Friday, April 24, 2009

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Even though I construct altarpiece-like box constructions, as an artist, I hate to be confined to a box. I find that the art world may be even worse than other areas of the culture in confining people to specific categories. One look at the job postings section of the College Art Association’s website is enough to convince people that there are more rarified and miniscule areas of study and expertise in the history of art than can be imagined. Labels make life easier, but they limit our human—or humane—interactions.

I found this to be the case with my former position with CIVA but also because of any associations with Christian institutions (i.e. colleges) I have had. It was far easier to write me off as an ignorant Bible-thumper than to engage in meaningful interaction. Time and again I encountered artists, curators, scholars—you name it—who were ready to terminate a conversation as soon as one of these labels found its way into our discourse. I could usually turn things around when the individual found that I was more than conversant in and knowledgeable about multiple aspects of the contemporary art world.

I must confess. I have been guilty of the same kind of crime. On one occasion I met James Cooper, the editor of the American Arts Quarterly, for lunch while on a visit to New York City. His work with the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, along with his well-considered editorials for the journal, left me with the presupposition that he was interested in only a fairly narrow segment of the art world. On the contrary, we had such an enlivened discussion on all facets of art that I was internally embarrassed I had ever harbored such a notion. We concluded our visit with a trip through the Edvard Munch exhibition then on display at the Museum of Modern Art. I think we both left with a new vision and comprehension of the Norwegian Expressionist’s work.

This brings me back to the American Arts Quarterly. In the Winter 2009 issue I was pleased to find a review of the recent George Tooker retrospective exhibition at the National Academy Museum in New York City. Written by the eminent art historian Donald Kuspit, this wide-reaching review gave more insight than many I read these days. Kuspit made a not entirely original analogy of Tooker’s 1950 painting Subway (above) as a Hell for the Modern world. The claustrophobic painting teems with bewildered Manhattanites lost within the labyrinth of the city’s subway system. It stands as a metaphor for the disillusioned fate of Modern humanity.
Granted, Kuspit is not the first to point this out. Yet as I pondered the relevance of the subterranean metaphor it agitated my sensibilities in a distinct way that previous interpretations of the painting had not. I imagine that this time around my more recent familiarity with the subways of both Boston and New York internalized the interpretation. In the sweltering heat of a Northeastern summer, these subway systems certainly can give Dante and Virgil a run for their money.

My acquaintance with the subway as a type of Hell launched my mind into the configuration of a new altarpiece with a Boston "T" car as the vehicle of Hell. Living just outside of Boston, I regularly used mass transit to enter the city, arriving at North Station underneath the parquet court of the Celtics. From there, the Green Line was my typical starting point, often bringing me to the Park Street Station—the oldest subway station in the U.S. What better place than Park Street to re-imagine a New England Puritanical Hell?

I miss Boston—even the hellish quality of the Green Line on an afternoon when Fenway Park is hosting a World Series game. Still, the "T" as Hell was only a premise on which to build a more complex work. Sure, the subway car could play host to Charon. I guess the Charles River would be his route instead of the Styx. Probably some would say that the great Satan of liberalism lies across the Charles in ivy covered Cambridge. But that would require taking the Red Line and my intuition was not necessarily leading there, clever as the concept might be.

Typical of postmodernist appropriationism, I felt that some kind of Last Judgment image was more in keeping with my theme. Many people are aware of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Its location in the Sistine Chapel along with its controversial nudity has perhaps made it more famous as a type than a recognizable image. I rather enjoy Luca Signorelli’s Last Judgment, as well. Michelangelo visited the cathedral in Orvieto to view it when preparing his own version. My month in Orvieto allowed me plenty of opportunity to study this work. In the end, however, my favorite Last Judgment is Rogier van der Weyden’s. Those poor, naked, doomed souls being chased into Hell are on my top ten list of northern renaissance images.

Lest I give my elaborate concept away in full, I will conclude. The totality of this work will be based in some specific personal experiences. This will not configure a typical Last Judgment. And this brings me back to my original annoyance. I expect that many might place my work in the category of "religious art." I agree that there are some pieces (woodcuts and cathedral etchings) that fall more comfortably into that designation. The altarpieces, however, do not. They do appropriate religious imagery and trappings, but they are far more complex than that simply reading. My hope is that when the next wave of altarpieces is completed they will receive a broader audience that more accurately reflects their complexity.

No comments: