Majesty in the Maelstrom
By Tom Wachunas
“The human body is a way to express our “soul’s experience.” There is an inner landscape within us that is often veiled, even from ourselves…It is complicated and simple…It is full of life, struggle, endurance and stubbornness.” - Karen Laub-Novak
“Laub-Novak was one of the vanguard of faithful Catholic artists from the Vatican II era who believed that modernist artistic expressions were not only compatible with the faith, but also were capable of opening up new insights into Church traditions.”
- exhibit curator Gordon Fuglie
EXHIBIT: Karen Laub-Novak: A Catholic Artist in the Age of Vatican II, THROUGH MARCH 15 at Walsh University Birk Center for the Arts, 2020 East Maple Street, North Canton, open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
With only a week left to see this superb exhibit, I apologize for my late commentary. Nevertheless, if you’ve not seen it yet, I respectfully ask that you do so quickly. Featured are 36 drawings, prints and paintings by the late Washington, DC, artist, Karen Laub-Novak (1937-2009) that cover her career from the period of the early 1960s Vatican II reforms in the Catholic Church through 2000.
The exhibit title notwithstanding, don’t expect a heady exposition of exclusively “Roman Catholic” symbols, dogma or practices. The works presented here are from various series that drew their inspiration from not only the books of Genesis and Revelation, but also the struggle to find faith and salvation described in T.S. Eliot’s “conversion poem,” Ash Wednesday, and the existential suffering embraced by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Wilke in his Duino Elegies.
While much of the iconography is indeed Biblical in nature, Laub-Novak’s brand of Figurative Expressionism effectively transcends merely literal illustration. I think her imagery metaphorically addresses the human milieu coming to terms with the ineffable fullness of Divine being – what in Christian Scripture and theological discourse is referred to as the pleroma.
Many of the Biblically-sourced lithographs are loosely rendered figural situations that appear to emerge from abstract murkiness into cathartic episodes, transpiring perhaps in maelstroms of holy desire and conscience, or rising out of eschatological darkness – Cain slaying Abel, or Apocalyptic Horsemen dispensing death, for example. In all, there’s a gripping sense of mystical convergence of flesh and spirit.
That sense of convergence is particularly compelling in the oil paintings. The gestural intensity of Laub-Novak’s rhythmic brushwork infuses her surfaces with palpable, even electrified energy. And in their explosive chromatic splendor, there’s a frenetic majesty at work. Moses takes its visual cues from Exodus 19:4, wherein God tells Moses and his people, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” We see the eagle’s talons firmly gripping the shoulders of God’s appointed leader. Capturer and captured are one. Likewise, in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, rather than describing the throes of writhing struggle between the physical and supernatural, the painter presents two similar anatomies on the cusp of mutual embrace, floating and nearly fused together in a radiant vortex of color.
The painting is beautifully emblematic of the exhibit’s provocative spirituality, articulating the potent drama of seeking and discovery, of calling out and being heard, of grasping and being grasped. Laub-Novak’s art is an arresting reminder that human history is most purely discerned as our desire to be integrated in the pleroma.
PHOTOS, from top: Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse – Death, lithograph, 1963-4; Moses, oil on canvas, 1990-98; Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, oil on canvas, 1990-98