Continued from Part 1.
CB: From what I can gather, your work seems to have gone through several phases: the early/seminary years (1977-81), which you’ve described as “…garish – sort of Otto Dix meets Marc Chagall”[vii]; then art school in Boston (1981-87), which you’ve characterized as “neo-expressionist, angst-ridden”; the continuation of abstraction into the nineties up to Your Own Soul; and then representational culminating in Emmanuel (2003-05). Can you tell us a bit more about each period and the transitions from each one to the other?
AB: The transitions were organic. I didn’t have a plan. These periods emerged out of desperation to stay whole (that beautiful world of interiority meeting the world as it is). There was no angle to climb the ladder of success. Looking back 30 years, I could be seen as a fool, a holy fool at least. I existed with, not within, my imagination. Every time I paint, I am fixing up the cracks (as I see/felt them) in myself, and, by extension, my culture and times. Recently, to be honest, I feel on the point of exhaustion. To quote Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”[viii]. So I have turned to the Body of Christ – (thus, my turn to more, not exclusive but more, representational), the ancient representations of faith that echo the words of the disciples to Jesus at Emmaus: “Stay with us” (Luke 24:29).
CB: Picking up again on the theme of icons, your Self Portrait with Two Lungs (2001-04) is a sort of hourglass with iconic lungs; you’ve called it a beginning of sorts. Can you tell us a bit more about this piece?
AB: That’s when I really came out with my religious (not spiritual) identity. I breathe the air of faith given to me by generations of believers beginning with Mary Magdalene Easter morning. The hourglass with my vertebrae holding the structure together becomes a glowing monstrance that gives homage to this gift of being that we call life.
CB: Stepping back a bit, in his work God and Enchantment of Place, David Brown makes the following observation:
“In the modern developed world there is now, I believe, a huge mismatch between the Church and how people at large experience the divine. It is not that the latter have ceased to believe in the supernatural or only identify it in a very crude way (though this is of course sometimes so) but that, when they attend a church service, the ritual no longer seems to evoke any immediate or intuitive response.”[ix]
AB: I agree. Again, this gets us back to the world of interiority. Is there somewhere ritual can be received in oneself? I find that interiority has been sacrificed on the altar of technology and mass media – this passion for the immediate. How can a liturgy be alive if the person is not? Flannery O’Conner wrote: “The first product of self-knowledge is humility.”[x] I don’t see much of that today.
CB: In your autobiographical essay, “Naked Grace,”[xi] you say:
“Indeed, we as the church must have minds and hearts open to the work of living artists around us. This is necessary for the sake of the young, who are desperately searching for fresh images.”
Against this backdrop, what is the place of the artist who is Christian with regard to the Church?
AB: Light some candles.
CB: Care to elaborate?
AB: Working in sacred space, one cannot just drop in a work of art, like a comet landing from some other trajectory. It is a process which needs to respect what already is, challenge what is, and pray (lighting the candles) that it can all work out. Again, I think, generally speaking, that ”religious art” is stuck in a 19th century mode in the USA (with its roots from before), which needs to be nurtured to our present times. I might sound a bit old–fashioned, but I think we should distinguish applied arts (beautiful liturgical arts like an ambo or chair) from fine art (painting, sculpture). I still believe there is a significant difference.
CB: You’ve talked about exhibiting in a gallery alongside jars of baby fetuses – literally in the middle of the culture wars. Drawing upon these experiences, what is, in your estimation, the place of the artist who is Christian with regard to culture?
AB: Again quoting O’Connor: “To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from the world.”[xii] I have come to accept that the role of the Christian artist as regarding culture will always be the outsider looking in. Perhaps that is the way it should be. I simply can’t go back to the art world after Your Own Soul (1998). There is nothing to go back to. We’ve both changed not to be reconciled – the galleries in their absence of meaning, beauty, transcendence, the good, etc., and I in my own renewal of faith and her traditions. The more serious problem is, again, that interiority is, to some extent, absent in our culture and so all our dialogue has gone into overdrive/shock treatment mode to accommodate our stunted, increasingly hungry selves. We just need to find our way back to that undertow of mystery which is so evident, so real, so beautiful, so sustaining. Our expressions of faith will always fall short of the reality of which they speak.
All is grace.