Category Archives: art

Dingbats

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Textile art has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world. It gets no respect. But to quote a Bob Dylan song, the times they are a-changin’. Jim Drain’s art exhibit “Zapf Dingbats,” which just ended at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami, shows the vibrant potential of this medium. Brightly colored fabric installations line the walls and four large sculptures anchor the exhibit, breathing life and hope into an age of uncertainty. The pieces include visual references to Edward Hicks’s painting The Peaceable Kingdom, which depicts a Utopian future prophesied by Isaiah in the Bible. Drain also subtly includes political protest in his art. The title of the exhibition is taken from the symbols printed on sheets of fabric lining the walls. If typed in alphabetic fonts, the symbols would spell out [F-word] Trump! over and over. Drain has created complex, powerful pieces that remain colorful, playful, and optimistic. I’m glad I got a chance to view this exhibition the day before it closed. My visit to Nina Johnson Gallery was the last and best stop on my recent whirlwind art and culture tour of Miami. It will not be my last.

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Uncanny

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Baled Truck, 2014
solid stainless steel
30 x 118 x 50 inches (76 x 300 x 127 cm)

There’s a story told about the French philosopher René Descartes. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life-sized mechanical girl inside. He’s so shocked he throws Descartes’ “daughter” overboard. (You can hear a podcast about this story here.) This apocryphal story illustrates the fact that our brains have trouble processing fake things that are too lifelike.

This phenomenon, called the “uncanny valley,” was first articulated in 1970 by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori. The idea is that the closer robots (or wax figures) resemble human beings, the more it freaks us out. My daughter Nadine and I had such an experience this week on a trip Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland.

At Glenstone, there’s an entire room dedicated to the sculpture of Charles Ray (b. 1953).  One large piece called Baled Truck looks just like a vehicle that’s been crushed for recycling. Only, like Descartes’ daughter, it’s a replica. Ray made a three-dimensional scan of a compacted cube of twisted steel, rubber, plastic, and glass, then had over a hundred individual shapes fabricated out of stainless steel. These pieces were painstakingly reassembled, welded together, and painted. It took the artist six years. The final product looks like the original, only the surface is smooth, almost liquid, and it weighs twelve tons. In the same room is an eight-foot-tall female mannequin, uncanny because of her Amazonian size. She looks like any department store mannequin, but on a larger, unsettling scale.

However, the most troubling piece in the exhibit is Ray’s realistic sculpture of a little boy called The New Beetle. Made of stainless steel and painted white, the sculpture depicts a lifelike nude boy on the floor playing with a toy car. The boy is five, maybe six, years old, too old to be comfortable undressed. Yet he is lost in the oblivion of play. His lack of shame is counterbalanced by the viewer’s embarrassment in staring at the boy’s naked prepubescent form. My daughter, who is a pediatric nurse, was upset. “It’s pornography!” she said in an agitated voice. I felt uncomfortable too. Is it porn masquerading as art? There’s nothing overtly sexual in the boy’s posture or expression. What’s the difference between this boy and chubby nude angels in Renaissance paintings? And why do we Americans love depictions of graphic violence in movies and on TV but squirm when confronted by the human body?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. But like good preaching, good art should leave us with something to ponder long after the experience is over.

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Queen of the Apostles

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Although the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title “Queen of the Apostles” first appears in the sixteenth-century Litany of Loreto, the concept is much older. In fact, its roots are biblical. Like Jesus, the Church was born of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the Day of Pentecost, considered the birth of the Church, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. St. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, tells us the Apostles were there praying “together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14).

In the famous painting of Pentecost above by the artist El Greco, Mary appears in the middle of the Apostles. Even though she is neither an apostle nor a priest, she too received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by a flaming tongue above her head. She wears both blue and red. Blue symbolizes her virginity and red her motherhood. In her dual role she encourages all women: those called to the married life and those called to remain single. Mary’s presence in the Cenacle is more than coincidental. Without her there would be no Church. She is the spiritual mother of all the Apostles and their successors. Indeed she is mother of us all.

It is therefore appropriate on this Pentecost Sunday to pray with Saint Vincent Pallotti (1795-1850) this prayer to Mary Queen of Apostles:

Immaculate Mother of God, Queen of the Apostles, we know that God’s commandment of love and our vocation to follow Jesus Christ impels us to cooperate in the mission of the Church. Realizing our own weakness, we entrust the renewal of our personal lives and our apostolate to your intercession. We are confident that through God’s mercy and the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, you, who are our Mother, will obtain the strength of the Holy Spirit as you obtained it for the community of the apostles gathered in the upper room. Therefore, relying on your maternal intercession, we resolve from this moment to devote our talents, learning, material resources, our health, sickness and trials, and every gift of nature and grace, for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all. We wish to carry on those activities which especially promote the catholic apostolate for the revival of faith and love of the people of God and so bring all men and women into the faith of Jesus Christ. And if a time should come when we have nothing more to offer serviceable to this end, we will never cease to pray that there will be one fold and one shepherd Jesus Christ. In this way, we hope to enjoy the results of the apostolate of Jesus Christ for all eternity. Amen. 

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(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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