sibyls - prophetic female figures from Greek mythology. One legend surrounding the most prominent and beautiful - the Delphic Sybil, considered by the ancients to be the voice of Apollo - holds that her last prophecy was the birth of Christ. Here was symbolized the idea that Christ/God would make himself known to all eras and cultures in the world. Surely art has historically been a vehicle for that knowledge. And this Michelangelo moment is a powerful example, communicating a profoundly important aspect of humankind’s relationship to the Divine.

    In this context, I’m reminded that the human proclivity for making things that we have come to identify as “art” is in fact a primordial calling, and perhaps a survival reflex. Further, even the most ancient of our created images and objects, regardless of which cultures produced them, commonly embraced the supernatural.  It has always been in our nature to make art that expresses beliefs about presences beyond our physical world.

   Sacred Voices then, organized by guest curator Michele Waalkes as a companion show to The St. John’s Bible, is a genuinely captivating re-affirmation of the ageless potency of religious art.  It features 37 artists from around the world who present their personal connections to God from the perspective of three monotheistic faiths – Christian, Judaic and Islamic.

     While I’m thrilled to tell you that I have a piece in this show, I may or may not post a separate commentary on it in the future. In any event, here’s a link to a recent article in Ohio magazine featuring four of the artists:  Additionally, here’s a link to a Youtube video - a quick tour of the exhibition space - made by Adil Akhtar, one of the artists in the show:

    Not surprisingly, many of these contemplations of faith are stylistically abstract and symbolic in nature. Chris Wurst’s intriguing Forgiving Father III, made from plaster and finished to look like aged, etched bronze, is a twisting, airy form. From some angles it’s vaguely suggestive of a heart entwined with arteries. From other perspectives it harks to the ornate arabesque designs so prevalent in Islamic motifs.

    Those designs often include the sure-handed intricacies of Arabic calligraphy (itself uniquely pictorial in appearance), such as in the striking, dramatic triptych by Faraz Khan, In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful. The title is a verse repeated in the Quran (Koran) 114 times, rendered in Arabic here with bold red flourishes on a dark ground.

    There’s drama, too, in Ameena Khan’s crisp acrylic and ink painting, In Defense of Eve. Here, the text in the background is an English translation of Quranic verses about God’s forgiveness of Adam and Eve. As Khan explains in her statement, the work speaks of her concerns about those contemporary Muslim practices that demean and subjugate women. Eve’s extended hand has dropped the weighty apple, releasing her burden of guilt and shame.

    Ascension to Sinai, by Joy Stember, is a stunning example of contemporary Judaica. A copper bowl, plated with gold on the inside, rests atop a platinum tripod fashioned after rams’ horns. This dazzling chalice is both a recalling of Moses’ climb to the presence of God and an elegant symbol of human desire to be filled with Divine spirituality. Our cup runneth over indeed.

    Without a doubt the most arresting work here, if only for its physical enormity (125” x 155”), is Second Adam, an oil painting on wood with gold and silver leaf, by Bruce Herman. This homage to Renaissance altar pieces and religious frescoes is utterly astonishing in its facile handling of visual textures, letting the surface exude a classical aura. Read Herman’s concise statement and you’ll come to savor how well his ingenious compression of Biblical time serves the painting’s message of a new beginning for the human race.   

    Speaking of reading messages, I highly recommend that you read all the statements that accompany the artworks, keeping in mind that the show is clearly not designed to be a heavy platform for doctrinal pedantry. For the most part, the statements are simply personal and often disarming revelations of heart and mind.

     The aforementioned works are but a very small representation of a show that is otherwise a deeply probing spiritual event – a remarkable gathering of worshipful artistic voicings - as well as a completely enthralling visual experience.

     With God as the subject matter, could we expect anything less?

    PHOTOS (from top): Second Adam by Bruce Herman / Ascension to Sinai by Joy Stember / In Defense of Eve by Ameena Kahn / In the Name of God, Beneficent, Merciful by Faraz Khan

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