monday, september 12, 2011

Costly Images


These days I'm struggling with a dilemma that is, perhaps, unique to artists of faith - but no doubt effects every artist of a temperament that demands a certain level of moral or philosophical rigor. Here it is: in my work I find myself dealing with sacred themes. You know - figurations of Mary, angels, the saints, and...dare I say it...even Christ. It's not a question of wanting to "work them in" --it's more like I can't avoid them anymore.

As a sincere practitioner of my faith and my craft, using sacred imagery intimidates me. It must be attended by a high degree of care and circumspection. These are not merely personal images, they are familiar to all of us and effect us (westerners) at different levels because of their universality. Maybe that's part of their appeal; they have many meanings for many people. Yet, for me, they carry the added burden (and power) of being vital articles of my religion, too. 

I respect these images, I love them. But now I realize that, at the level of execution, even these sacred images come out of my brush mixed with the weird taint of something slightly profane. Maybe it’s because my subconscious is so involved in my creative process (my subconscious is full of impurities). Perhaps too, some of the ‘profane’ aspects of these familiar images are a part of me, just as surely as I am a part of contemporary culture. Meaning that these images are not read (at least not by me) without their religious connotations being annotated, changed and sometimes even mocked by the many alternate readings that have been added to them throughout the years.

So I'm conflicted: these images are a part of me - my personality, my history and my culture. In that sense they are play-things; dream elements. Yet as a Christian - particularly a Catholic Christan - 'playing' with sacred imagery becomes a dangerous and complicated project.

Perhaps herein lies the challenge and the call: these are not, cannot be, mere 'play-things' to me. Any play with these images would take on the character of a kind of sacred dance; a dance with very high stakes; a courtship with the Divine. Am I up for that?

Here is one consolation: there is no shortage of meaning for me to grapple with. I do not suffer, as I did before I embraced the faith, from the problem of images being devoid of significance. Like all my contemporaries, I am slogging through a deluge of possible images - so many meanings, so many readings, so many objects. But these clips and bytes do not contain equal truth-values. Mine is a job of sorting out lentils from ashes: parsing the true meanings out from the false ones.

There are objective truths connected to these images, truths which are attached to my most deeply held beliefs. And so there is a very real possibility of error. Thus, there is great personal risk involved everyday that I approach the canvas, brush in hand, ready to play. But the truth is I am playing with my vital organs, holding my most cherished values in my hands.

In a way, every artist, no matter what their convictions are, must deal with this very sobering reality: my breathes are numbered and my time is limited. What do I care about so much that I am willing to spend the better portion of my precious time and life in its pursuit? How can I do anything other than to make my art out of the stuff that I would live and die for, since that is, in a very real sense, exactly what I am doing?

Art is costly. In these uncertain times, many artists are feeling even more than ever the sacrifices they must make simply in the way of material comfort, physical hardship, financial freedom, etc., in order to continue their work. Few people realize how frightening and difficult it can be for artists to persevere in the face of so much insecurity. A dear price has to be paid for art to even exist. For what kind of art am I willing to pay this price? Maybe poverty is good for us artists, maybe it makes us honest. There are plenty of holy monks and nuns that would say so. But whether or not we welcome the bracing effect of these material difficulties, here they are. So what are we going to do with the resources that we have? Perhaps having discovered what is for me a truly dangerous subject matter in sacred imagery, I am beginning to answer this question for myself, in and through my work.