Saturday, December 27, 2008

As Plain as Black and White: The Art of Kara Walker and William Kentridge

Regrettably, the United States and South Africa share a tainted history of repression of the black citizens in their midsts. Even though the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the mid-nineteenth century predated the fall of Apartheid, Americans have little to hold over the heads of our South African brothers and sisters. The far reaching effects of generations of mistreatment and inequality cannot be wiped perfectly clean. Even a chalk board leaves residual traces of its previous content.

Coinciding with the political struggles for equality in the tumultuous decade of the ‘60s was the burgeoning business of identity theories within the art world. The art of the twentieth century had dismantled the traditional media, modes, and subject matter of art making of the previous centuries. When there was no longer a common, shared narrative artists were forced to seek other avenues for inspiration. Many of them looked inward and found their subject matter in such topics as feminism, sexual orientation, Marxism (or other political theories), and ethnic identity.

While this change of events has had the unfortunate effect of giving us far too many details about what goes on in the bedrooms of some artists, there are also some positive outcomes. Underrepresented artists, such as women and persons of color, have gained a voice that they did not previously possess. This has provided a much needed spotlight on issues and concerns that were virtually absent within the general discourse.

William Kentridge is an heir to this form of political and ethnic art. His is not a direct descendant, however. Kentridge is a South African of white European descent. His work, while often narrative, is not overly didactic. It often contains metaphors and references to the troubled past (and present) of South Africa and the relations among its inhabitants.

His medium of choice is charcoal on paper. And while the graphic contrast of black and white is not accidental, this is also not simply drawing. More often than not Kentridge’s drawings are given an animated life through the media of film and video. He repeatedly draws, erases, and then draws again on single sheets of paper; photographically recording each new, altered image. As the scene changes with each new drawing, the version played back is more than a typical animation. The animation retains the history of its creation. Like the chalk board, it leaves a residue and reminder of what came before.

This residue in black and white befits the continuing challenges that face South Africa. A nation can make claims of equality and enact laws that prohibit oppression but that does not blot out the reality of history. That is a good thing. The sticky quality of our collective history can be our conscience when we would rather ignore our past offenses and biases.

It is little surprise that Kentridge fell into this particular niche of politically tempered theatricality within his art. In college, in Johannesburg, he studied Politics and African Studies, as well as Fine Art. By the 1980s he had moved to Paris to study mime and theatre. For nearly two decades he worked in theatre and television—behind the scenes.

It seemed almost inevitable that Kentridge would take up the challenge, in 2005, of set design and production for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. The essence of opera is over-the-top theatricality. The artist embraced the baroque elements of the medium as he combined the frenetic qualities of his typical style with live action and sound. His drawings, as well as text, flashed behind and sometimes on the performers. The remaining, more stable, parts of the set were also rendered in his trademark expressionist style. Essentially, everything was executed in black, white, and gray. The gray implies that the unending struggle of black and white is seldom "black and white"—life is far more gray.

William Kentridge’s American counterpart, in some respects, can be found in Kara Walker. While Kentridge continually chips away at the sins of society, Walker manages to offend nearly every possible faction with her explicit art works. Heralded and derided from the time her work first caught the attention of critics upon her graduation from the MFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design, Kara Walker utilizes stereotypes to push the envelope with topics of both gender and race. The immediate and forceful quality of her work brought her to the attention of the MacArthur Foundation, from which she received the coveted Genius Grant—one of the youngest recipients ever.

It is also not an accident that, like Kentridge, Walker limits nearly all of her output to black and white. The medium with which she is most associated is cut-paper silhouettes. Sometimes the black image is painted directly on a white wall, but most are mural size works that she first draws on sheets of black paper then meticulously cuts out with an X-Acto knife, finally adhering to the wall with wax. Though the process and materials are simple, the imagery is complex and almost always offensive. That is where the controversy exists.

Walker’s imagery is derived from the antebellum south. Since all we see is the silhouette there are certain gaps and ambiguities that arise between figures. Figures blend together into complex forms in which appendages are difficult to ascribe to a specific individual. Men and women, adults and children, blacks and whites morph into one another, along with various elements of flora and fauna. The results are fantastic and sometimes repulsive.

Walker easily presents the offenses of white slave owners against their black slaves. This may be physical abuses, but the sexual abuses are equally represented. They can be in the form of adults on children, men on women, and even men on men. No one is really left out of the mix. This is exactly why Kara Walker has received such intense criticism. For her, it seems that nothing is sacred or off limits.

Because the imagery is often the result of mixtures of stereotypical and politically incorrect illustrations from the period, even Walker’s African American viewers have taken exception to her work. In particular, artist Betye Saar, who had herself questioned stereotypical representations of African Americans through her work in the 1960s, proposed a letter writing campaign against the exhibition of Walker’s work. She found Kara’s work to be an odd reinforcement of the stereotypes her forebears had worked so hard to eradicate. Yet Walker has been given major exhibition after major exhibition.

There is no denying that Walker’s work is offensive, but she is an equal opportunity offender. This is part of the power of her work. She makes everyone complicit in the atrocities depicted. Everyone plays a role. And though the imagery is black and white, delineating cause and effect is about as tricky as it is in real life.

The choice of cut-paper silhouettes is important not only because of the black and white elements but for the social connotations associated with the medium. It is a lowly craft form, not on par with arts such as painting. It could, thus, be taken up by eighteenth and nineteenth century African Americans—those in a lower station of society. Walker also took it on as a medium because it was a more democratic form that required no special training and was often associated with the lower standing of women in the culture.

Though her images are static on the wall, they share a theatrical bent that is crucial to William Kentridge’s work, as well. Similarly, Walker has begun to utilize video within her art production. Though the work is very different from Kentridge’s stop-action animation, it is analogous in the way it incorporates the elements of Walker’s primary medium. The videos are akin to Balinese shadow puppetry. Walker creates silhouette puppets that she manipulates behind a backlit cloth scrim. The work is put into motion and takes on a new dimension that can never be achieved through the motionless forms on the wall. Kentridge, himself, had worked with puppetry decades before.

In both Walker’s and Kentridge’s work the theatrical becomes a key to understanding the message. The use of black and white imagery has much more to do with conflicts between ethnic groups than clarity of meaning. The theatrical element shows the viewer that the concept is so significant that an almost melodramatic turn must be taken to lift us out of everyday existence. Something extraordinary—which mimics life but is apart from it—is needed to call our attention to the matters at hand.

What both artists are able to achieve in their various works is a component that lies at the core of what art is in contemporary times. Even though each artist is adept at creating representational imagery, that is far from the final goal of their works. Transcendence is the key. The work transcends mere representation and fills viewers with questions instead of answers. Since it is somewhat politically based, the work is forcing viewers to examine and acknowledge their role in the interchanges of society. This transcendent quality will lead in various directions depending on the art and the artist , but the best of contemporary art will take viewers outside of itself and outside of themselves. It is only when we view ourselves from another vantage point that we are able to critique our attitudes and behaviors.

Communication Breakdown

Among the frustrations related to my lack of a devoted studio space and time to work on a new series of altarpieces during the past few years, is the overwhelming urge to share the concepts of these proposed pieces with an audience. Lack of time never prevents me from dreaming up new pieces. In fact, the ideas are constantly coming to me (see the previous posting entitled Contemporary Altarpieces and the Italian Tradition). One fear in prematurely revealing the ideas is that it will steal some of the thunder from the finished piece. Recognizing that each of these works is so multilayered that there will be plenty to keep the viewer returning to consider the works’ implications, I want to give a preview of what will be appearing over the next couple years.

I won’t share the working title since my titles often mutate a bit over time—as do the pieces. The concept is what is most important anyway. I have already written about my interests in text and semiotics as they relate to my work. Communication in a contemporary context interests me in other ways, too. It is current conditions of public and private communication that form the basis of the sketches included above.

My former position as the director of an art non-profit involved a fair amount of travel. It also produced an average of fifty to one hundred email messages in my inbox each day. For these reasons, and more, I spent a considerable amount of time working on my laptop in coffee shops at various locations throughout the US. People often assumed that I was connected to the internet through a local wi-fi service, but I actually went to coffee shops to avoid the unending email and the office phone. I could actually complete the tasks associated with previous emails in a comfortable environment that did not produce the same distractions found at home.

That is not to say that coffee shops are devoid of distractions. One particular distraction that did confront me was people watching. Let’s admit it. We all do it. However, I performed this activity with the discerning eye of the artist. I was astonished to observe that the distinctions between public and private communication continue to breakdown, blur, and blend. This isn’t peculiar to coffee shops, but they seem to be conducive to the multiple forms of communication alterations.

The use of the computer in public is best observed at a coffee shop. While dozens of people are engaging in actual interpersonal communication (i.e. customers ordering drinks from baristas, friends chatting over coffee, etc.), there remain a handful of people involved in virtual conversations on their laptops. This is common place, yet it is paradoxical that we make public places a destination at which we ultimately seclude ourselves in order to engage in forms of pseudo-communication. The introduction of ipods/itunes and headphones for laptops only complicates the matter because we are able to fully shut off the external environment as we create our own interior realm.

There is something comforting about being in the presence of others, even when we are isolated within that setting. Surface communications have stunted the growth of interpersonal relationships. Yet there remains a need for deep connection with others and one way to temporarily fill that void is to be in the presence of humanity.

These surface communications are alive and well in nearly all public settings, though the coffee shop provides a particularly beneficial Petri dish for evaluating them. The cell phone, whether for talking or texting, is the primary medium. It is now unusual to not find a person in line for a drink talking on a cell phone. The conversations tend to be insignificant, but they are apparently more important than talking to the barista who is taking drink orders two feet away.

The converse is the cell phone conversation that is far too intimate for a public setting. Individuals engaging in these conversations have no appropriate boundaries. They may be in the throes of an argument and utilizing profanities that would embarrass even hardened prison inmates. They may be divulging the personal details of a relationship in what nearly approximates phone sex. They could even be gossiping about a third party, creating a new twist on an old pastime by making information (true or otherwise) available to an even wider circle of listeners. This is all a form of misplaced communication. The intended receiver is but one of many and the boundaries between private and public have been crossed.

The coffee shop also lends itself to being a neutral zone at which personal conversations are undertaken so that neither party holds the upper hand. I recall overhearing—and one didn’t need to eaves drop to catch this conversation—a conversation in 2002 or 2003 between a husband and wife. The gist of the conversation was that the husband was having an affair, the wife knew and wanted him to end it or grant her a divorce, but the husband refused to both give up the mistress and to divorce the wife.

Friends who have worked at various coffee shops assure me that marital unfaithfulness is one of the foundations of the business. It seems that all those people who answer personal ads lack creativity and discretion when it comes to finding places to meet. It is not unusual for a regular customer to carry on in an affectionate manner with an extra marital lover one day, and then show up the next with the spouse. This becomes awkward, at best, for those working there. What was once kept under cover (literally) is now displayed unabashedly in the public arena.

All these are just some of the more obvious messages and ideas that I intend to explore. The communications, miscommunications, and hidden communications of the public sphere are intensely interesting. Communication has been fraught with challenges from the first grunted syllables of humans, yet we have refined it so that at least the essential elements can be conveyed. Why then, after thousands of years of seeking clarity, have we moved in a direction that limits the reception of our messages? How have we confused the public and private, the proper and improper? Keep watching this blog for my visual responses.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Word and Image as Symbol

I like to think that I am pretty open to the shifting face of art. The past hundred years have seen some major modifications in the materials and modes of art making. Many people are still just trying to come to terms with the forms of abstraction that Picasso introduced through Cubism, though art’s evolution has progressed far from that transition. While my own work tends to retain enough elements of representation to appease a more general audience, I believe that it also connects with even the most contemporary concepts.

To the casual observer, the process of painting on text, or more specifically book pages, is little more than a novel twist on traditional painting. The text, however, is not simply a foil to work against—not just an additional texture or value. In these paintings the image and the text are both readable, yet each is partially obscured by the other. This balance between the readable/recognizable and the indecipherable is not simply some postmodern ploy undertaken to confuse the viewer and skirt around a specific concept or theme within each particular piece. It is, rather, based in theories of deconstructionist philosophy an semiotics.

Semiotics is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. Our contemporary written languages evolved from earlier forms that were more pictorial. Letters were nearer to Egyptian hieroglyphics. As time progressed these pictographs were abstracted into symbols that increasingly looked less like objects from the natural world. Eventually, as words composed of various letters strung together to denote specific sounds became the norm, the symbols had less association with original objects. Words not only symbolized objects but actions, complex thoughts, and ideas.

Connecting this to the deconstructionist views of Jacques Derrida and other philosophers of the later twentieth century is the idea that these symbols (words) for ideas and objects are not quite as clear as we typically assume them to be. Your understanding of something as simple as a chair, brought to your mind when you see the word "chair" in this sentence, is very likely different from the specific model and style of a chair that I am conceiving as I write the sentence. While we both have a general agreement on the basics of a chair it is nearly impossible for the author to clearly convey the most specific message to his or her audience. Even when using very descriptive terms, such as a plush green recliner, there are too many variables to allow the full intentions of the author to be completely and accurately relayed to a reader. [For the prime visual example of this look to Joseph Kosuth’s conceptualist work entitled One and Three Chairs.]

Symbols seems to be the best we can do when it comes to communication. They help us get by but they can also be a hindrance to our fully understanding one another. Language and words are only the most common of these symbols. Even pictorial symbols like those used to prevent us from, say, slipping on a wet, freshly mopped floor, take on cultural qualifications that cause them to be almost indecipherable to persons outside of their culture of origin. With that in mind, it stands to reason that the pictorial or other symbolic elements evident in visual art are misconstrued as much as verbal or written language.

Communication, however, is not a lost cause. You probably are able to comprehend the major elements of my message through this writing. Still, it is these inherent misperceptions and partial communications that have been embraced by artists working in a postmodern context over the last four to five decades. What does are mean and how does it function if the intention and message of the author cannot fully be comprehended? And is art even fulfilling its primary function if it takes a whole cadre of writers to describe the layers of association that comprise its totality?

I am not a philosopher so I do not intend to answer all these questions and others like them. I do, through my methods, acknowledge and embrace the limitations and nature of communication. I even use them to my advantage when I can. Art. like written communication, may have one intended audience. The artist or author is never fully able to limit reception to that intended audience. Knowing and accepting this limitation expands the possibilities of meaning.

The narrative presented, both in words and images, within my paintings are painstakingly chosen. Sometimes the juxtaposition of text and images will further illuminate a concept. At other times the two are merely complementary. Whatever the case, the combination of the words and images is able to heighten the understanding of the intended meaning. This is possible, but not always likely. The images obscure the words and the scenes are often so esoteric that they do little to expand the knowledge of the viewer. While some would claim that I am intentionally playing a game with the viewer, the objective is to elicit more engagement with the work and interaction with the viewer.

In a way, my paintings are pedagogical. I create and present them in such a way as to instruct the viewer in how he or she should approach all contemporary art. The work is layered and interactive. That means that the viewer must not only approach, but reapproach the work. Each work is something that reveals itself over time and a viewer is not intended to "get" or comprehend the work in its totality in one five minute perusal—and five minutes is overly generous considering that most viewers give less than a minute to any artwork. If a viewer truly wants to appreciate and receive the messages of an artwork as intended by the artist then he or she needs to do a little homework. It is no different from contemporary literature that often references tales from our cultural history.

That may seem like a lot of effort for many viewers. All I can say is that this is the state of contemporary art. It takes an equal part of energy on the part of the viewer as on the artist. However, the rewards of unwrapping the layers that make up the artwork is that much greater. Anything worthwhile takes some effort. So I guess the intended audience for my work may be those who are willing to take on that responsibility. And I hope you are one of those people.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Damien Hirst and the Rebirth of Symbol

While there are traces and references to Christianity nestled within much of contemporary culture, there remains one arena of the culture that seems virtually untouched by the influence of Christian thought and practice. The contemporary art world, with its elitism and insider mentality, is seen as out of touch with the mainstream and so remains off the radar for the average individual.

When contemporary art does enter ordinary conversation it is typically because of some outlandish stunt or vulgar assault on our social mores. Such is the case with the 1999 exhibition, Sensation, that captured the national headlines when, then-mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani threatened to pull city funding from the Brooklyn Museum over several controversial works. One of the chief perpetrators was British artist Damien Hirst. Already no stranger to controversy, Hirst catapulted to worldwide notoriety with his use of materials such as actual sharks and cows—in part or in whole—displayed within large glass vitrines filled with formaldehyde.

These are certainly not traditional art materials. The shocking nature of these works initially caused many to pronounce Hirst as a flash in the pan—all show and no substance. Nearly twenty years into his career, Hirst has proved to be much more than this, continuing to invite controversy with each new project. Of his many attention getting ploys, titling pieces with explicitly biblical or religious references seems a minor infraction.

A former Catholic, Hirst generally refers to himself as an atheist. At the same time, he cannot deny the power of religion, stating, "I always think that art, God, and love are really connected. I don’t want to believe in God. But I suddenly realised that my belief in art is really similar to believing in God. And I’m having difficulties believing in art without believing in God."

All too often, any references to Christian themes and symbols within Hirst’s work are explained away as his personal attack on archaic modes of religion. What art world insiders seldom observe is that Hirst’s work is infused with Christian symbols and that, even at its most ironic, it possesses an earnest questioning of faith. Hirst recognizes that if we dispose of religion the big questions of life are still sitting there staring us in the face.

The use and abuse of Christian symbols is nothing new in modern and contemporary art. In fact, Hirst sees himself as the rightful heir to Britain’s original bad boy artist—Francis Bacon. Bacon’s grotesque abstractions of human figures foreshadowed the shocking imagery that Hirst would produce nearly forty years later. Bacon, through both compositions and titles, referenced the crucifixion. However, it was not the actual crucifixion of Christ, but the idea of supreme brutality, produced in condemnation of the atrocities of the twentieth century.

Bacon’s work of 1946, Painting (at the Museum of Modern Art), was directly referenced in Hirst’s own unique manner in 2004. Bacon painted rotting sides of beef flanking a hideous specter of a figure, feebly attempting to shield itself with an umbrella. The splayed flesh brings to mind outspread arms while the figure exerts some diabolical taunt. Hirst mimicked this scene of apparent crucifixion with the actual materials, sans the grotesque human figure, in The Pursuit of Oblivion which first appeared in an exhibition entitled In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida at the Tate Gallery, along with work by Sarah Lucas and Angus Fairhurst. He did include a small school of tropical fish within the glass case, perhaps to add some levity, or comment on the absurdity of life.

I had always approached these modernist adaptations of the crucifixion as further evidence that Nihilism had conquered the thinking of twentieth century humanity. Then, while listening to Gertje Utley lecture about the place of religious imagery in modern art (From Gauguin to Picasso and Serrano: The Uses and Misuses of Christian Iconography), at an event sponsored by the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) during their exhibition Sacred Art in a Secular Century, a new theory manifested itself. Utley explained that, but for a very few examples, modern artists who incorporated any kind of Christian imagery in their work overwhelmingly referenced the crucifixion. I posed a question to her: If the modern artist had mockingly employed the crucifixion as the primary expression and image by which to put to rest Christianity, once and for all, wasn’t the cross itself—the key symbol of Christian faith—also a type of resurrection symbol within modern art? After all, crucifixion imagery and the historical concept was not truly destroyed. It continued to rise again as the symbol of ultimate sacrifice on behalf of helpless innocence. Like the phoenix (another symbol of resurrection), the crucifixion rose from the ashes of modern art time and again.

The Christian cannot see the crucifixion without also acknowledging the hope of the resurrection. They are two sides of the same coin. Should it be a surprise that when the symbols of faith show forth in the general culture, even mockingly, that their truth will make itself known?

Damien Hirst, maverick that he is, is not satisfied to question faith and religion via this most obvious symbol alone. In his interrogations of the meaning of the endless cycle of life and death he is uncertain what comes after. Is there something in us that goes on to a next life? Is there something that lasts forever? More than any other art world figure in recent memory, Hirst embraces this other side of the coin. This lies within works that, on first viewing, appear to be just a melding of biology and aesthetics. Numerous works are formed by affixing brightly colored butterfly wings in symmetrical patterns to enameled canvases.

The butterfly is an ancient Christian symbol for resurrection. It references both Christ’s defeat of the tomb (cocoon) and the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Often, Hirst fully references the death and resurrection of Christ in the butterfly works through the symmetrical pattern created with the wings, which doubles as a cross. While these symbols may escape the viewer in a casual glance, one need not delve too deep to find them.

But it is Hirst’s 2007 headline grabber that proves this is more than a passing interest. Death was a theme for Hirst even from the very start of his career. It was inevitable that Hirst would eventually begin to question what comes after. For the Love of God is a title with two meanings. It is partially serious but mostly used in jest, as an expression people might likely use when discovering the materials: a diamond encrusted human skull.

Typical of Hirst’s working style, For the Love of God was conceived by Hirst but actually executed by highly skilled craftsmen to his specifications. Hirst had acquired a male human skull from the 18th century from a London taxidermy shop and decided that he wanted to create a replica of it studded in diamonds. The jewelers replicated the skull in platinum and then set 8601 flawless diamonds within it. They used the original teeth from the skull, polishing them up a bit first before resetting them. The forehead of the work is crowned with an impressive 52-carat pear shaped diamond, surrounded with 14 smaller pear-shaped stones.

It took the craftsmen 18-months to create the piece and the diamonds alone are worth about $25 million. This time around Hirst is almost attempting to defeat death through a different means—by buying it off. Of course, he knows that he "can’t take it with him," that all the millions he has acquired through selling his art will mean nothing in the face of death. He is mocking death, nonetheless. Hirst is challenging us to consider that death is actually a motivational concept that helps us determine how we live out the days we do have. This celebratory gesture could even be seen as a nod to the Christian belief that our deaths are merely the doorway into a new life in the presence of God in paradise.

The shock of For the Love of God is not due to the disgusting, nor even the macabre, but the obscenity of the use of these costly items and the retail selling price. The asking price for the piece was $100 million. In the face of the poverty and calamity that plagues much of the planet this artwork taunts us. It is this fact alone that brought the harshest criticism. And yet, as we stare into the face of mortality it stares back with the glimmer of the immortal and indestructible.
In the end, the work was purchased by an investment group. Eventually it was revealed that Hirst was actually one of the investors. This seems strangely unethical as it places him in a new realm with the highest selling price for a piece of contemporary art ever, yet he was part of engineering that sale. Part of the agreement of the sale was that the piece would need to travel to several museums over the next few years.

This may seem to be ultimately self-serving, but the savviness of Hirst far exceeds his lust for money and fame. Hirst has become a celebrity. He is in a category that transcends the typical art world and places him in the eye of the general public. And while he uses this as an opportunity to act outrageously through his public persona, there are few contemporary artists who are able to reach the masses with their work in this day and age. His antics are only the means to get people to pay attention to the work. The depth and importance of Hirst’s ideas then have the opportunity to be considered. His reintroduction of ancient Christian symbols not only gets the common person interested in high art once again, but sparks renewed interest in a faith that many thought was outdated and insufficient.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mapping Purgation—The Ritual Art-making of Craig Goodworth

Art, as we know it, was born out of ritual and religious ceremonies. In his seminal work, Art in Action, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff explains that the essence of what art once was changed when Western cultures began to remove the artifacts and objects of ritual from their primary functionality. Once monarchs in Europe began amassing artwork in collections built for aesthetic contemplation alone, the founding of public museums was quick to follow.

By the 1950s and 60s this trend of aesthetic contemplation had transformed modes of art making. One of its purest forms was Minimalism. This work left some cold and it objectified art to a certain extent so that it existed as little more than a commodity. A reaction against a purely aesthetic style eventually arose in the format of process and performance based artworks. Artists sensed that the new religion that art had become to some was lacking the spirit of art from the past. The ritual of making the art—the process and not the product—became the essential artwork.

Ritual is at the heart of Craig Goodworth’s art. Like many conceptual and performance based artists, Goodworth relies on documentation of his acts through photographs and videos. The bold, primal, and masculine nature of the work is a reflection of its author. An imposing and intense figure, Goodworth does not produce art for traditional aesthetic effect. In fact, many would object to his work as offensive and perhaps inhumane. Surface, however, should never detract from the underlying substance. The work is, in his terms, a sacred offense.

Goodworth’s rituals are rooted in Eastern Orthodox traditions and bound to the natural world. The activities are tied to a rural and ancestral heritage. They have been documented at locations as diverse as Pennsylvania, Slovakia, and the American Southwest. The practices are built upon asceticism with an overriding theme of sacrifice, emptying (purging), and filling.

Mapping Purgation is Goodworth’s journey through a series of rituals that embody this concept of emptying and filling. The opening sequence is a genesis, or literally birth, of the artist’s vision. The camera captures the birth of a calf. Like any birth, one senses the miraculous. A farmhand assists in releasing the newborn bovine from the heaving hulk of its mother’s body. Elements coalesce to make the occasion more solemn. The crisp air is accented by the steam of new life. As the calf is ejected from the safety of the womb its mother instantly rises to lick the amniotic sack from her offspring, in an act that is both instinctual and tender. She gently prods the calf to a wobbly stance within the straw covered stable. Even while we recognize these as ordinary farm animals there is an undeniable connection to the circumstances of the miraculous birth of Christ—among the lowly beasts of burden and in the obscurity of the ordinary.

The video then proceeds to chart the slaughter of various animals in locations around the world. It is graphic but it is not senseless. Whether on farms or ranches, most of these events are built purely upon sustenance. The animals were raised as food. The slaughtering of the animals—and this is a word that now holds more connotations of violence and unjust war than food supply—is a form of sacrifice. The animals die that we might live.

Of particular note is the emptying of the bodies of their internal organs. Although what one views are not religious rituals, Goodworth has imbued the ordinary with spiritual significance. The interior of each carcass is painstakingly purged of its vital organs until all that remains is a hollow, or even hallowed, form. The emphasis on purging is inextricably connected to the filling of that which has been emptied.

One particular early segment of the video—Concrete Cruciform—begins to hint at the more sacred purposes of the artist. In a simplified, almost Bergmanesque framing, Goodworth emerges from the cool late autumn air in hooded coveralls. This figure is on a journey or pilgrimage with a wheelbarrow laden with the carcass of a deer. The cowled figure is reminiscent of a medieval monk. This fitting comparison signals the months that the artist has spent with a group of Eastern Orthodox monks in a secluded region of Northern New Mexico.

Eventually the hooded pilgrim arrives at what seems to be a pyre made from the branches of felled trees. He secures the carcass atop the pyre in an inverted cruciform. One immediately associates the sacrificial parallels to both the Abrahamic tradition and the story of Christ. The interesting twist is that this deer has already been gutted. It is not simply left as a decaying stand-in for sacrifice. Instead, Goodworth counteracts the purgation with a ceremonial filling. He mixes enough concrete to fill the void left in the deer. Once the carcass has fully decayed what will be left is this fullness—the literal volume of the once living elements of the dead beast.

Goodworth’s quest in these ritual acts was initially linked to the aesthetic theories of beauty. In conversations with the artist I questioned him on his choice and emphasis on the beautiful when the subject seemed to, increasingly, be leaning toward the category of the sublime. As his concept began to change in consideration of this, the separation between life and art began to break down. Spiritual quests (his stays at the monastery) aligned with personal quests focused on his heritage (trips to his ancestral home of Slovakia). All of these were interrelated within the work he had been producing in the studio and in natural settings.

The offensiveness of the sacrificial acts was minimal compared to the precepts of the artist’s faith. The scandal of the Christian faith is bound to the belief that a perfect and sovereign creator became his own creation and subjected himself to the limitations of the physical human form. While other ancient religions had rather anthropomorphic dieties, it was a rather outlandish claim that a god would sacrifice his power and life on behalf of humanity. It was offensive to the contemporaries of Christ and this sacred offense, that makes the hideous the object of ultimate beauty, is exactly what Craig Goodworth is after in his work.

However, one should not see the scenes within the video as voyeuristic. The work is not produced by Goodworth for us to simply gaze upon in disgust, even when he is the cameraman documenting the sacrificial acts of others. He is actively performing these rites and rituals in most cases. He is acting as an intermediary or like a high priest (in much the same way Christ is referred to as a high priest in the biblical passage in the book of Hebrews) on our behalf.

Near the end of Mapping Purgation Goodworth performs one of the most tasking and revelatory acts in a three day event entitled Triduum that takes place over Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When he discovers the empty and desiccated carcass of a deer in the desert the artist pierces it with forty or fifty steel rods. The interpenetration of a corpse makes us aware of the way an eternal God, through his son Jesus, intersected time, space, and humanity. By the time Goodworth found it, the corpse had already been life giving. In the death of this animal other scavengers were nourished. Again, the comparison can be made to the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Jesus become nourishment for his followers.

Traveling to and from the remote location of the animal, carrying the steel rods, is an ascetic practice. It is like the completion of the forty day purgation of the Lenten season. After the exhausting task of pulling the rods back out of the carcass, Craig documents how they have changed the shell of the deer. Certain views show light piercing through the hide. Within the interior, a place of darkness and death, light is now streaming. Once again, Goodworth is allowing us to see that it takes the darkness of purgation to reveal the fullness of God.

In the final scene Goodworth is found in the beams of car headlights on the side of a remote highway. He has come upon a wounded deer that can no longer walk. The fear and pain are evident in the darting eyes of the deer. The beast is now only suffering until it can ultimately die. Goodworth realizes that this event is the bookend to the opening scene of the birth of the calf. He performs his final sacrifice as a mercy killing, cutting the animal’s throat that it may finally be free of the pain. The mercy shown is what is referred to as a severe mercy. Sometimes the difficult path is the best for us.

Through all these scenes Goodworth reminds us that the physical is inextricably linked to the spiritual. He denies the Manichean and Gnostic notions that humanity is called to shed the physical in order to come to some super spiritual state. Instead, he reveals that we only understand the spiritual through the physical. The physical is our primary language. It is through the ugliness of the sublime that we have a proper foil against which we can perceive true beauty.

Updating Time-honored Techniques

A hallmark of postmodern art is the vigorous borrowing or appropriating of images. This can just as often be images from art history as images from pop culture and mass media. While I do often use other photographic sources as a partial basis for elements in my work, I rarely make reference to or borrow obviously from non-photographic resources (i.e. another person’s artwork).

In 2006 I made an exception to this practice when I created a couple etchings in homage to Georges Rouault. My work is normally quite different from the style one associates with Rouault, one of the most noted Expressionists of the twentieth century. The occasion for the creation of these etchings was the exhibition This Anguished World of Shadows at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City. The foundation of this exhibit was the fifty-eight intaglio prints that comprise one of Rouault’s crowning achievements—Le Miserere et Guerre. The creation of this series of etchings was complicated from the start and there are plenty of authors who have detailed that tale. The technique the artist used has been foundational to my process and that is what I wish to explain here.

Rouault began the series by creating ink drawings for each of the images. A photographic process, probably photogravure, was used to produce the initial images on the copper plates. Rouault was completely unsatisfied with the results and proceeded to work back into each of the images by hand, using more traditional etching and intaglio processes. The photo-based images possibly looked like black and white photographic reproductions found in books and newspapers—when you look closely you find that they are composed of dots.

I owe a large debt to Rouault’s ingenuity. Nearly all of my etchings go through a similar process. I begin with a drawing that is either scanned into Photoshop or produced with that software. The values are then inverted (black becomes white and white becomes black) and the image is printed onto a transparency using a laser printer. When I place that image face down on a copper plate and slowly heat it, while rubbing the non-toner side of the transparency with a wooden spoon, the toner offsets to the copper. It is a little more complex than that, but that is the general idea. The toner acts as a resist when the plate is placed in a bath of acid. When inked, the etched plate will print nearly the same as the original drawing—in theory. The image transfer usually has some flaws and the print will have that same dot pattern that likely annoyed Rouault. Therefore, I go back into the plate using the same traditional techniques that he used nearly a century ago.

Because the owners of the particular set of Miserere prints that were in the MOBIA show are friends of mine, I had the privilege of inspecting and studying each and every print by hand before they were framed. On some prints the texture from the photogravure was still evident in certain areas. In others, the technique was so diffuse that, aside from the plate mark, the image could be mistaken for a charcoal drawing.

The image reproduced here is based on plate 8 of the Miserere—Qui ne se grime pas? (Who does not wear a mask?) It is significantly smaller in size and, like much of my work, is actually formed from text. The text is segments of the Passion of Jesus, scanned into Photoshop from portions of the Gospels. Layers of that text were placed over an image of Rouault’s print and the lighter values of the etching was then "erased" from the text layers in Photoshop. Eventually, enough text layers were produced that when Rouault’s image was removed the text essentially formed a facsimile image. This is what was transferred to the copper plate.

This image went through about a dozen states before it finally looked like it does now. The text needed to be made darker and lighter in various areas. I would add traditional etching and aquatint to darken portions. The next proof might reveal that some areas were too dark and then I had to scrape away some of the surface of the copper. It is actually a fairly physical, almost sculptural process. I probably enjoy printmaking so much because it possesses this quality of physically making something.