Category Archives: art

(Im)Perfectly Beautiful

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Vase with Landscape and Dinosaurs (2014) by Steven Young Lee

Visiting an art museum always brings surprises. Today I went to the Renwick Gallery in DC to look at art glass by well-known artists such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. I found impressive examples of both. But what surprised me most were the beautifully damaged pieces of traditional blue-and-white ceramic by artist Steven Young Lee. They’re part of the special exhibit Visions and Revisions: Renwick Invitational 2016.

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Peonies and Butterflies (2013) by Steven Young Lee

Some pieces appear cracked, others exploded, still others melting like objects in a Salvador Dali painting. The combination of traditional craft and contemporary abstraction makes these porcelain vases poignant and haunting. They remind me that beauty doesn’t require perfection. Imperfect pieces can be just a beautiful and even more memorable.

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Vase with Scroll Pattern (2014) by Steven Young Lee

“Deconstructing and imploding the forms creates a visceral reaction that defies the human desire for perfection and confronts the perception of value. It is in this act that I hope to challenge and redefine what is beautiful.”—Steven Young Lee

 

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True Repentance

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Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834), Edward Hicks (1780-1849), National Gallery of Art

The Gospel reading last Sunday, Matthew 3:1-12, introduces us to the enigmatic figure of John the Baptist. We need to set the record straight about one thing: he wasn’t a Baptist, at least not in the denominational sense of the word. Even though he’s called “the Baptist,” he wasn’t a member of a Baptist Church. His title means that he was known for baptizing. John turned a Jewish ritual bath for converts into a sign of repentance. Let’s keep in mind the Baptist movement originated in England in the early 1600s. John wasn’t the first Baptist preacher. He was the last Old Testament prophet (in style, message, temperament), even though he appears in the New Testament.

John lived in the desert. He wore weird clothing. He ate bugs. Some people thought he was Elijah the prophet come back from the grave. A cross between Grizzly Adams and Jonathan Edwards, John preached hell-fire-and-damnation sermons, telling listeners to turn or burn, get right or get left behind. When the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes showed up to have their sins washed away, he rebuked them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

How do we know if we’ve truly repented of our sin? The short answer is that we don’t keep doing it. Since John fits the mold of an Old Testament prophet, it would be instructive to ask a rabbi what repentance means in the Jewish tradition. According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, here’s how the famous Rabbi Maimonides answered the question, What constitutes complete repentance?  He who is confronted by the identical situation wherein he previously sinned and it lies within his power to commit the sin again, but he nevertheless does not succumb because he wishes to repent, and not because he is too fearful or weak [to repeat the sin]. How so? If he had relations with a woman forbidden to him and is subsequently alone with her, still in the throes of passion for her, and his virility is unabated, and [they are] in the same place where they previously sinned; if he abstains and does not sin, this is a true penitent.” (Jewish Literacy, rev. ed., p. 608; citing Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva,” 2:1).

Sunday’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah describes the future Peaceable Kingdom, so beautifully illustrated by the painter Edward Hicks:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

I always assumed God will take away the predatory instinct from these animals. But maybe, just maybe, the miracle is that the wolf still wants to eat the lamb but chooses not to and the lion still wants to devour the calf but refrains. This is a picture of true repentance.

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Mind Blowing Art Glass

Some artists attempt to mimic nature; others draw inspiration from nature without trying to copy it. Glass artist John de Wit takes the latter approach. His playful abstract pieces blend color and texture in surprising ways while subtly evoking natural forms such as tree bark, cascading water, and bird nests. The following images are from the website of Seattle’s Foster/White Gallery, which represents the artist.

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These asymmetrical forms are both whimsical and sophisticated. This isn’t your grandmother’s Tiffany vase. There’s something more organic and spiritual going on here. I’m blown away by this blown-glass artist.

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The Visitation

El Greco The Visitation

Last week while I was on vacation I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown. Owned by Harvard University, the museum has a small but significant collection of Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, reflecting the eclectic interests of its founders Robert and Mildred Bliss. I know almost nothing about Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, so I thought I wouldn’t recognize anything in the collection. But as I passed the Italian Renaissance-style music room on my way to the Philip Johnson Pavilion where the Pre-Columbian exhibit is housed, a smallish painting caught my eye. Even before I recognized the subject matter, I knew the artist: El Greco (1541-1614). Upon closer inspection I saw that it was a painting of the Bible story known as The Visitation (Luke 1:39-45). Mary, having just been told by an angel that she would miraculously conceive the Son of God, visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant with a miracle baby, John the Baptist, conceived beyond the mother’s childbearing years.

The expressionistic style of the painting makes it look remarkably modern, as if from the twentieth century, even though it was painted sometime between 1610 and 1614. One commentator praised the work for embodying “all the mysticism and eerie brilliance typical of the best phase of [El Greco’s] style.” In it, two nondescript figures, robed in identical silver-blue hooded garments, embrace in a corniced doorway with a white, fluted casing. There are no halos, no religious symbols. The scene is strikingly ordinary, considering the miracle it depicts.

When Mary greets her cousin, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. That experience prompted her to utter one of the most famous lines of the Bible: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” part of the Hail Mary prayer Catholics around the world pray every day. Still, as important as the story is, it hasn’t done a lot for me in the past. I guess it’s difficult for me, a modern American male, to relate to pre-modern Eastern women both of whom are carrying miracle babies in their respective wombs. Besides the fantastic-sounding conception stories, I don’t understand why Elizabeth saw the baby moving in her womb as a miraculous sign. Don’t all babies do that? Was being filled with the Holy Spirit what enabled Elizabeth to see the ordinary event of a fetal motion as a divine sign?

I’m not sure why it’s difficult for me to see God’s hand in the ordinary. Perhaps it’s because I’m not looking for it, or at least not looking carefully enough. Both my religious training and my personality have made me hesitant to acknowledge the fact that God speaks to us outside of Scripture. Too many people get caught up in Charismatic kookiness or plain old superstition, so (I reason) it’s much safer to stick with the Bible. Yet even in Scripture God speaks to his people in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s miraculous like Moses at the burning bush. At other times the means of divine communication is surprisingly ordinary like an unborn baby moving. Jesus himself drew his greatest lessons from everyday life: a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd tending a flock, a fisherman catching fish, a woman searching for a lost coin.

I am trying to learn how to find God in ordinary things, even a trip to a museum.

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Finding Beauty

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Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi

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Latin America in Black and White

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Martio Algaze, Cotton Candy, San Angel, Mexico, 1981.

I wish I could fly to Miami, not just for the warm sun or cool nightlife but to view an art exhibit: a retrospective of the work of Cuban-American photographer Mario Algaze. The artist deserves a greater reputation than he currently enjoys. He’s done for Latin America what Ansel Adams did for the American West: he’s brought it to life with still photography. Algaze’s black-and-white photographs focus on street scenes with everyday people and capture the essence of cultures still foreign to most Americans. His images are free of the social and political commentary one might expect from an exile that fled Communist Cuba. This fact makes his art particularly appropriate to consider in light of President Obama’s recent announcement that the US Government will restore diplomatic relations with the island nation.

One of Algaze’s best known photographs shows a solitary figure shouldering a giant column of individually wrapped balls of cotton candy, reminding me of an ant carrying a piece of corn on the cob. The face and upper body of the person are hidden from view, but a close inspection reveals a thick-waist and flowing skirt sticking out from under the oversized burden. The shadows suggest the woman is walking in the midday sun. There are no other people in view. No man-made objects lying around. A few feet in front of her a scrawny tree grows out of the pavement. The cotton candy seems out of place in the sparse landscape. Is there a fair nearby? How far must the woman walk to sell her sugary snacks? The image is as delightful and sticky as the confection.

A Respect for Light: The Photography of Mario Algaze is on display at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler Street, until January 18, 2015.

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Art and Decoration

Cathedral Jackson Pollock 1947

Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

The border between art and decoration can be as fuzzy as a political boundary in the desert. Like political boundaries “art” and “decoration” are artificial, man-made concepts at best. At worst they are mere value judgments that signal our own preferences: That’s not art! While acknowledging the limitations of human subjectivity, I think there’s a case to be made for the difference between art and decoration. It’s roughly the same as the difference between wild and domesticated animals. Decoration has been tamed, housebroken. It’s suitable to hang above the sofa or put on the mantel above the fireplace. Art is feral, unpredictable, even dangerous. Decoration is forgettable. Art has the ability to sear itself in our brains and leave a mark . . . or a scar. Decoration and art can both be beautiful. But art doesn’t have to be beautiful at all. It can be weird, impenetrable, ugly, or offensive.

Take, for example, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, which confronted my wife and me when we visited the D’Orsay Museum in Paris. It’s a realistic painting of a woman’s elongated nude torso with the genitalia front and center. Who would dare display that in the living room for all to see? Art museums are safe houses where we can be voyeurs without getting arrested or even violating the conventions of polite society. It’s a highbrow alternative to going to the movies where we docilely munch on popcorn as we watch things we’d never even think of doing and if we witnessed them, we’d dial 911.

I remember visiting the Dallas Museum of Art when I was an undergraduate in Texas. After all these years I only recall one painting: Cathedral by Jackson Pollock. I lived such a sheltered life I’d never seen one of Pollock’s big, messy canvases, thick with drips and splatters of paint. It was mesmerizing. Having grown up being taught always to color in the lines, I was shocked and drawn to this rebellious work of art. Everyone knows that to paint means to apply pigment to canvas with a brush. Oh yeah?, the painting screams, Says who?!  It’s the kind of painting that makes you want to drop out of college and go backpacking through Africa. While I was still at the museum considering what I might sell for my airfare – I’ll never forget this – a professor from my college appeared out of nowhere. We exchanged greetings. He was surprised to learn that I wasn’t there because of a class assignment. I was there because that’s how I chose to spend my Saturday. He praised me for my good taste and left me feeling domesticated. Backpacking through Africa was off. I was just a nerdy college kid without a social life.

To be a great artist – or to be a great anything for that matter – you have to be willing to take risks and defy conventions. I’m not talking about being offensive for the sake of being offensive. I’m talking about doing what you know is right, even if you know others will be offended. I want my life to be art, not decoration.

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