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Contemporary LDS Idioms in The Interpretation Thereof at BYU Museum of Art

“The Tree of Life,” Justin Wheatley.

Standing outside the BYU Museum of Art, looking at the banner for The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture, dismissal is my first reaction. I immediately recognize the scriptural scene depicted on the banner — “illustrated” is actually the verb that comes to mind, and illustration, my 21st-century biases tell me, is not art. For centuries, art wrestled with its role as illustration, as a subservient art to literature, and in no arena is this more apparent than the religious, where the visuals are meant to depict the revealed word, from an orthodox point of view. Depending on the demands of the patron, these depictions can range anywhere from illustration to propaganda, but are surely, I think, not art. But then I remember some of my favorite paintings.

One is by Peter Paul Rubens, an altarpiece that still stands in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. I now know that it borrows lighting from Caravaggio and coloring from the Venetians, but what struck me when I first saw it, as a young college student in Belgium, sitting alone in the cathedral, was its compositional mastery, which grabbed my eye, refusing to let go as it led me in a zigzag pattern across the canvas, from the muscled figures atop the cross, along the weight of the dead Christ, to the waiting figures below, and back up again. The other, by Rogier van der Weyden, I only saw a decade later, though I had known and admired it in reproduction from those same college days. In the Prado in Madrid, you come up close to it, where it is well-lit, showing off its magnificent, jewel-like quality. The scriptural reference is the same, but the painting is utterly different. Another compositional master, van der Weyden manages to keep the painting in poised tension as the deceased Jesus and the fainted mother Mary tumble to the left. The space is shallow, a gold-leaf background pushing the crammed figures forward so it is hard to ignore the precise rendering in the finely embroidered and chiseled cloth; nor is it easy to avoid the pathos in the faces of the mourners, their trembling lips and salty tears. In an age of commissions, when church and state were the most powerful patrons, these masters of their craft, inventors of form and style, were able to create masterworks, all the while “illustrating” literary texts.

With a touch more humility, then, I make my way through The Interpretation Thereof, an exhibit that occupies several rooms of the museum’s ground level and features dozens of works by LDS artists, mostly living, from both within and outside Utah. Considering this makeup, the lack of references to the religion’s foundational scripture, the Book of Mormon, is surprising. One artist who does go to these roots is Salt Lake City painter Justin Wheatley, who chooses a passage from the book of scripture that has attracted many previous artists: it’s a dream sequence that includes the dreamer’s family, dark mists, a symbolic tree, a large building, a perilous chasm and a rod of iron. Wheatley’s depiction shows a platform extending toward “the great and spacious building” of the dream, symbol of the pride of men, which surrounds the space like Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon (Professor X’s Cerebro, from the Marvel Comic film series, also comes to mind). Wheatley seems more interested in the visual resonances of space and architecture than in the human aspects of the story. His painting features a lone, small figure walking on the platform toward a tree (source of eternal life). No other figures from the scriptural account — not the jeering crowds in the great and spacious building nor the family members who either reach the tree or lose themselves in dark mists — are present. Which is surprising, since one of the LDS church’s most successful messages has been its emphasis on the eternal nature of the family, which is the emotional core of this scriptural passage. But here that seems absent, traded in for something less specific, more general, as if this piece could speak as easily to the lone man lost in the face of modern bureaucracy as it could to a religious tradition born in the 19th century.

“A Paved Work of Pure Gold,” Jason Metcalf.

The dearth of Book of Mormon references does not mean these LDS artists are shying away from their own scriptures. Rather, they look frequently to the Doctrine and Covenants, a set of scripture compiled in the 1830s and 1840s that lays out the theology and governmental workings of the new religion: it is more conceptual than narrative, making it a fitting scripture for contemporary idioms which prefer to rely on the conceptual for their aesthetic weight. Ryan Muldowney’s “Portals – Pearl of Great Price,” a cut paper relief in which one circle looks on to others in a series of receding layers, and Laura Erekson Atkinson’s “Build According to the Pattern,” in which the imprint of simple tools have been left in gesso, both reference LDS concepts laid out in the D&C (as it is known in Mormon circles). Jason Metcalf’s “A Paved Work of Pure Gold,” references a more narrative passage from the D&C, one about a vision in which Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery see a glorified Jesus Christ floating in the air on a “paved work of pure gold.”  In Metcalf’s work, a sheet of aluminum plated with 99.9999% pure gold sits on a pedestal, reflected light from its surface casting a luminous glow on the wall above it. Metcalf employs a contemporary strategy we might call “essentialism,” where the frisson of aesthetic pleasure largely relies on the intellectual recognition that the artist has used something “essential” — in materials, formation or presentation — about the subject of the work to make reference to the same. Too often, this strategy forgoes sensual visual qualities, but Metcalf’s work thankfully gives us pleasure from both sources.

Metcalf’s piece is probably the most far-removed from traditional mediums and approaches in the exhibit, the other bookend for the stylistic spectrum being the figurative sculpture of Trevor Southey. While most of the works will be accessible to the average museum goer, those used to a traditional diet or religious art may still find stumbling blocks. One elderly patron, overheard in her cursory examination of the exhibition, observed at one point that a work was “too modern for me.” This she said at a Ron Richmond painting, an accurately rendered if symbolic work depicting a cloth, chair, rough wooden table and simple place settings; so one can imagine her reaction to the work of someone like Casey Jex Smith, whose nearby piece, “Gathering,” contains large areas of abstraction and scribblings along with its ink drawings of religious structures and manicured shrubbery. Artists spend their careers developing a visual idiom, which may or may not be suited for expressing their religious beliefs. And one important question this exhibit proposes is: What is the appropriate idiom?

“Thou Art Not Yet as Job,” Annie Poon.

Is it possibly the cartoonish quality in the work of Annie Poon? Her title, “Thou are not yet as Job,” comes from a section of the D&C when Joseph Smith was jailed for six months in Liberty, Missouri: the voice of the Lord speaks to him, urging patience and forbearance, reminding him he has not yet been through as many trials as his biblical predecessor. In Poon’s piece, an owl, traditional symbol of wisdom, peers in on a scrawny, bald, bearded figure looking more like Job than Smith, conflating the two figures as the scripture is meant to do. Poon’s style is faux naive, cartoonish even, but executed in a large format, as if to demand equal recognition with more traditionally ambitious works.

Jeff Hein’s painting is one such work, and evidences a literal struggle with its visual idiom. Within the LDS community, Hein has earned many prestigious commissions for his large-scale, finely executed works in a style that is often called “contemporary realism,” frequently a reprise of the salon practices of the late 19th century. As the curator notes in the piece’s tombstone, working on this painting, Hein was struggling with the idea of “convenient charity,” wondering if he had been able to do enough for a friend struggling emotionally and financially with cancer. His painting displays a feast of consumer goods, wonderfully rendered in oil. Across the bottom, over the surface of this professionally rendered painting, stick-figure illustrations by Hein’s children, scrawled in bright colors, show the cancer-stricken friend, kneeling in prayer and walking with an IV, suggesting this childlike simplicity may reflect the desires of the artist’s heart as well or better than his own skillful display.

Other times it’s hard not to think that some idioms exhibited could be placed in another context just as easily as this one. With its abstract patterns, monochrome coloring and grid format, one could see David Louis Jones’ painting of 36 variously colored and striped spheres — meant to reference Mormon cosmology — fitting snugly into the context of any number of profane white cubes of our day. Paige Anderson tells the curator that while creating “Dews Distilling,” a nonobjective painting of multihued triangles intersecting in a quilted pattern whose title references a line from the D&C about the spiritual blessings of correct living, she was pondering the scripture and the need for patience in an age of instant gratification. As attractive as the work is, knowing what she was pondering at the time of its creation doesn’t make anything extra happen in the painting. Similarly, Alexander Morris’ textural, abstract piece may spring from his religious beliefs, but, like his other work, it is rooted in a personal mythology, and, more importantly, a personal language, one that is illegible without a curatorial Rosetta stone.

“Bid Me Come Unto Thee,” David Habben.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are artists who go about delivering their message explicitly. David Habben, who works as both a fine artist and an illustrator, has remarked before on the supposed tension between the two (see the video here). One of his two works on exhibit is rendered as a simple line drawing, like one you might find in a coloring book, as if he is nodding and winking at the illustrative nature of his style. The composition, with its extreme close-up and cropped figures, is inventive enough to be satisfying. It shows us little from the Gospel story of Jesus walking on water — not the disciples on the boat, the storm-tossed sea, or Jesus reaching out to Peter to join him. Rather, the simple depiction of a pair of feet, on the edge of the boat, close to circling fish, heightens the tension of the moment and suggests all the rest. Less appealing, though floating as well near the realm of illustration, is Nick Stephens’ “The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” a depiction of the church’s Salt Lake City temple on, under and surrounded by celestial bodies. The curatorial text describes in detail each symbolic and theological quality of the painting — an image that can be reduced in this manner risks seeming a visual construction for a brand (its wide, dark frame may be why the image of it as a poster in a corporate lunchroom came to mind: it only lacks the inspirational text in white at the bottom).

The power of scriptural stories is their human moments as much as their divine, which may be why narrative art, dressed up in whatever new or contemporary idioms, continues to resurface in religiously-themed artwork. Just as you don’t have to be a Magus bearing gifts to feel the import of a newborn baby, you don’t have to be a believer in the Resurrection to appreciate the pathos of mourners in a “Descent from the Cross.” This is why Brian Kershisnik’s version of the latter, which appears at the end of the exhibit, is less satisfactory than many of its classical predecessors. Borne by Kershisnik’s mourners, the dead Christ doesn’t look particularly heavy: borrowing a trope from his own massive nativity scene, which is on display at the museum though not part of the exhibit, Kershisnik makes visible in his painting a host of unseen angels who help to make the burden light. As Scott Abbott mentions in his book Immortal for Quite Some Time, Claudia Bushman quips that Mormons believe in resurrection but not in death, a notion with which anyone who has attended an LDS funeral may sympathize. For the nonbeliever, Kershisnik’s inclusion of the heavenly host may feel too much like the bishop’s sermon, which by dictate concludes LDS funeral services and generally wraps things up tidily. Even for the believer, Kershisnik’s strategy robs the Resurrection story of some of its narrative impact: for the surprise on the third day to really be transforming, one should fully feel the dread and anguish of the mourners on Good Friday, feel the weight of the dead loved one in their arms.

“Descent from the Cross,” Brian Kershisnik.

In “Bait,” longtime BYU art Professor Bruce Hixson Smith chooses the story, from the Gospel of John, of the woman taken in adultery for his narrative impetus. His figures — a mass of pointing, scowling men, the terrified woman, and Jesus, kneeling while he draws in the sand — are sketched out with a loose, moderately modeled style in a reduced palette, the figures arranged well and dramatically — one figure points his finger so close to Jesus’ face you imagine the Prince of Peace wanting to swat it away. Emotionally, though, the painting feels somewhat heavy-handed (and this may be the benefit, from a critical perspective, of works based on texts — rather than work in a void, the critic is given plenty to discuss in how the two rub up against each other) — heavy-handed because the throng of men is too much like the drawing in the painting: one-dimensional. In the Gospel story, the accusers are pricked by their conscience and leave, but these figures feel like so many Internet trolls of our own diminished time, and one imagines them eagerly picking up stones, hypocrisy be damned, and launching them.

“Jacob and Leah,” Bruce Hixson Smith.

Much more satisfactory is Smith’s “Jacob and Leah,” where the dramatic tension has been internalized in the figures.  Dressed in contemporary clothes (at least for the time it was executed, 1990) a male and female figure are on opposite sides of the canvas, literally separated by a line that goes down the middle, as well as by a chair and end table. Each looks in the opposite’s direction, their gaze lost vaguely in the space in front of the other. This indeterminate gaze, along with subtle details, like a clenched fist and pursed lips, suggests the type of unspoken tensions that may simmer in marriages. The title provides us a narrative reference — in Genesis, Leah is the first wife of Jacob, the one he is tricked into marrying in order to secure his real objective, her sister Rachel. The latter is absent from this picture, Smith using the biblical reference, one suspects, not for a comment on the specific pitfalls of polygamy, but to suggest the more universal tensions, like frustrated expectations and damaging questions of self worth, that can poison relationships. His strategy of presenting them as contemporaries, as many Renaissance and Baroque painters did before him, reminds us the scripture stories are as much about now as about then.

In the 20th century, the plastic arts’ illustrative possibilities, especially the type of precise depiction one found in northern Renaissance painting, became passé, if not taboo, with critics like Clement Greenberg declaring a Hegelian march away from illustration so the visual arts could shed themselves of subsidiary roles and affirm their own essence. Greenberg’s ideas linger, like a discarded orthodoxy that continues to haunt one’s thoughts, but in the pluralistic present, styles and strategies abound. As this exhibit attests, artists are able to use many of these to explore their own interpretation of scripture. It would be too easy to dismiss one style, falling within a traditional line of narrative representation, as simply “illustrative” and another, simply because the medium or approach is — relatively — new, as art. Rather, if we must burden ourselves with labels, we should look for richness of association, depth of concept and appropriateness of visual execution for our definition of “art.” And trust that those works that embrace them, like a Rubens or van der Weyden before them, will remain with us for some time to come.

The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture, BYU Museum of Art, Provo, through March 31, 2018.

 

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

1 reply »

  1. Shawn Rossiter may be Utah’s finest writer. The elegance, clarity, and sheer gracefulness of his prose here contribute much to my appreciation of the BYU exhibit, some of which went over my head and would otherwise have eluded me. All I have to offer in reply, with my ‘poor power to add or detract,’ is a thought about Brian Kershisnik’s Descent From the Cross that might help someone trying to appreciate it more fully.

    As one who vividly recalls the grotesque political murders of the 60s, I appreciate the way Kershisnik captures the chaotic grief of those who have been inspired to follow a leader, only to be devastated by his (or her) destruction. This catastrophe, it’s measure taken by the grotesque corpse, makes up the lower half of the Descent.

    But also present is the heavenly host, whom the story tells us know that God is God, and that His eternal plan is here playing out precisely as ordained. Why, then, their sorrow? It’s for us, the sorry mortals, who cannot see or believe enough, and so suffer a death in life. That’s what the small gesture of help supporting the weight signifies: an inevitable grief witnessed but not, finally, shared.

    I agree with Rossiter that belief in resurrection belies mortality and distorts the value of life. It’s a dilemma philosophers have wrestled with and failed to solve; should a mere painter succeed where they have not? What the artist has done is find one possible answer in a dramatic and discursive visual form.

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