Transpositions Ten-Year Anniversary Series Part 3: Significant Art from the 2010s

[EDITOR’S NOTE: In this third instalment of our Transpositions’ ten-year anniversary series, ‘Significant Art from the 2010s’, we hear reflections from four different artist-scholars on four visual artworks that have moved, challenged, and inspired them. They range from the immanent-transcendent beauty of contemporary abstract art, to the poetry-provoking portrait of an artist’s father, to facing the realities of the dark history of colonialist violence against Indigenous people in Canada, to the immersive wonders of cinema which invite us—like Plato’s own allegorical cave—to consider our understanding of the world and our place within it.]

 

Mako Fujimura – Mary Corse, Untitled (Blue, Black, White), painting, 2015

Mary Corse’s work[1] refracts, giving light into a rigid ennui-filled world of contemporary art, and the word ‘beautiful’ is welcomed again. In the ways that Agnes Martin’s works honoured Rothko’s contemplative layers, and yet moved beyond the abyss of the Modernist’s gaze, Corse carries Martin into a new focus of materiality in contemporary art. For me, as I use hand-ground minerals, the same materials used in 16th-century Japan and beyond, for my contemporary painting, I am delighted to see the prismatic materials be the message of ‘slow art’ movement, relying on our eyes’ capacity to see more than what the rational minds can conceive.

Makoto Fujimura is an artist, speaker, and founder of the International Arts Movement (IAM). He is the author of the forthcoming book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (Yale University Press, 2021).

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Malcolm Guite – Bruce Herman, Portrait of the Artist’s Father, painting, 2013

I first saw this extraordinary portrait in an exhibition at a conference of Christians in the Visual Arts in California. I was drawn to its quality of restful stillness, of repose, and above all of presence. I sensed not only the strong presence of the sitter but also the way in which the artist and his subject seemed present to each other through the medium of the art. The context in California also added something to my understanding of the painting. Everywhere around me I sensed the Californian cult of the young and bronzed and beautiful, the sense of gloss, of ‘image’ of surface, of a wrinkle-free presentation of flawless skin, the apotheosis of Ken and Barbie. Here, by contrast was a rich meditation on the beauty and depth, which are the gifts of age and patience.

Portrait of the Artist’s Father©Bruce Herman, 2010
From the Ordinary Saints project: https://ordinary-saints.com/
oil on wood; 38” x 56”
Collection of the artist: http://www.bruceherman.com/

I told the artist I would like to write a poem about the painting but could not do so via a mere photograph, I needed to spend time with the canvas and paint. Some time later, I was able to visit Bruce Herman’s studio and the resulting poem turned out to be the beginning of a collaboration, which bore fruit in the book and exhibition ‘Ordinary Saints’.

 

A Portrait of the Artist’s Father

Here is your father, looking out at us

From this dark room where shadows furl and fold,

Patiently present to whoever comes,

Still on his battered sofa, at his ease.

He looks out from the darkness of the world,

The copper blotch and mottle of old time

Whose tarnishes and patina reveal

Strange beauty in the saints we love and leave,

Whose leaving leaves us burnished as we grieve.

He meets us here, at home in his own skin,

Which holds more colours than the eye can trace,

More substance, more humanity and grace

Than paint on wood can possibly contain,

All in the clarity of his kind face.

 

Malcolm Guite is a poet-priest, singer/songwriter, and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge. The author of more than a dozen books, you can find his work at www.malcolmguite.com.

 

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Cheryl Bear – Kent Monkman, The Scream, painting, 2017

The Scream, Kent Monkman, 2017
Collection of the Denver Art Museum
Acrylic on canvas; 84″ x 126”
Image courtesy of the artist

Kent Monkman is an artist from Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba. The first time I saw his painting The Scream I was happy. Maybe ‘happy’ is too strong a word; I guess I should say I was relieved. It was a terrible reaction maybe, because who in their right mind would be relieved about such a terrible depiction of Canadian history? But that’s just it—it’s a depiction of the terrible Canadian history. It’s a horrific picture of alleged holy people and supposed protectors—priests, nuns, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—who are actively harming Indigenous mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers. And sadly, this is one of too few paintings of Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective.

Kent Monkman is an artist from Fisher River First Nation in Manitoba. The first time I saw his painting The Scream I was happy. Maybe ‘happy’ is too strong a word; I guess I should say I was relieved. It was a terrible reaction maybe, because who in their right mind would be relieved about such a terrible depiction of Canadian history? But that’s just it—it’s a depiction of the terrible Canadian history. It’s a horrific picture of alleged holy people and supposed protectors—priests, nuns, and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police—who are actively harming Indigenous mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers. And sadly, this is one of too few paintings of Canadian history from an Indigenous perspective. When I saw this painting, I was relieved because we have lived this history and someone finally drew it. And when someone draws it then it can become real to others. You can’t help but feel the terror, anguish, violation, the victimization in this picture. (And no, don’t call us victims. Yes, we were and continue to be victimized but we don’t ‘play the victim’. Please stop thinking and repeating that ok?)

When I saw this painting, I was relieved because we have lived this history and someone finally drew it. And when someone draws it then it can become real to others.

I was relieved when I saw ‘The Scream’ because someone finally did it. Someone finally showed how Indigenous people have experienced Canadian history, how my mom and grandparents and our massive Dakelh extended family, and Indigenous people across Canada and the United States have experienced it. This painting made me a bit more decolonized. Every Canadian has been going through decolonization. That word sometimes worries people but honestly, it’s not scary. It’s a good way to live. Decolonization just means listening to another story. It’s listening to a story that changes the story you believed before you knew better. It’s hearing truth. If you are a Canadian and have heard of the Residential School System, then you have already been decolonized. You once believed something about Indigenous people and their education, but after 2008 (Canadians generally found out about the schools after the Prime Minister apologised, not when the court case was settled in 2007), you changed your mind. Some of you even got angry. You were pissed off that these travesties could happen here. In Canada. Because Canadians pride themselves on being known as peacemakers around the world. We stitch a Canadian flag on our backpacks so people will know we are Canadian. Those flags open doors to us around the world because of the story we have told them. Canadians are ‘good’ and ‘safe’. But that is a lived reality of only the privileged in Canada. It is not the lived experience of Indigenous perspective. We have not felt safe or even seen.

Decolonization just means listening to another story. It’s listening to a story that changes the story you believed before you knew better. It’s hearing truth.

I know that Canadians will not be relieved when looking at this painting by Mr. Monkman, and that’s a good thing. You will be horrified and sad, you will be angry and challenged, because this painting calls for justice. It calls for every Canadian to decolonize every system and institution in Canada. That is one way we can repair the damage done to Indigenous people who are horrifically, passionately and accurately drawn into this portrait.

Cheryl Bear is Nadleh Whut’en from the Dakelh Nation and Dumdenyoo Clan (Bear clan). She is a multi-award-winning singer/songwriter who shares stories of Indigenous life: the joy, sorrow, faith and journey, through story and song. Find her work at www.cherylbear.com.

 

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Iwan Russell-Jones – Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentary film, 2010

This is a work of art that has captured my imagination like no other over the last decade. The filmmaker, Werner Herzog, was given unique access to Chauvet in south eastern France, a cave containing parietal art that dates back over 30,000 years and which, for its protection and preservation, has been sealed off from the public since its discovery in 1994. I first saw Herzog’s creation in 3D, the only time that I have wished to experience film in this way. And it was unforgettable. A stunning procession of animals emerged from the rock, some of them long extinct, like the cave lions and woolly mammoths; and silhouettes of human hands, breathed onto the walls with paint from the mouths of these ancient artists, reached out as if to make contact across an almost unimaginable abyss of time. The makers of these images went deep underground to do so. There was something about these mysterious, subterranean places that drew them and spoke to the depth of their own experience of life. Herzog’s beautiful, thought-provoking film bore eloquent witness to me of the fact that from the beginning of the human story, art and the spiritual quest have been inseparable.

Iwan Russell-Jones is the former Eugene and Jan Peterson Associate Professor of Theology and the Arts at Regent College, as well as a filmmaker and former broadcaster for the BBC in both television and radio.

 

[1] Unfortunately, we are not able to display an image of Mary Corse’s Untitled (Blue, Black, White), but have included a hyperlink to a gallery page displaying it. To view the painting, click on the underlined text referencing the artist.

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