Ikon and Logos – An Exciting New Venture

Holidays are a great way of discovering the latest trends. Going away generally means you’re in closer proximity to a wider range of people, they are more relaxed and (in warmer climes) showing more of their skin than back home.

From my observations over the past fortnight away, two of this year’s trends are:

  • The ongoing march of (increasingly intricate) tattooed symbols across the whole body and
  • The addition of waterproof action-cameras to the now ubiquitous selfie-stick.

 

Tattoo at the beach

Tattoo Photo: Andrea Preda

Both of these trends are symptomatic of our increasingly visually-orientated culture. Bodies have become a portable canvas for meaningful images (although that meaning is often lost on the viewer) and even waves and sand cannot stop the constant filming, photographing, editing and broadcasting of our lives.

Over the past few years I’ve been thinking about how Christians engage with Visual Culture, especially as we think about communicating the living Word of God into an image-saturated world. In the words which are used at the licensing of every new minister in the Church of England, how do we profess the faith that has been handed down to us and to proclaim it afresh in each generation?

I’m very pleased to be able to announce that I’m going to be developing this thinking as I start a research Doctorate at Durham University. In September I’ll be joining Durham’s Doctor of Theology and Ministry (DThM) Programme, studying part-time, alongside my role as Vicar of St. Pancras Church in Plymouth.

In the New Testament, Jesus is described as both logos and ikon, word and image. The provisional title for my thesis is: Ikon and Logos – Communicating the Living Word in a Visual Culture.

I’ll particularly be looking at how Church of England theological education institutions are preparing people to minister in a visual culture, as I:

  • Survey what colleges and courses are currently doing;
  • Identify people who are exemplars of good practice in this area;
  • Reflect with and work together with some of these people to teach others how to engage with visual culture in a more meaningful way.

Hopefully, en-route I’ll be revisiting the art-history study I began on my sabbatical, seeing how previous generations used visual imagery to communicate in a non-literate culture. I’m also hoping to experience how everything from fine-art to photography and art installations to Instagram are now bringing the gospel to our visual generation. I might even need to get a selfie-stick.

If you are interested in reading a more detailed summary of what I’m intending to research then you can download it as a PDF by clicking the image or the link below.

Let me know what you think…

IMG_3295

Ikon and Logos – Communicating the Living Word in a Visual Culture

 

1000 Words – The Return of Narrative Art

As an aspiring artist, I’m well aware that in some of my pieces, the only hint of meaning comes through the title. I suspect that my secret isn’t unique and that I’m not the only one who occasionally produces work for it’s aesthetic (or commercial) value alone.

Chessboard Admirals | J Marlow | 2004

Chessboard Admirals – J Marlow – 2014

It’s a common criticism of contemporary art that it is meaningless, or that the supposed meaning bears no real relation to what is on the canvas or plinth. But to think this is to ignore the direction of travel which the art world has been collectively making away from the totally abstract shapes, splashes and slashes of ‘Modern Art’.

In a gross simplification we might see the following as marker posts on this journey:

  • In 1991, Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was at once feted and maligned by the public for its simplicity and nuance.
  • In 1998, Tracey Emin’s My Bed told a story more clearly, but with an ambiguity that allowed art pseuds across the globe to claim a unique insight into the work.
  • Then in 2003, the prestigious Turner prize for the arts was won by Grayson Perry for his decorated ceramic pots and vases, many of which narrated accounts of Perry’s real and imaginary life.

A decade later, Perry has been catapulted into the national consciousness by his lecture series explaining and exploding the contemporary art scene as Radio 4’s Reith lecturer in 2013. The series was called Playing to the Gallery and can be downloaded from iTunes and BBC iPlayer. As one columnist wrote following the lectures, Perry has transformed seamlessly from controversial artist into “national treasure”. [Lisa Jardine, Guardian, 21/11/2013]

Having loved and re-listened to these lectures last year, one of the exhibitions which I’d resigned myself to not seeing this summer was Grayson Perry’s series of six tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences.

The internet was fairly confused about how many sets of these tapestries existed and whether any of them were reachable in a day-trip from the South of England. Thanks to a tip-off in Art Quarterly, however, I caught up with one of the sets as part of an exhibition called Progress at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London, where Perry was a trustee. Progress marked the 250th anniversary of the death of William Hogarth, himself a major contributor to the Foundling Hospital Collection and this event brought together four contemporary works responding to Hogarth’s famous series of paintings A Rake’s Progress.

I was keen to spend as much time with the tapestries as possible, so (given the absolute 45 minute limit imposed by the Boy), we skipped the rest of the museum and then spent almost as long in the coffee shop afterwards.

Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress follows the life of Tom Rakewell, a merchant’s son who inherits a fortune and blows it on all ‘women, wine and song’ in vice-ridden London. Hogarth’s protagonist ends his life in Bedlam lunatic asylum, having been driven insane by drink, debt and prison. In his modern take on the rise and fall of the rake, Perry chronicles the life of Tim Rakewell as he moves though the social strata and taste tribes of contemporary Britain. Tim’s life starts surrounded by the ornaments and icons of working class taste and it ends ignominiously as he is thrown from the Ferrari he bought with the spoils from the sale of his technology company.

#Lamentation | Grayson Perry#Lamentation, Tapestry by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup. )The Hastag is deliberate, and in the scene passers by can be seen photographing the wreckage and uploading their images from their phones.) 

The basement room in the foundling museum which was displaying the tapestries was only just big enough to accommodate the exhibition, but this gave us the chance to get up close and personal with the work. I’m an advocate of taking the trouble to see an original work rather a copy and these tapestries are filled with so many details that they would be difficult to take in at anything less than two meters high.

One such detail that I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to spot, was the little figure with the camera, reflected in a convex mirror, recording the scene in The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal. The mirror itself gives us an alternative viewpoint on the scene in the same way as Jan van Eyck reflects the room and figures in The Arnolfini Portrait. What we see in this mirror, however, is surely a self-portrait of Perry, as observer and chronicler of British taste tribes.

Tapestry Detail

Detail from The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal by Grayson Perry. Photo by failing_angel. Inset image of Grayson Perry from ‘In the best possible taste’ on Channel 4.

We looked at each of the tapestries in turn and, as we sat on the bench in front of #Lamentation, the Boy asked “is that Jesus?” In doing so he had picked up on the visual homage which Perry is paying to the genre of religious paintings and sculptures depicting the dying Christ in the arms of His mother Mary.

Christ in the Arms of Mary.Sculpture in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Photo Jon Marlow

In fact, each of the tapestries has similar allusions to well known art works and genres which is one of the reasons that these art works will enjoy a place on the art curriculum for some time to come. The third image in the series is The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close which includes the reference to the most well-known work, Adam and Eve banished from Paradise, a renaissance fresco painted high on the wall of the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence by Tomasso Masacchio.

The Expulsion for Number 8 Eden Close | Grayson Perry

#The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close by Grayson Perry. Photo by thornypup

The Expulsion for the Garden of edenAdam and Eve banished from Paradise by Masacchio – Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence. Photo by Jon Marlow 

Masacchio was among the first of the renaissance painters to use perspective and create figures which seemed to inhabit a physical space rather than a two dimensional canvas or wall. In this regard, he stood in contrast to his collaborator on the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel, Tomasso Masolino. When seen side by side in the chapel, the work of the two men appears to be from different eras, even though they were only 20 years apart in age.

In his physical space, Masacchio has captured the tragedy and agony of Adam and Eve, who have been permanently banished from the place where they could approach God. An angel looks down on them wielding a sword, not in anger, but as a reminder that they could never return. In contrast, Tim and his girlfriend hurry away from the forced conformity of the aspirational middle classes into “the sunlit uplands of the middle classes”, those whose taste is defined by what they know and appreciate rather than what they own.

By way of explanation why it is Jamie Oliver looking down from the thundery sky, the text on the windowsill has Tim’s girlfriend say of his mum and step-dad: “Their house was so clean and Tidy, not a speck of dust… or a book, apart from her god, Jamie.”.

These works tell a story and come with a written commentary. Could it be then, that the journey away from abstract art is complete?

Grayson Perry certainly thinks that art must have a meaning. In his interview with Simon Hattenstone in last week’s Guardian Weekend Magazine he says that the problem with many art students is that they are too anxious to create stuff they simply like. “You have to know the impact of everything you’re making, because that is the nature of contemporary art. It is very self-conscious: it knows, or should be seen to know.” [Simon Hattenstone, Guardian Weekend, 4/10/14] 

Things can appear abstract, but they are not allowed to be. Abstraction must be ironic because, in Perry’s words “Britain has the toad of irony sitting on it.”

So the next time someone asks me about my ‘process’ I need to come up with something more self aware than “I smushed a lot of paint around”. Even though that was my process this time around.

In the meantime, I’d love another opportunity to get close to these tapestries again. Maybe we could even lobby for them, to visit Plymouth.

 

The Limits of Limited Editions – Modern Masters in Print

 

Limited Edition

I like to think that I’m getting a bargain and this also applies when I’m shopping for art. At Christmas I bought myself a limited edition print of a canvas and rather than angling for a discount I asked the artist if he could limit the number of prints of this picture to ten instead of his usual 25.

The original canvas is in private hands and I’ve got the only print, so does it make any difference whatsoever to the value (financial or artistic) what the theoretical maximum print run of this picture is?

 Le Cirque, 1945 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I was thinking about limited editions and reprints this weekend when I visited the “Modern Masters in Print” exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. This exhibition is ‘on tour’ from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and includes over 50 works by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. It seems that I’m not the only one to be confused about the relationship between prints and originals. Gill Saunders, Senior Curator (Prints) at the V&A reports that in some venues the feedback she’s received is that the exhibition should have included more of the ‘good stuff’. What people mean is that they want to see original paintings rather than prints.

With four exceptions, however, these works are not copies of paintings but works of art in their own right. All of the artists in the show were using different methods of printing as a means of experimentation and original expression.

The prints in the exhibition were original works conceived by the artist for the particular print method they had chosen. They didn’t see them as a commercially more productive technique, but as a way to develop their artistry.

Matisse described preparing plates for printing as “drawing with new tools” and Picasso also found that the printmaking was feeding his creative process in other media.

Andy Warhol, when asked in 1971 about the difference between his paintings and his prints, famous answered “the difference is that paintings are on canvas”. The acid-test of authenticity in print seems to be whether the work was conceived for the medium you’re looking at or if it is a copy of a work in another.

 The Frugal Repast, 1904 print by Pablo Picasso. Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Picasso’s powerful study in poverty and alcoholism ‘The Frugal Repast’ was only his second foray into print. It was made during his blue period in 1904 and used a zinc etching plate which had previously been used for a landscape print by his friend Joan Gonzales. In fact, the faint remainder of Gonzales’ image can be seen in the first impressions to come off the press.

The original print run of The Frugal Repast was very short due to the fragility of the zinc plate. In 1913, however, the plate was steel-faced by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard and the resulting run of 250 prints were widely distributed and helped to build Picasso’s reputation as a print maker. While we don’t expect Vollard to have had truly altruistic motives, this is a good example of the use of technology to broaden the impact of a work of art, rather than restricting it to preserve the value of the limited edition.

Print and reproduction technology has moved on considerably from the early 20th Century and our digital age has introduced questions about limited editions which are not confined to the two-dimensional paper printing which Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol perfected.

Earlier in the year I listened to the BCC 2013 Reith lectures given by Tuner Prize wining artist Grason Perry. Grayson’s current exhibition is a series of six tapestries, each four meters long, which echo William Hogarth’s 1730s morality tale A Rake’s Progress and pay visual homage to several classical paintings in the process. It’s called The Vanity of Small Differences. Each of the tapestries in the exhibition was woven in Belgium using a computer-controlled digital loom which produced the six works on display and two sets of artist’s proofs.

Digital-Loom-and-PerryArtist Grayson Perry watches a digital loom weaving one of his tapestries. Image from the Channel 4 series ‘All In the best possible taste – with Grayson Perry’

Although the works in The Vanity of Small Differences are unique originals, it would be possible (although costly) to produce an identical second set at the click of a mouse. These are unique only due to the decision of the artist, something which Gill Saunders calls “The artificiality of the limited edition”.

Thomas Cronenberg, a member of the European Tapestry Forum Standing Committee takes this criticism of the tapestries as original art works even further. Writing in trade magazine Textile Forum (issue 2/2103) he says that these works have “very little to do with crafts and much more in common with commercial art or, said in an extreme way, colour photocopying.” Because the production of the tapestry is a step removed, he does not see the hand of the artist in the finished work.

A short stroll around the V&A reveals that this question of authorship, design and reproduction has been around far longer than mechanical looms. The largest works in the V&A are a series of paper drawings known as the Raphael Cartoons. These paper paintings are full scale designs for tapestries which were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515. The finished products were hung in the Sistine Chapel and show scenes from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.

The Raphael Cartoons are housed in Room 48 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington.

In Renaissance Art, the term cartoon refers to the design for an artwork in another medium, usually full size and usually on paper rather than canvas. Closer inspection of these cartons show that they have been cut into vertical strips which were the width of the looms used by the weavers who would copy the design. The cartoon was a mirror image of the finished tapestry as the weavers would work the fabric from behind.

Despite being among ‘the greatest treasures of the high renaissance’, the cartoons on show in the V&A are the 16th Century equivalent of the digital files generated by Grayson Perry. With a pleasing symmetry both artists sent their designs off to Belgium to be rendered in thread, albeit with The Vanity of Small Differences enjoying a more exclusive print run than the Raphaels.

conversionoftheprocunsul

Detail from ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ – Raphael Cartoons © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

One detail of the Rahpael Cartoons did raise a question in my mind about the acid-test of authenticity. Did Raphael intend the cartoons to be works of art in their own right, rather than simply designs for the tapestries? The detail in question is the Latin inscription shown below the throne of Sergius Paulus in ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’ (above). If this was purely a template for the weaver then the text would be expected to be a mirror image, but the text in the cartoon has been written to be read from the front. This does seem to add fuel to the fire of those who would say the designs are are more genuine and unique expression of the artist’s work than the finished product.

But even here we run into problems about authorship and authenticity. Matisse began his experimentation in print using woodblock printing, but producing the plates was so time consuming that once he had drawn the image he gave the task of carving the hard wooden block to his wife. His signature might have been on the final print, but is it any better than a photocopy of his drawing?

Woodblock used to print Matisse’s ‘Nude in profile on a chaise longue’ Part of the Modern Masters in Print Exhibition © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Laying aside the cost and projected value of the work, there are three questions which will help you decide whether to buy a print, a limited edition or hold out for an ‘original’.

  • Are you looking at a copy of an original, or a work of art conceived in the medium you are buying?
  • How accurately does the print reflect the original? (Is it a good copy?)
  • In your enjoyment of art more about what you can see or about the uniqueness of the piece you own?

I’m looking at my limited edition print as I write. To be honest, it isn’t the number at the bottom which grabs my attention.


Modern Masters in Print is on display at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery until 23rd August. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free – don’t miss it. (The four exceptions mentioned above were a series of striking railway destination posters for SNCF designed by Dalí and commercially printed.)

 

Everything Changes

It’s an old joke, but what would actually happen if the Vicar forgot to put the clocks forward at the start of British Summer Time? And what if that Sunday was Easter Sunday?

So, picture the scene – the Vicar is missing, the service is starting, but the church is all set up for a Skype call later in the service. This is the conversation that follows:

How will they get here in time for the service? Something fast is needed. So after the hymn, here’s how we arrived and got to the Easter Acclamation.

Two men receive shocking news that brings them running to the scene.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

John 20:1-4

But what makes grown men rush off early in the morning. As we look further into the eye-witness accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in John 20 and 21, we saw that everything really does change at the resurrection. From the bottom upwards – Here’s the rest of the sermon from my Twitter feed as @JonMSpeaker.

And everything that changed in those first witnesses is offered to us. Everything Changes when we begin to trust in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen
He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! 

 

P.S. I have no way of controlling what videos Skype suggests you watch after mine. I think recommendations are based on your own YouTube viewing history.  

Lent – A season of give or take?

Over the past few days we’ve been bombarded with cartoons and memes following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. My favourite is a simple drawing of St. Peter’s Church with a speech bubble coming down from heaven saying “You’re giving up WHAT for lent?”

Today is Ash Wednesday – the first day of lent and, although there are big differences in how it is marked, both Christians and many others will make changes to their lifestyle for the (almost) 40 days before Easter.

Like most corporate activities, Lent has enjoyed a great variety of different incarnations. Before the protestant reformation you could be dragged off to court for eating meat during lent, immediately after the reformation you could be in equally hot water for NOT eating meat in lent and despite the religious vacillation which followed, the idea prevails to this day that the discipline of lent is unnecessary when ‘every day is Easter Sunday’.

More recently the rhetoric has been that we shouldn’t give things up, but instead take up something new – acts of random generosity, regular communication, or even just a new hobby. Two years ago the pendulum swung back and it was fashionable to do a social media fast during lent, so Facebook and Twitter fell silent for a while. It’s interesting to see how few people repeated that exercise last year – maybe Facebook and Twitter have now become so ubiquitous that the withdrawal symptoms were just too overwhelming.

So what can we do to observe this historic season of preparation, penitence and humility? I want to suggest that we give something up, and we take something up – but not tweeting or acts of kindness – lent can be about something much more powerful.

The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a reading traditionally associated with lent. In it, the apostle urges his readers to have humility as they think about their own attitudes to the themselves and to others. Instead of giving them good reasons to do so, however, he sings them a song, a creed which holds up the example of Jesus as a mirror to our own hearts.

And as we reflect on the example of Jesus here, we see that lent can be a time when we choose to give up our rights, and to take up our cross.

Paul begins by describing Christian community at it best.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

Philippians 2:1-2

Did you notice the words Paul uses here? Encouragement; comfort; fellowship; tenderness; compassion; joy; like-minded; the same love; being one in spirit and purpose. These are all descriptions of how family life can be at its best. And Paul continues with an exhortation to root our enjoyment of christian community in the conscious act of thinking that others are better than we are.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Philippians 2:3-4

Now Paul is not at all thinking of a kind of Uriah Heep humility where we ‘well aware that we are the umblest person going’ but really inside we seethe with jealousy and crave power. What Paul is describing is a recognition of our rights and our status (after all, Paul is writing to children of God) and then the decision to set them aside, to give up our rights.

And in this hymn of Praise, Paul shows us why:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

 

The first half of this song of praise describes three remarkable steps that Jesus took as he humbled himself. The first is that he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but instead became a man.

We are familiar with people who grasp onto power. Pope Benedict is a wonderful example of a man who is prepared to relinquish his position of authority for the good of those he leads, but the world is full of people who won’t. For every Benedict there are a hundred Mugabes or Gadaffis who grasp what they have and hold on tightly. But the one person who really has something worth grasping, give it up willingly and the uncreated creator became a part of frail creation. He took the nature of a slave.

But this act of humility is not the end of the story and then we see that it was not enough for Jesus just to become part of creation, it was also necessary for him to die – he humbled himself and became obedient to death. No wonder Charles Wesley was moved to write:

’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!

But even that was not the nadir of Jesus journey. These verses finish with the simple words “even death on a cross” and this reminds us that the death Jesus died was not just a break in the cosmic order (the immortal dies), but he was subjected to the most brutal and excruciating method of execution ever devised. In fact, that where the word excruciate comes from – crucifixion – death on a cross.

And where Jesus has gone, he calls us to follow. Take up your cross and follow me is a call to die to self interest and self importance and to be willing to give anything, even our lives in the service of Jesus.

So as we follow Jesus’ example in lent, we are called to give up our rights and take up our cross.

But saying this is not to be a act of naive optimist, forgotten as quickly as the disciplines of Lent. (after all, how many saint’s days can we find in lent to justify breaking our fast?). No, this hymn gives as confidence that we can follow the example of Jesus because the final verses give us two antidotes to selfish ambition and vain conceit – Jesus’ name and God’s glory.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11

As we reflect on who will be worshipped and glorified in Heaven, and who is at the centre of the church, we cannot possibly maintain the pretence that we are the most important person. It is the name that the Father has given to Jesus that will cause all people to bow ‘in heaven and on earth and under the earth’. And all this is for one purpose, to bring Glory to God the Father.

So amid the dieting, the extra communication, the acts of kindness, the abstinence and the extra visits to church, let’s also remember the call to give up our rights and to take up our cross as we follow the example of Jesus and as we worship him and bring glory to the Father.

People are Rude

How do you deal with discouragement?

This week I was chatting to an artist friend who told me that, over the bank holiday weekend, he had hidden the gallery visitors’ book because people had been leaving disparaging comments about his work.

Now if you are an artist, one way to deal with negative comments is to tell yourself that people are rude philistines and that you are misunderstood. Another way is to do what the rest of us do and mentally balance the good stuff with the bad stuff and hope that the scales tip in favour of encouraging ourselves.

So for Martin, the artist in question, he could recall that someone recently compared some of his work to Tracey Emin. He could eavesdrop on a conversation I had where another friend made the link to Matisse. He could re-read my own recent blog post where I wax lyrical about one of his more evocative paintings. Or he could get out the sales ledger and remind himself that people actually do pay for his work, so he must be doing something right.

Incidentally, you might want to compare the three artists mentioned above for yourself. All three have produces series of blue nudes, some of which I’ve linked here. You might not be able to afford an Emin or a Matisse, but you could probably stretch to owning one an original Bush. (but be quick, you never know when fame might strike).

There are times when I get discouraged with my work, and I guess I’m not alone among my fellow church ministers in this respect. The temptation for us is to conduct a similar mental exercise to try and balance the good to outweigh the bad.

The trouble with doing this is that Jesus promises that there will always be something discouraging lurking around the corner. He reminds Christians that people will treat them the same way they treated him, and we shouldn’t expect exemption from the rule because “no servant is greater than his master”. So when we see how powerfully the Holy Spirit has worked through a sermon we preached on Sunday, there will often be an e-mail waiting on Monday morning questioning the theology of what we’ve said. When we see people coming to a living faith in Jesus, there will often be people drifting away from church. High-functioning leadership teams often seem to have people who find it easier to criticise than encourage. Even in our own lives, when we find ourselves feeling victorious about a personal victory, the old sins are still lurking at the door to trip us up.

To use a silly example of trying to balance encouragement and discouragement: last night we had a great prayer meeting asking for the Holy Spirit’s power to keep working to transform those who are being baptised and confirmed over the next few weeks, but I knew that afterwards I was going to have to empty the church recycling dustbin as local dog walkers have been using it as a in for their dog’s poo. The trouble with balancing the good with the bad, is that there is no guarantee we will come out encouraged. 

So is there another option? For the Christian there is, and in the passage I’m preaching this Sunday morning, the Apostle Paul spells out a more secure foundation for dealing with discouragement. He writes:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…”

Philippians 2:1

This is powerful stuff! Suddenly we see that our mood or our measure of success is not dependent on how well our ministry is going, how our congregation is growing, how our budget is balancing or what local people think about us – it is about being united with Jesus Christ.

And unlike growth, reception and people’s good opinion, being united with Jesus Christ is a permanent state, as is his love and his gift of the Holy Spirit.

I was reminded this week (by Twitter, no less) of a quote from Martin Luther:

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

So although people are rude, and we are not as good as we like others to think we are, Jesus is constant and we are loved.

Is it OK to disagree with the Artist?

Looking out of the window at the chilly rain this Monday morning, the weekend’s sunshine seems to belong to another season rather than being just a day ago. On those days when the sun does shine, I’m increasingly spending time down at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard enjoying the coffee, freshly made pastries, local cheeses from the deli, the passage to the beach and the art.

On most of our visits we pop in to see what’s new in the gallery of local abstract artist Martin Bush. That might be because my son insists on going in and peeking tentatively around the labyrinth of paintings until he finds an impressive three metre high sculpture of the minataur. But on the wall facing the minataur is what I’m going in to see, a 1.5 metre wide abstract painting called “In the Element”.

In the Element - Martin Bush 2011

In the Element – Martin Bush 2011

This picture is part of a series of works inspired by the America’s Cup sailing competition, which came to Plymouth last summer. Almost effortlessly, Martin manages to capture the movement and the energy of that competition, the constant action and attention needed to harness the elements and keep ahead of the competition. Discussing the picture, Martin wants the viewer to imagine themselves looking back from the bow of a racing yacht, the folds of the sails forming an expectant concertina of canvas on the deck as they are hauled down out of the wind.

When I first saw this picture, there was something disturbing about it, which didn’t sit easily with the adrenaline rush of having the sun on your back, the wind in your hair (and sails) and the spray of salt water in your face. For me the picture seemed more foreboding, and the title conveyed a sense of menace. For me this was not a picture of elements being harnessed for sport, but a darker vision of elements being fought back as they threaten to engulf the onlooker and dislodge them from their precarious perch above the waves.

Eventually I realised why I saw such a hostile scene. It was because there was another image lurking in the back of my mind, which Martin’s work evokes in its composition and in the positioning of the flashes and swirls. The scene which I now see when I look at “In the Element” is this one, Théodore Géricault’s 1819 paining of the Raft of the Medusa.

The Raft of the Medusa - Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

The Raft of the Medusa – Théodore Géricault (1791–1824)

At over seven metres wide, the Raft of the Medusa towers over the viewer from its permanent home on the walls of the Louvre. In contrast to the Mona Lisa, which always appears smaller than expected, this massive work of art overpowers rather than charms those who stand before it. It tells the horrific story of the survivors of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, who clung to this hastily constructed vessel as they awaited rescue. A rescue which eventually came to just fifteen of the 147 passengers in the form of the French ship the Argus. This ship can just be seen as a hopeful speck on the horizon in the top right of the picture.

Once you’ve seen the similarity, the composition of “In the Element” makes it impossible to disassociate it (for me at least) from the Raft of the Medusa. In the top left corner the dark patch of the towering waves and the brooding clouds sit beside the flash of light of a hopeful dawn. The only bright colour in Géricault’s vision are the red flashes of garments, one of which is being waved in hope of being sighted. These are mirrored by the bursts of red in the abstract work which infuse the canvas with hope. The diagonal ropes holding the mast are evident in both works and, most powerfully, where the Argus sits on the horizon as a beacon of hope to the stricken souls on the raft, in the corresponding spot there is a blue cross – a symbol of salvation above the tumultuous waves.

In my dark vision of In the Element, instead of folds of canvas, lifeless as they wait to be hoisted into the wind, the swirls become the wasted and inert forms of those for whom the deliverance of the Argus would not come in time.

But which of us is right?

As I look at In the Element, I can see both the sporting scene Martin describes, and also the despair and hope of the dying passengers of the Medusa. But should it be possible to see both? Should the artist be able to dictate what we see, or is it OK to disagree with the artist?

As I reflect on this question, it seems that the answer to this question is bound up with the level of abstraction in the work itself. If this was a photo-realistic image of the bow of a modern racing yacht then we wouldn’t be discussing the similarities with the two hundred year old representation of a maritime tragedy. But because the work is abstract, because it leaves room for interpretation by the viewer, we are free to see more in here than what the artist intended. And once we’ve seen a bigger picture, the abstract often becomes clearer.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to art, so let’s move this discussion into a field with which I’m more familiar – making sense of the Bible.

I often hear people accuse the Bible of being incomprehensible and unconnected, but the Bible too has different levels of abstraction. Some parts of the Bible are meant to be photo-realistic: Histories, Letters, Gospels and all those parts which have the voice of a narrator showing us clearly what God wants us to think. We can’t read these bits and argue with the author about what they meant.  But there are some parts of the Bible which are more abstracted: Poems, dialogues, visions and proverbs all leave room for us to see layers of meaning, and are often the bits that leave us confused. But there is a bigger picture, an overarching story which once we’ve seen it will shape our understanding of even the most abstract sections.

Like the Raft of the Medusa, the big picture of the Bible has at its centre a scene of despair and hope where at first glance we cannot see whether the darkness of the clouds or the light of the dawn will triumph.  But like the Argus, like the cross on the horizon, the Cross of Jesus is the beacon of hope which makes sense of the whole picture. And once we’ve seen that the Bible is about one man, we can’t help but see Him across the whole canvas of scripture.

So what do you see?

If you want to make up your own mind about In the Element, then its on show at Martin’s Gallery in the Brewhouse in Plymouth’s Royal William Yard. Martin’s current show includes his current projects and older works. You can also book the gallery for private events and functions.  

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