Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Nativity Revisited A Contemporary Interpretation at Snow College

Brian Kershisnik’s Nativity at Snow College, oil on canvas, 7′ x 17′

Back in March, Snow College Gallery Director Adam Larsen, inspired by Utah painter Brian Kershisnik’s monumentally personal re-conception of the traditional Roman Catholic story of Jesus Christ’s birth, invited more than twenty Utah artists of diverse religious backgrounds to create their own versions of the Nativity. Eventually eighteen were able to participate, resulting in the twenty (mostly new) works on view now through Christmas in the College’s recently renovated gallery. It’s a show that succeeds completely on its own terms, with original visions that owe everything to the idea of the Nativity and little or nothing to the medieval and renaissance sources of the traditional creche: the manger scene, replete with dancing angels, awed shepherds, and reverent barnyard animals that members of one faith are always erecting in the most public spot in town so another can tell them to take it down again.

Kershisnik’s nativity is probably the oldest work here; it is definitely the largest, and makes the greatest departure from orthodoxy. I find Brian Kershisnik fascinating precisely because he is a devout Latter Day Saint who seemingly only wants to provide public images of elements of his faith: he carefully limns how Jesus labors to perform miracles, and visually signifies such everyday transcendental implications of faith as encounters in the afterlife and flight lessons for those whose spirits aspire to soar. Yet because these supposedly conservative ideas are unconventional subjects in art, he must present them in radical ways that contrast with his conventional mode of representation. The Catholic Church taught that Mary was given a dispensation from the curse brought on women by Eve: “In pain shalt thou bring forth children,” and so the traditional Madonna is a model of tranquility. But Kershisnik’s Mary is flushed, sweaty, and dazed from an ordeal: an ordeal shared by her husband, who holds one hand to his face while the other rests on her shoulder, and by her midwives, who have washed away the blood of delivery but not yet removed it. That these are the artist’s views and not (yet?) common understandings can be shown by pointing them out to students visiting the gallery. I did this repeatedly, and each time I was met by an eager sense of discovery. Kershisnik’s position as artist is directly analogous to those second- or third-century Christian artists who had to discover the proper way to represent their unpictured faith. Is Christ old or young? Bearded or clean-shaven? Remote or intimate? A god or a man? By opting for the latter choice, Kershisnik argues against austerity and authority in favor of a being one can encounter: someone like us. I’m not religious, but I believe in presenting mysteries in graspable visual forms, and if I belonged to a church I’d insist it throw out sentimental plaster images in favor of portraits that live the way these do.

Deliverer by Kathleen Peterson, oil on board, 49 x 18 in.

Many of Larsen’s chosen artists apparently agree. Themselves parents, several chose to focus on the connection between mother and child. Kathleen Peterson’s career is precisely contemporary with Kershisnik’s, but they proceed in opposite directions. Where he anchors abstract, symbolic scenes by inserting specific details, she creates specific scenes (a church in Hawaii, her neighbor’s fence, women in conversation) and imbues them with universal significance. Her “Deliverer” is an unusually tall, slender figure—an effect not of distortion but of close cropping—whose posture generates two equilateral triangles that, superimposed, generate a Shield of David.|1| At its center, the child’s forehead touches his mother’s collar. Directly above, her chin penetrates his halo to touch the crown of his head. But the intimacy of the moment isn’t all geometry; at least one viewer commented on how accurately Peterson captures the way his round, diapered bottom nests in the mother’s dovelike hands.

Brian Hoover’s “Bristlecone” and Holly Hooper’s “Immanuel” both explore the Virgin’s expression as she gazes on her newborn son. Hoover, whose painting is odd where it’s not creepy, explores one of the story’s implications: what must it have been like to be a mother without a sexual connection to her pregnancy, and with the knowledge that her child isn’t conventionally human? It’s an unsettling vision that she nevertheless meets with a gaze as calm as it is curious. Hooper’s virgin mother also gazes on a miracle, but hers is the real deal: God’s child aside, Hooper asks, how is any of us so incredibly blessed as to be alive and be aware of it? Hooper is an artist who aims for small effects that she routinely exceeds.

Not everything in the gallery takes such a literal approach. Glass artist Andrew Kosorok views “The Birth” through the sacred text of the Qur’an. While fundamentalists of all four faiths may refuse to embrace the connections between (in chronological order) Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Latter Day perspectives, this translucent, three-dimensional diagram of a stream flowing through an oasis, where a simple chalice waits to assuage the traveler’s thirst, is a luminous (and universal) vision of how the spiritual might coincide with the physical. Completing a trio of sculptures, Jason Lanegan’s two reliquaries—one containing straw, the other fragments of blue cloth—have the look of ancient, found objects recently retrofitted to hold in glass something that has become precious with the passage of time.

Jason Lanegan: Reliquary for True Fragments of a Living Nativity I and II,” mixed media sculpture, approx. 24 in. and 14in.

Ed Bateman: “Nativity,” computer generated image, 14.75; x 11.5 in.

Glass is the entire (but virtual) material of Ed Bateman’scomputer generated “photograph,” made without either camera or film, in which he represents the figures present at the birth as vessels: specifically bottles, connected by ambiguous strands that arc through the air between them or loop into circles that suggest halos.|3| It’s the one truly precedent-shattering work in the show, creating as it does a visual metaphor for the parallel, yet disjunct realms of the real and the knowable. Tradition believes that the spiritual world is the real one; that it wears the material world, which is an illusion, like a glove that it animates. The modern view is that our knowledge of reality (which reality resides in the material realm) is limited to what we learn of it indirectly, through our senses and our reason. Bateman’s vision accommodates either view by showing how the pattern becomes visible to the mind as it comes to see through and understand what it sees.


Lee Bennion: “First Night,” oil on canvas, 27 x 21 in.

Not everything here works on its own terms. Osral Allred’s “And It Came to Pass” and Lee Bennion’s “First Night” both suffer from the complacency that has mired these two local legends in their tracks for years. Fans (both have plenty) will disagree, perhaps pointing out that Allred makes effective use here of the prepared ground technique that has become a mainstay of teaching art at Snow. But when an audience meets an artist more than half way, they do him or her a disservice. In fact, Allred’s two figures, despite their exquisite profiles, fail as anatomical figures, let alone a convincing mother and child. Robert DeGroff’s “Nativity” transports elements of the traditional presentation into present-day Palestine, evidently intending to produce a shocking contrast, but the shock fails to materialize and the narrative becomes a victim of circumstances. Steve Stones locates sentimental religiosity among elements of our consumer culture and savages both. He dares to thumb his nose at his audience’s pieties, but these cartoons feel like ensembles of easy shots, through which one searches in vain for any reason to hope.

Steve Stones: Birth of the Capitalist Messiah, acrylic and collage on canvas, 48 x 48 in.

If Stones’ satirical humor demolishes whatever it finds, Adam Larsen argues that children, with their limited understanding and boundless energy for play, can create something new while striving to master established forms. In “Immaculate Dispensation,” only their hands can be seen manipulating the toys with which they re-enact the story to make it their own, while the relief printing medium’s high contrast and, in this case, relatively schematic visual quality reinforces the clarity of a child’s knowledge that, in play, things are both what they are and what we want them to be.

That a new world is created by seemingly trivial acts taking place near the periphery of the old one is one theme of the Nativity, and it is the image of greatness born in squalor and obscurity that gives this story emotional power. While each of these twenty works implies it in some way, some make it an aesthetic fact as well. Neither Sean Hardman’s “Interpretation” of a medieval diptych nor Bill Paterson’s painting over photos (“Now as Then; Then as Now”) quite reaches its destination, but each achieves a charming detail or effect along the way. In “Bowls with de la Tour,” Ron Richmond sets a hyper-realistic trio of symbolic objects like an altar before one of his favorite Baroque paintings, contrasting the elaborate iconography of the earlier work, visibly flattened onto canvas, with the simpler, yet vibrant visual presence of a living faith.

Adam Larsen: “Immaculate Dispensation,” color relief print, 19.5 x 19.5 in.

Three artists seem to look beyond the circumstances of the moment to the years ahead. Scott Allred’s biblical images are characterized by meticulous research to create an accurate depiction of the period, while his models are drawn from his family and neighbors to show the continuity of human life. His Holy Family (its Latin title lacks the King James’ version’s poetry: “Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given”) is richly textured except for the contrasting, luminous faces of mother and child that emerge from their meticulously drawn surroundings. His figures’ faces are usually passive, as if to show how the drama they enact precedes and works through them.|8| In this case, it gives them a somber quality, as though the joyous moment were shadowed by its ultimate purpose. Dale Peel’s “Lamb” goes further: here one of the few conventional animals in the show foreshadows the sacrifices to come.|9| Across the upper canvas, a row of cypress trees stands before a sky the same bloody color as the ground on which the lamb takes its troubled sleep. Perhaps they line the road over which the new family will soon flee into Egypt. Defying visual logic, a knotted cord seemingly hangs nearby. Peel makes explicit how the end of the story is present in the beginning.

Finally, Adrian van Suchtelen takes his version back to the high middle ages, when all the known world celebrated the Nativity in an anachronistic fashion that made it as much a contemporary event as one from ancient history.|10| In van Suchtelen we reach the opposite pole from Brian Kershisnik, who is self-taught and proceeds by his own rules. Van Suchtelen, by contrast, is a meticulous, old-world craftsman, a lifelong student of images and image-making, whose comparatively tiny prints are miraculous, miniature worlds wherein a lost realm of Nature goes on living through four seasons, its plants and animals living in balance and elusive harmony. Kershisnik’s is a stripped-down world of men, women, and occasionally dogs, all of whom exist on another plane—presumably divine—where they spend most of their time in calm, friendly, and curious practices. In van Suchtelen’s “Nativity,” the irresistibly beautiful young mother stands in front of the Cathedral that will be built for her more than a dozen centuries later. It, and she, occupy the central half of the picture, like the center panel of a triptych. Outboard, on either side, tiny, comic human figures like those who occupy the prints of Pieter Breugel labor to quarry and carry stones for the edifice. Beyond them the landscape stretches towards an impossibly distant horizon, above which line the architect’s design can be seen to extend like scaffolding outward from the church into the heavens. It’s probably as close as anyone can come to the perfect summation of the beautiful idea that is the Nativity: that in every birth, a new world comes into being. And, we never cease hoping, a better one.

Ron Richmond: “Bowls with de la Tour,” oil on canvas, 50 x 50 in.

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