Peeking at the ancient
By CLARA ROSE THORNTON Herald Correspondent | January 02,2009
“Holy Trinity” by David Palmer depicts a classic Biblical reference, replete with halos and the stylized facial and bodily proportions of medieval painting, and manages to buzz with a fresh electricity and vividness and has the surreal air about it fit for a modern eccentric’s collection.
The popular concept of modern art is gnarled and twisting, like a dying vine. Many spectators are puzzled as to what currently qualifies as art, and where the line is drawn between "minimal" and "lazy," or between "conceptual" and "ragingly self-absorbed."
It is true that a large swath of the modern art world contains works that 50 or 100 years ago would merely elicit smirks from the creative elite. As a visual art critic in Chicago, I was privy to shows at spaces such as the Museum of Contemporary Art downtown and Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Wicker Park where, for example, a pile of ripped newspaper clippings in a corner constituted an exhibition. Or where a single light bulb flashed cyclically in an empty room, accompanied by an occasional droning sound. Or where a huge, walk-in mound of clay had been fitted with pieces of colored glass on the inside and was said to represent modern religion.
Each of these efforts was devised according to a code of complex metaphor on the part of the artist, and, thereby, should not be judged as trivial or "strange," as people so often find it easy to do. With the onslaught of the technological and information ages came new possibilities for understanding the world and for manifesting this understanding through creativity.
Although taste is quite another matter.
As is the immediate recognition of skill, labor and passion in art, which several modern creations admittedly leave to be desired. This is true with conceptual works such as the ones mentioned above, just as it is with paintings.
At C. X. Silver Gallery in Brattleboro, a show inspires questions of how more traditional media in visual art still communicate in the contemporary landscape of abstraction. "Windows to the Divine: Icons in the Russian and Coptic Styles" collects recent works of four master icon painters — David Palmer, George Philipos, Jody Cole and Peter Pearson—and showcases in living color the resonance and power of ancient styles imbued with modern sensibility.
Iconography is the ancient practice of depicting Christian figures in the stylized manner commonly associated with paintings from the Middle Ages, yet stretching as far back as the first and second century. Icon painting, says gallery owner Adam Silver, "is a painting style involving long traditions and canons of forms. By canons, I mean there are certain prescribed ways of depicting faces, hand gestures, aspects of the body and of the face, the way of rendering the eyes, and yet there is still much creativity to be found in it."
A piece such as "Holy Trinity" by Palmer, depicting a classic biblical reference, replete with halos of old and the stylized facial and bodily proportions of medieval painting, manages to buzz with a fresh electricity and vividness and has the surreal air about it fit for a modern eccentric's collection. Yet iconographic works are not thought of as adornments by their creators. The art, after centuries of respected practice, is still held as a selfless religious expression following a prescribed route of technique.
Palmer, the retired director of exhibitions at the Newark Museum in Newark, N.J., is the curator of the show. He explains, "The tradition of iconography has many symbolic attachments. And through the centuries, people have learned what they are, from form to color. Because of that historic tradition, people still, in the 21st century, believe in the spiritual dimension to the paintings."
The remaining three artists are friends and associates of Palmer from his native Pennsylvania. The emergence of "Windows to the Divine" is quite an eye-opener to the fact that there is a strong, impassioned circle of artists working in the Northeast and internationally to provide these traditional works.
Philipos is an Egyptian-born theology and fine-art graduate who's been painting in the Coptic icon style for 15 years. Cole has studied with Russian masters Vladislov Andreyev, Alexander Rosenkreuz and Valentin Streltsov, and has been commissioned by churches as far as Italy. Pearson, a former Benedictine monk, is the priest of St. Phillip's Church in New Hope, Pa., and has created icons for private collectors and churches worldwide.
It is fascinating to think that this art form is in high demand today, in a world with a value structure in place that is quite different from times when the style was dominant. But a quick look at any of these artists' Web sites shows that galleries, collectors and institutions are in dogged pursuit.
Philipos is the sole artist in the show who follows the Coptic icon style as opposed to the Russian. "Coptic" derives from the Greek word for "Egyptian." It is the ancient language of Egypt, and a small number of people around the world continue to speak Coptic presently. The term "Coptic" today can refer to the Egyptian Orthodox Christian community, the style of art that developed as an expression of this "new" religion, or the ancient language itself. In the Coptic tradition, icon paintings are a very important part of daily spiritual life.
Philipos, whose wife, Vivian, translates from the Arabic for him, says, "Icon painting is not just an art — it tells a story and it tells us about the Christian religion itself. Coptic icons are very important in church. You don't find a church without icons, telling stories of the old centuries in Christianity, the stories in the Bible … Their meaning is to send a message to the world today from the original art forms began in Egypt."
Hearing the words spoken about the art by its practitioners and exhibitors, however, does not hint at the experience the paintings create. A walk through C. X. Silver's rooms showers one with the sensation of meaning finely honed and craft and technique painstakingly applied, awash in vivid color. Quite honestly, it offers a sensation lacking in many contemporary gallery shows, ironically manifested through a peek at the supposedly bygone.
As Silver describes, "Through the luminosity and seeming simplicity of form, there lies the kind of work that echoes in different ways in many other countries and eras. Even as a contemporary art form, the modern icon has a connection with the ancient." The show continues through Jan. 4. For more information, see www.cxsilvergallery.com/