All Is Grace: An Interview with Alfonse Borysewicz, Part 1


I stumbled upon Alfonse Borysewicz’s (pronounced Boruh-CHEV-itz) work in SEEN: The Journal of CIVA,[i]and, like C.S. Lewis in his An Experiment in Criticism,wanted to “learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee,”[ii] or, in this case, an artist of faith living and working in New York, and so I emailed Alfonse to learn a bit more about his work.

Since that time, Alfonse and I have exchanged a number of emails. I’ve visited his Brooklyn studio, curated two exhibitions of his work in our church’s space, and am currently collaborating with Alfonse on an exhibition of his Dormition (2007-11) at the Basilica of St. Adalbert (August 15 through the end of Art Prize).

Interview

CB: You’ve described your work as “post-Vatican II organic extraction realism”[iii]. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

AB: I once quipped this to someone as a joke – post-Vatican II organic abstract realist orthodox liberal Catholic, or something like that – and began to realize I was more or less accurate in positioning myself in the lost modern world we now inhabit. In short, I feel like I am holding many tensions, and that is, in my estimation, the most authentic place for me to be as I continue to discern how to respond to all the rapid changes and developments (cultural, political, etc.) of my moment in history.

CB: In your “Paintings-Strata” exhibition catalogue, Robert Lue describes a bit of your early work. He recounts:

“The first Lectio assemblages were made in 1990, and marked a radical reconfiguring of Borysewicz’s dialogue with religious painting.  Often rough like the early banners, the Lectio works differed in that they appeared to be made from the remnants of some glorious icon.  In Lectio #27, 1991, fragmented wooden strechers (sic) are nailed together, framing a central panel of scraped gold leaf.  Above the golden panel is a bar of raw honeycomb that unites the composition with an organic sense of wholeness.  The sense of completeness found in so much of this series is attributable to Borysewicz’s fusion of disparate elements from nature and industry through a skillful correspondence with iconic structure.”[iv]

I’m curious to know when you began fusing these elements with iconic structures – was this the beginning?

AB: Yes, it was. I am a bit astonished rereading that quote, because that is what is happening again in my current body of paintings as I use discarded pages from old icon books and rework them as armatures for my painting. These paintings have a collage element which becomes an act of iconoclasm reversed to icons again.  I thought I was doing something new, but I guess that I have plowed that field before. The beginning always comes last – can’t remember who said that, but it’s very true.

CB: Reflecting on the Lumen works, I couldn’t help but think of Guy Chase’s paintings on Russian icon book pages (1994-2009).  Are you familiar with these works?

AB:No, but I was impressed.

CB: Describing his Untitled (icon with checker board) (2009), Chase explains:

“I tore a page from a book of Russian icons. I made different paintings on it. Then the paintings in the margins interacted with the imagery in the icon. As in most of my work, I both annihilate and embrace the background image, or the source material.”[v]

That last bit, in particular, seems to be what you were getting at with regard to iconoclasm being reversed to an icon again. In his God and the Gallery, Daniel A. Siedell writes:

“Reflection on the economy of the icon has much to recommend for a study of modern and contemporary art.  From a historical point of view, the icon has never been far from the history of modern art.  The development of an autonomous institution of art in the West resulted in painting that takes place on portable panels and later canvases, materials that approximated the mobility and discrete look of icon painting.  Modern painting could be said to be the Western equivalent of Eastern icon painting.”[vi]

He goes on to discuss the metaphorical relationship between icons and modern art, but what interests me is that your work, as well as Chase’s icons, are more than mere approximations, or suggested equivalents.  They’re more directly related.  Instead of deconstruction and alternative (i.e., modern painting), they offer deconstruction and then reconstruction; put simply, they’re a savvy, redemptive move against the backdrop of modern painting.  I’m thinking of some of your more recent hinged altarpieces – Annunciation (2009-10) and Deesis (2011), in particular – explicit icons, but re-imagined as fresh images.

CB: Were the Lectio assemblages the beginnings of the Strata paintings, as well as the recurring honeycombs and hives in your more recent work, or simply an earlier manifestation of a pre-existing theme?

AB: The Strata paintings were sprung free from their physical structures in the Lectio works. Or should I say the paintings came from the sculptures (i.e., the Lectio works)? There was a nice tension there between painting and sculpture, and I am still not sure which fed the other.  I try to break free from the binary artistic choices every time I walk into my studio.

CB: Is your use of oil/wax related to the honeycombs and hives?  Did one precede (i.e., effect) the other?

AB: Well, the wax, of course, derived from the hives. The oil is the color added to the wax for painting. Growing up in Detroit – an experience best captured by the poem A Walk With Tom Jefferson by Phillip Levine – was not pretty. It was my imagination that allowed me to escape the grit and collapse of home. The ointment was sweet honey, the comb my community, and the paintings my invitation to others.

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.


[i] Maurice Timothy Reidy, “An Ordinary Mystic: The Faith and Art of Alfonse Borysewicz,” in Seen: The Journal of CIVA Christians in the Visual Arts VIII.2 2008, 8-10; originally published in American Magazine. Online: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10593&CFID=1467958&CFTOKEN=32034331

[ii] C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (New York: Cambridge University, 1961), 140.

[iii] Alfonse Borysewicz, Online: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/slideshows/alfonse/index.html, Accessed 6.8.2011

[iv] Robert Lue, Alfonse Borysewicz. Published on the occasion of the exhibition “Paintings-Strata” shown at Richard Anderson Fine Arts in New York, NY, October 1992.

[vi] Daniel A. Siedell, God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 32.

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