Saturday, January 8, 2011

On Art and Artists

One of my dearest and most beloved friends, Erica, is a studio artist. Her primary area is sculpture. I think her work is nifty. I also am not trained as an artist, so my opinion on her work is pretty worthless. But there you have it.

Erica and a colleague of hers, Ken, began a collaborative work some months ago and have been seeking exhibition opportunities to show their work. Ken is a painter. I would seriously consider selling a kidney, partial liver, or lung lobe on the black market in order to be able to afford two of the paintings he created for this show.

Erica, Ken and the director of the art gallery were installing the show this week. The opening reception will be on Friday, January 14th, 2011. I will be on a plane. I'm excited by this because 1) I will be headed to Florida which is significantly warmer than Iowa and 2) I will be attending a wedding (yay!). I am deeply distressed by this because I desperately want to be at the opening of this show.

I console, myself, however, with the fact that I was allowed to help install the show! Or, rather, I was permitted to help install Erica's portion of the show. This meant a bit of grunt work. I honestly did not mind a bit. It also meant I had the privilege of seeing some of the process that goes into deciding how to display works of art, and how the artists intend the space to be read.

Assisting in the installation also meant that I had the opportunity to ask Ken some questions about his work--both about some of the pieces specific to this show as well as about his experiences as a person of faith who works in a field that is generally quite hostile to faith. It was thrilling. Seriously.

The first of Ken's paintings for which I would consider selling a kidney is a re-imag(in)ing of Antonio Allegri da Correggio's Jupiter and Io. What first struck me about the piece was the interaction between the woman and the dark, formless, somehow ephemeral shapes on the lower right hand and upper left hand corners of the canvas, respectively. Having never seen Correggio's Jupiter and Io, I did not know Ken's painting was based on another work of art. However, it brought to mind two things:

1. The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Anderson. This might seem a bit ridiculous, but seriously, it's a naked woman who shines in full glory and who seems to be asserting her feminine (sexual) power against a darker entity. Can you really blame me for seeing Ariel and the sea witch Ursula?

2. The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Because despite the fact that in Ken's painting (being true to Correggio's original) is naked and St. Teresa in Bernini's sculpture is cloaked, Teresa is still, you know, chock-full of feminine power and sexuality.

The second painting of Ken's for which I would sell a portion of my liver and a lobe of one lung is this amazing piece about which I had no opportunity for questions or discussion. This painting left me feeling somewhat breathless and in tears. It was excruciatingly beautiful.

It shows the body of a woman, naked, seated, with her legs tucked to her side. Her shoulders, neck, and head are not visible. At least not directly. She takes up the majority of the left side of the canvas. There are some forms between the woman's knees and another figure, much smaller, fully clothed, and wearing a backpack (or parachute?) in the Child's Pose.

For several minutes I could not stop staring at this painting, thinking to myself, "This is the image of God." It was just that divinely beautiful, and evoked an interesting faith response in me. I wish I'd had the time today both to discuss this painting with Ken and to process my response with another person of faith.

All of Ken's paintings were gorgeous, but these two stopped me in my tracks.

Erica's work, which intersects, plays with, relates to Ken's paintings in the space are also quite exceptional. Erica has spent months crocheting painter's drop cloth. If I ever get married, I might be getting married in a crocheted wedding dress, made of drop cloth, courtesy of Erica. I've told her this. She still seems to think I'm joking. I'm not.

The sculptures, which are suspended from the ceiling are light, airy, frilly, and delightful. I think they are all wonderful, and if I had a large room with 20' ceilings, I'd do everything in my power to convince her to hang them permanently in my private space. I like her work. These large sculptures, however, are only part of her work for this show. And none of the above work is anything I got to touch today. I got to assist in her other pieces.

Erica's other pieces, also made of painter's drop cloth, are fascinating to me. They are large clear plastic bags which have been attached to fans running on timers. The timers allow the bags to deflate for a period of time before being re-inflated. Watching the bags deflate and inflate is a bit like watching lungs at work. It's so cool! (It reminded me of the scene in Jurassic Park where Dr. Alan Grant, played by Sam Neill, rests against a sick triceratops and allows his body to rise and fall with the animal's breathing).

The best part of these plastic lungs, however, and the part with which I got to assist, is their covering. They are draped with the painter's drop cloth which was removed from its box, unrolled but still folded, and cut down the middle, and separated in to several very long, thin strips. This was my job for the day--cutting yards and yards of plastic drop cloth, separating out the strips, and piling it on top of these lungs.

The plastic drop cloths themselves smell faintly of vanilla. They are almost weightless in the hand, as they pass through the fingers in the process of separation; like dry water, solid and yet somehow fluid but lacking viscosity.

And the sound it all makes as the lungs inflate and deflate is absolutely beautiful. It's like rain pattering on a window.

Because the motors for these lungs are all running on different timers, most of it is a steady tattoo. Every once in awhile, however, the times match up, and the sound swells in intensity; like when the wind blows during those rain storms, and for a moment the steady patter becomes a surge of power, and you know that a single sheet of glass separates you from the power of the elements.

I love the sound of rain. As a child the sound of the rain on my window was a protective cocoon from other sounds. Sounds of violence and strife. The gentle rapping of rain on a window is akin to whispers from God, assuring me that everything will be okay. To me, rain

That is how I felt listening to three boxes worth of sliced up painter's drop cloth rustling against itself. I felt safe. Surrounded by beauty and an image of God, with the gentle rap of rain pattering the background, standing next to a very dear friend, I thought to myself, "Surely life does not get better than this."

I do not understand art. I find it intimidating. It is an area in which I have no training or formal knowledge. I have neither the technical language nor the cultural exposure to talk about art with any kind of authority. So, I tend to shy away from discussing it at all, lest I sound like an idiot.

Fortunately for me, Erica is gracious and understanding. Our friendship is not predicated upon my having a technical or theoretical understanding of art. She's always willing to answer my question, to share with me her process (both thought and production). She encourages me to engage art, and to start by describing what I see. In the case of her lungs, it is what I hear that is most powerful, so I started there.

Art may be something I always find somewhat intimidating. I may never understand it. I may never come to trust that what I experience in engaging a specific work of art is "right." But today, I had the opportunity to experience the divine through several works of art.

Today, I got to hear God's whispers of assurance to me and to see an image of the very God I love. And she is glorious.

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