Transpositions Ten-Year Anniversary Series Part 2: Significant Art from the 2010s

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Our Transpositions ten-year anniversary series reflecting on significant art from the 2010s continues this week with contributions from five erudite scholars whose research explores the interweaving of theology, imagination, and the arts. The various considered art works include: a book catalogue of paintings from a renowned Roman Catholic artist from Canada; a David Bowie music video; the most popular TV series featuring a high school chemistry teacher-turned-crime lord; a mixed media art show featuring Marian imagery; and a monumental painting containing important anti-racist imagery for us to consider.]

 

 Rebekah Lamb – Michael D. O’Brien, The Art of Michael D. O’Brien, book, 2019

In the fall of 2019, Ignatius Press released the first catalogue of the most iconic paintings and sketches by Canada’s leading devotional artist, Michael D. O’Brien (1948–). In the 1970s, O’Brien forged a new path for Canadian artists – one which few of his contemporaries knew how to find, though many longed after it. This new path was a devotional pilgrimage, a via crucis, in which he completely dedicated his art – in its production, themes, and form – to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Along the way, O’Brien met with many difficulties – especially since a lay, devotional artist did not have an immediate market in Canada following World War II and the rise of the ‘long sixties’. Over time, his art would receive global recognition amongst various Christian Churches and especially in Eastern Europe where the depth and soul of his art spoke to those who had lived under violent persecution during Soviet rule.

O’Brien says that, through his art, he seeks to express ‘living words—words that give life to others—first calling them through the medium of beauty to silent attention before a mystery; then evoking profound questions within their hearts and souls; and then drawing them to a state of wonder and from there into reverence for being itself’.[1] As Clemens Cavallin has recently put it, O’Brien’s art stands ‘on the edge of infinity’, giving flesh to our deepest hopes, longings and fears and, in so doing, encouraging a habit of advent-like attention, in which we ponder devotional imagery in our hearts, awaiting divine disclosure (which shouldn’t and can’t come on our own terms).[2]

Given the difficulties of our current times (when there is such deafening noise, abundant anxieties and fears), O’Brien’s art invites us into the great silence of Christ’s life and the Christian message, a silence which offers the world ‘words that give life to others’. In this catalogue, you will find a wide-ranging series of artworks, many of which meditate on specific biblical scenes or contemporary concerns in a way which makes them new and invites us to see the world with fresh eyes.

In so doing, O’Brien’s art is characterised by the charism of the contemplative, which, as Hans Urs von Balthasar says, draws us into a ‘place of undistorted, unmitigated encounter with the living God, on the other hand: “a land naked and pitted, dried up and darkened, a land through which no man passes and in which no man dwells” (Jer 2:6) yet a land toward which God still “seductively” redirects his Bride in order to “speak to her heart-to-heart” (Hos 2:14)’.[3] This catalogue invites us to enter into a ‘heart-to-heart’ with God, remembering that he is a living God, not merely the subject of abstractions. In so doing, it draws us towards the ‘edge of infinity’, giving us the courage to dare to stand there.

Rebekah Lamb is Lecturer in Theology and the Arts in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St Andrews. Her forthcoming book, Suspended in Time: Boredom and Other Discontents in the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle, will be published with McGill-Queen’s University Press.

***

Ann Loades – David Bowie, ‘Lazarus’, music video, 2016

David Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’ was produced by Tony Visconti and David Bowie, launched in London’s King’s Cross Theatre towards the end of 2015. David Bowie sings/writes his ‘Lazarus’ lyric for his Blackstar album. As an unmistakably dying man with a horrifying face-mask, he ‘rises’ from his death-bed to write his lyric, without self-pity of sentimentality. Bowie sings not of death but of life, without scars, with nothing left to lose, free ‘just like that bluebird’. Tragically, Bowie died of liver cancer two days after his sixty-ninth birthday [Editor’s note: the music video was released on 7 January 2016, only three days before Bowie’s death]. The song displays great courage in a long tradition of reflection on St John’s Gospel 11–12 which artists have been able to embrace when New Testament exegetes leave us stranded.

Prof Ann Loades, CBE. is an Honorary Professorial Fellow at St Chad’s College, and Professor Emerita of Divinity, University of Durham, UK. She is also an Honorary Professor in the University of St Andrews. 

 ***

Mary McCampbell – Vince Gilligan (creator), Breaking Bad, TV series (2008–2013)

One of the last episodes of Vince Gilligan’s masterful series, Breaking Bad, is titled ‘Ozymandias’, an allusion to Percy Shelley’s ironic take on the erasure of a cruel pharaoh’s graven image and empire. The brilliance of Gilligan’s narrative is largely due to his capacity to manipulate his viewers into rejoicing over the demise of an initially relatable protagonist. Although I had been manipulated into empathizing with high school chemistry teacher-cum-drug kingpin Walter White for four seasons, I was now ready for the show – for Walt – to be over. Gilligan’s plan was for the narrative to self-destruct, to implode just as Walt’s character does. Like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, White is (and has always been?) hollow to the core, yet this portrayal of the corrosive impact of pride on the hum an soul is perhaps the most profound, most chilling, and least ‘hollow’ works of visual art to have ever been on the small screen.

White begins as a seemingly ‘normal’ chemistry teacher and loving suburban dad that learns he has lung cancer and will be dying soon. Out of desperation, he begins ‘cooking’ methamphetamine in order to leave an inheritance for his family. He gradually transforms into ‘Heisenberg’, a self-sufficient killer whose pride is the central driving force for his underground empire: ‘My name is Heisenberg; King of Kings! / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains’.

In one defining scene, Walt tells a fellow chemo patient his life’s mantra: ‘Never give up control. Who’s in charge? Me. That’s how I live my life’. Walt’s ‘sneer of cold command’ (Shelley) is apparent to anyone that gets in the way of his empire building.

Walt’s understanding of the value of human life has always been pragmatic, demeaned. In the series’ second episode, Walt and former student, Jesse, dissolve the body of the first victim of their (literally) toxic partnership. The results are grotesque, and in between the shots of the men cleaning up a decomposed body, we see flashbacks of Walt working equations on the board with his graduate school classmates, wanting to ‘solve’ the makeup of a human being. When Walt notes that ‘There’s something missing’, his girlfriend asks, ‘What about the soul?’ Walt responds, ‘Soul? Ha. It’s all just chemistry’.

For Walt, a pure Darwinian if there ever was one, empathy is a stumbling block on the path to progress. Is Walt an Aristotelian tragic hero, a Byronic anti-hero, or a villain? To some degree, he is all three. His downfall is a result of the crippling flaw of pride, his terrifying genius, and an inability to see the imago dei  in other human beings because, ultimately, ‘it’s all just chemistry’.

Mary McCampbell is Associate Professor of Humanities at Lee University and author of the forthcoming book, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: Empathy, The Arts, & the Religious Imagination (Fortress Press, 2021).

 ***

Matthew Milliner – Tim Hawkinson, ‘New Work’ art show, various mediums, 2019

 In the Spring of 2019 I enjoyed a pre-COVID stroll in the L.A. Arts District. Mask-less humans roamed freely, consorted without restraint, openly consumed expensive coffee. It was on that visit, after seeing the surprising Piero Manzoni show at Hauser & Wirth (the maker of 1961’s Merda d’artista was not the nihilist I suspected!) that I encountered the evocative centrepiece of Tim Hawkinson’s New Work  show at DENK Gallery.

Orrery (2018) was a fusion of Gothic statuary (the Sedes Sapientiae, that is, throne of wisdom) and astronomical inquiry (an orrery is a model of the solar system) so unexpected that it easily takes the (not entirely prestigious) trophy for most noteworthy art I personally encountered in the 2010s. I first met Tim Hawkinson’s work in his memorable New York show How Man Was Knit (2007). Massive body parts, freshly contorted and lovingly rearranged, jump-started my wonder at the human form. But Hawkinson’s DENK show revealed that in the next decade the same artist would contemplate how God was knit as well. By installing the solar system into his hardware store Virgin, Hawkinson reinvented the Byzantine icon type ‘more spacious than the heavens’ for the twenty-first century. But unlike in an icon, the Christ child here was not stationary (as mere photographs suggest), but rotated in uterine orbit. Moreover, an installed fan mechanism caused the backdrop to breathe – a common blue tarp transfigured into something closer to the heavenly blue ceiling of Giotto’s Arena Chapel.

But I’m convinced there was another historical conversation at work here as well. At MOCA Los Angeles in 1995,  the artist Robert Gober had famously offered a deliberately irreverent (or perhaps simply Nestorian) statement of Mary with a drainpipe through her stomach. Rather than angrily protest this piece (as many did), Hawkinson instead waited patiently to offer a kinder reply, even to the point of referencing Gober’s drain pipe in Mary’s homemade arms. Gober’s Los Angeles Mary is far more than just a vessel, as the Christian tradition (in response to Nestorius) has long insisted. Joseph Cornell, another master of everyday objects, once successfully recalibrated and even healed Marcel Duchamp’s attack on the Mona Lisa in his tenderly wrought ‘Duchamp Dossier’ of the 1940s. And now thanks to Orrery, Tim Hawkinson has done the same for Robert Gober in the 2010s.

Matthew J. Milliner (@millinerd) is Associate Professor of Art History at Wheaton College.

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Sarah Stewart-Kroeker – Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), painting, 2014

Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Studio) from 2014 is a monumental painting. I encountered it after having been through the Met’s ‘Epic Abstraction’ exhibition, the title of which rather over-promised. Marshall’s studio scene – not abstract, and more deserving of the designation ‘epic’ – stopped me in my tracks. Untitled (Studio) is incredibly dynamic: the reds and yellows track diagonally across the painting while the five faces (including one in the portrait on the left), looking in different directions, draw the viewer into the interplay of gazes in the painting’s upper half, just as the variable sharpness and depth creates a kind of instability, as if Marshall’s painting remains in process like the artistic process he depicts. The painting plays on various well-established art historical tropes: the studio scene, artist and model; the nude; the still life elements (the ephemeral flowers and food stuff, with the memento mori of the skull to remind the viewer of their own passage toward decay and extinction); the bust and small statue; genre paintings with their frequently attendant animals, here the watchful dog and the goldfinch (a nod to Carel Fabritius’s famous painting, or to its symbolic meaning in religious art as a reference to both crucifixion and redemption?). Marshall plays with these tropes and subverts them: the artist is a woman, unlike the many men that populate studio scenes over the centuries, and while her current model is a woman too, she is clothed, unlike the male nude in the left corner and the man apparently re-clothing behind the red curtain just behind the artist herself. These two women are the centre of the painting; the men are in the wings.

Marshall refuses to shade the faces of his figures to make their expressions and features more easily visible, and there is something to this that strikes me as resistant to whiteness as well: for to shade the faces would require using light, lightness overlaid on the blackness of the skin.

While the female artist portrayed here is entirely commanding, Marshall somewhat cheekily references himself as the painter too—the paint dripping from the painting within the painting (on the left) is also dripped directly onto the canvas surface, indirectly inserting Marshall himself into the scene as the painter painting the painter painting. And this, too, is significant, for Marshall’s own Blackness is at the heart of his painting practice: he paints Black figures to challenge the overwhelming whiteness of European art—which, to the extent that it includes Black figures at all has mostly been as models (the Musée d’Orsay’s ‘Black Models’ exhibition in 2019 excavated historical details on these models—but the exhibition is focused on Black models, that is, painted by white artists, implicating these works in the bloody legacy of colonialism, even if some of the paintings evidently sought to indict that very colonialism by portraying its brutality, but in so doing they re-brutalize Black bodies).[4] Marshall distinctively paints his figures in striking, deep black that invites close study to see the details of facial expressions and features. Marshall refuses to shade the faces of his figures to make their expressions and features more easily visible, and there is something to this that strikes me as resistant to whiteness as well: for to shade the faces would require using light, lightness overlaid on the blackness of the skin. Marshall will not draw white over black, the deep blackness of these Black faces resists ready discernment, and their expressions too are enigmatic, intense, perhaps defiant.

The painting has stayed with me not only for its stunning beauty and compositional mastery, but for the ways in which it indicates white supremacy (through artistic tropes) and at the same time resists and subverts it. The struggle against white supremacy long precedes this decade and will continue beyond it, but certainly the Movement for Black Lives marks the 2010s in ways both indicting of the structures of white supremacy that remain deeply rooted and yet hopeful in its insistent call for change.

Sarah Stewart-Kroeker is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Geneva and the author of  Pilgrimage as Moral and Aesthetic Formation in Augustine’s Thought (OUP, 2017)

 

[1] Michael D. O’Brien. ‘Preface’ in The Art of Michael D. O’Brien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 16.

[2] Clemens Cavallin. On the Edge of Infinity: A Biography of Michael D. O’Brien (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2019), 25.

[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Two Sisters in the Spirit: Thérèse of Lisieux and Elizabeth of the Trinity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 10.

[4] Just as protest engulfed Dana Schutz’s 2016 painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket, for exactly this problem (a significant controversy that marks the last decade in contemporary art), protests against the printing of images of Black bodies brutalized by police continue to press against the problematic tensions involved in imaging brutalized Black bodies, even as the circulation of such images has contributed to the Black Lives Matter mobilization against police brutality.

Photo credits: Photos from Tim Hawkinson’s ‘New Work’ Art Show taken by Matthew Milliner.

1 Comment

  • L. N. Brown says:

    Rich choices, if Western-centric; though, to that end, I am curious as to why there is no visual accompaniment for the one *hint* at diversity (Marshall’s Untitled (Studio)), particularly as I believe I saw an accompanying image when I first accessed this piece, which is now gone as I revisit in linking a colleague. If I recall correctly, there was a collection of silhouettes with the reflection – which I took as a subtle nod to the style of older works like ‘Dark Angel’, or else, a blocky, cheeky nod to Marshall’s more recent comments on Warhol. Regardless of reasons for removing the image, it did give me pause upon seeing the single commentary on a non-white (/white-passing and undeclared otherwise) artist was likewise left as the single commentary without any visual accompaniment.

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