International Autumn Art Exhibition Reviews – Revd Jonathan Evens

The Countess of Rosslyn with the new stained glass window by Joe Tilson RA, Photo Rob McDougall

It used to be the case that, while artists frequently explored the intersections between art and faith, curators and critics thought that, in the modern period, never the twain should meet. That reality has now long ceased to be the case, meaning that periodic reviews of exhibitions around the globe can highlight a range of work in a range of styles in many different galleries.

We begin in Scotland for this review of recent shows, where Joe Tilson RA has been commissioned to create a stained glass window for Rosslyn Chapel. Unveiled on 25 June 2021 and commissioned by the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn, preparatory work by Tilson has recently been shown at Marlborough Galleries.

Tilson is a leading figure associated with the British Pop Art movement in the 1960s but, in 1970, moved in a completely different direction through deeply held convictions and dissatisfaction with the technological and industrial ‘progress’ of the consumer society. He started Alchera, a series of works inspired by Pound, Joyce and Yeats and their interest in the traditions of the Mediterranean, including Neo Platonism. These are works that foster in us, at a time of urgent ecological concern, a deeper understanding of the elements of the natural world by bringing to life a complex world of nature, ecology, and philosophy, replete with references to Greek Mythology, organic cyclical time, the rhythms of the cosmos, and Aboriginal culture.

Mirroring these developments in his life and philosophy, Tilson and his family left the urban centre of London and his Pop Art phase behind, to settle in the countryside in Wiltshire and an old farmhouse in the mountains of Tuscany near Cortona. He has said: “Our imagination must be geared passionately to the universe – to nature. We must be always aware that we are part of the cycles of continual change in a thin breathing veil of air, water and earth, our temple sphere.”

Tilson has nurtured a lifelong fascination with architecture which has been explored most recently in his Stones of Venice series. He has also worked with stained glass at the world-renowned glass factories of Murano near Venice, and so this commission is emblematic of his multi-faceted and ever-evolving artistic practice. In his monumental Stones of Venice five-part work, which has been on display in the summer exhibition at Marlborough Galleries, Tilson uses the repeated motif of an ecclesiastical window over a design based on Venetian stone floors, painted in the primary colours that have characterised his pictures throughout his career.

It was this series and his award-winning stained-glass at the 2019 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that convinced Earl and Countess of Rosslyn that Tilson would be the perfect artist for the Rosslyn Chapel project. Working with the Stones of Venice motif Tilson’s window presents new ideas and symbolism of relevance for a contemporary religious audience, including a confluence between Byzantine and Muslim culture in Venice conceived of by the artist as speaking of reconciliation at a time of deeply damaging mutual distrust between opposing religious traditions. Closely collaborating with Mark Bambrough, glass conservator at Rosslyn Chapel, the new window showcases Tilson’s unique and colourful style. The blurred edge detail in the central section of his design was replicated with the use of flashed glass, which involves the layering of clear and coloured glass panels. The window marks the 25th anniversary of Rosslyn Chapel Trust, the charity founded in 1995 to oversee its conservation.

Max Gimblett, Autumn breath, 2020
Max Gimblett, Autumn breath, 2020

New Zealand born artist Max Gimblett has primarily been based in New York since 1972 and his practice encompasses influences as varied as Abstract Expressionism, Modernism, Eastern and Western spiritual beliefs, Jungian psychology, and ancient cultures. With a similar interest in shapes and series to that of Tilson, Gimblett’s shaped canvases hold various associations and meanings connected to the oval, rectangle, tondo, keystone, and quatrefoil. The quatrefoil shape, an iconic feature of Gimblett’s work, dates back to pre-Christian times and is found in both Western and Eastern religions symbolising such objects as a rose window, cross, and lotus.

Gimblett, who is a Rinzai Zen Priest (taking his vows in 2006), explores the multiplicity of meaning attached to such revered objects and symbols through expressive and emotive abstract painterly gestures. There is an onslaught of vibrant, riotous colour, pattern, and texture in his works with gesture and movement being implicit. Gimblett aligns the mind and body through his practice, drawing on philosophies of Zen Buddhism rather than the traditional western division of mind-body dualism. The complex synthesis of influences evident in his work steps further into the realm of the spiritual with his use of precious metals; materials such as gold and silver are religiously associated with honour, wisdom, enlightenment and spiritual energies.

His forthcoming exhibition at the Page Gallery in Wellington takes its title – The Sun Also Rises – from a painting of the same name (in turn borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel), which signals the inevitability of time marching on despite the devastating context of a global pandemic and acknowledges the beauty and privilege inherent in witnessing the potential of each new dawn. While the majority of works in this exhibition were made during lengthy periods of isolation inside his home studio in New York City, these recent paintings elicit a remarkable sense of optimism. Great swathes of colour – yellow, purple, pink – inch out to the edge of the paper and beyond, creating a sense of release and freedom.

With Santuario, his new collection of oil paintings on canvas and wood panel, Patrick McGrath Muñíz has been seeking a sanctuary in which to find refuge, solace, and meaning. Muñíz is an artist from Puerto Rico now living in Houston, Texas, whose work has been driven by the exploration of social and environmental injustice and indifference while pointing at the relation between Christian iconography found in Spanish Colonial Art and modern-day American consumer culture.

Muñíz writes that “many swift, sudden and unpredictable events” in the past five years felt like “the rug was being pulled from under my feet”. These experiences included hurricanes, displacement, the global pandemic and social isolation which have increasingly played a larger role in his work and led him to examine and re-think his mission as an artist. In the process he “discovered new archetypal perspective and meaning to the work I’ve created for the past 20 years.”

His paintings are inspired by Spanish Colonial iconography, history, religion, mythology, and pop culture. They address issues such as climate change, global pandemics, and migration though the use of archetypal imagery and symbolism derived from Tarot, Astrology, Alchemy and Ancient Myths. He sees art “as an antidote against these forces and a reflection on the essence and meaning of humanity”.  Painting becomes a mirror to the soul as to paint is begin to “know thyself”, providing a clearer picture of the things that matter most in life. Art “becomes an attempt to commemorate and reconstruct that which has been lost in order to remind us of who we really are.”

The Hermit was Inspired by the recurring theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony in western art. A solitary monk stands in front of a modern-day high bridge in a flooded landscape with an automobile floating on the water. The car signifies contemporary society. On the ground below, demons or monsters look up to the monk. They represent the temptations and addictions – gluttony, social media, Disneyfication – that could keep the silent hooded figure distracted and removed from his mission. The hermit holds a chalice in one hand and with the other makes a gesture of silence. From the chalice a Mercurial caduceus emerges. The caduceus in Hermetic tradition is associated with magic, wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. Silence is required in order to listen to the music of the cosmic spheres and align with our own ‘Inner Sanctum’. Four winged golden figures emerge from the hermit’s back. They are armed angelical entities that spring forth in order to guard against to the destructive forces of a sick society driven by consumerist dogmas. The bridge is a reminder of the connection between heaven and earth, the divine and the mundane.

For the Chicago-based Mexican artist Sergio Gomez, Diaphanous Bodies, his latest solo exhibition, is rooted in transformation, spirituality, and introspection resulting from his interest in human and spiritual experiences throughout the cycles of life: “Diaphanous Bodies is the culmination of what I’ve learned spiritually, emotionally and technically during the pandemic months of 2020. I believe we are all slowly coming out to the other side as changed people. These paintings are a reflection of my own transformation as they symbolize a new beginning.”

Primarily working in acrylic on paper, Gómez depicts semi-abstract figures through shadows and auras, capturing a haunting energy through sombre colour palettes and ambiguous settings. The human form is the most important element in Gomez’s work existing as an anonymous representation of the self. The figure dominates the work, but is depicted as a shadow, aura, or energy light. His light, delicate, and translucent figures exist in condensed fields of colour and texture that resemble natural forms. It is unclear whether his human figures are indoors or outdoors, perceived or remembered, standing or floating, alive or dead, as presence overrides identity.

The essence of his work is about creating “a meeting place where the spirit and the flesh find their common ground.” Similarly, Alastair Gordon describes his work as: “A poiesis of matter and thought where instinct and intellect create a place of attunement. A ritual space of imagination and embodiment, where materials have thought and the hand moves instinctively.”

Alastair Gordon The Bewitching Hour by Alastair Gordon, oil, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 120x240cm
Alastair Gordon The Bewitching Hour by Alastair Gordon, oil, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 120x240cm

With mention of Gordon, we return to the UK for an exhibition which “delves deeper into my ongoing enthusiasm for quodlibet painting and brings in a landscape element from observational painting juxtaposed alongside more illusionistic elements”.

Gordon’s work “is driven by an overwhelming sense of delight in the struggles of painting — what painting can achieve and how it can lift us from detritus of everyday life”. Rosa JH Berland notes that he “draws every day and is particularly interested in observing what he calls the detritus of everyday life – postcards, paper darts, and notepads – which contain traces of stories of the past”. His trompe l’oeil paintings then transform such ordinary objects into “vignettes of memory, study and evocation” with “elements such as tape, old photographs, paper scraps and other ephemera collaged and painted in a highly realistic style”. He paints these items “in low relief allowing them to appear as if they are pinned or taped to a wooden surface”. This illusionism “functions as a tool of engagement, allowing the viewer to return to the picture plane, delighting in the artistry, the colour, and depth’. Gordon says that this approach is in part ‘influenced by seventeenth century Northern European illusionistic painting and in particular “Quodlibet-what you will””.

He finds the approach is a way to open a conversation about the bigger issues of beauty, death and the sanctity of life. Firstly, because “there’s a lovely moment when people realise they’re looking at a painted illusionism – like a moment of ‘Aha’ – which causes them to take a second look”. Then, because he uses his contemporary form of trompe l’oeil painting to address modern day concerns such as “fakery, illusionism and the way images shape the way we think in society”. Historically, he notes, “the still life genres were about mortality and the fleeting nature of beauty”. “We tend to find these things difficult to talk about in modern society which is part of the reason I like working in still life so much.”

Kamini Vellodi writes that the “subject of Gordon’s quodlibets are all paintings, presented in various stages of completion (but never in a finished state)”: “The compositions present as snapshots of the artist’s studio, glimpses of sections of the studio wall, complete with stains and blotches, colour tests, taped source material (postcards and other ephemera), drawings and preparatory sketches and sometimes objects, such as the twigs in ‘Improvisations’, or ‘accidental’ incursions, such as the artist’s cat.”

With this exhibition Gordon has moved his focus on heightened realism to a more gestural and intuitive approach, expanded his selection of substrates to work on, and woven his application of collage into the conception of the paintings from the start. His practice has always referenced forms of trompe l’oeil painting to approach questions about illusion and replication but, by adding multiple types of artefacts to the picture plane, these many layered compositions generate new challenges to the nature of perception.

Vellodi notes that the presence of painted masking tape is particularly prevalent in Jacob’s Dream, “where the yellow and white strips of tape create a formal rhythm of their own, an abstract composition alongside the figuration”. Here, “the ‘subject’ – a copy of Tintoretto’s 1577 painting of Jacob’s Ladder, itself painted to be seen di soto in sù in The Scuola di San Rocco – is almost completely obscured by the cluster of ephemera – postcards of other artworks, sketches, even paper aeroplanes – taped onto its surface”. This obscuring of the central image raises the question as to whether this religious image has been obscured by the accretions of time, as other images and work have been taped over it, or whether the obscured image is in some key sense foundational to the finished image.

In his recent book Why Art Matters Gordon answers that question in the affirmative saying that, in his experience as an artist, Christianity is ‘the best defence for the importance of art’. In their own way, and in relation to their own belief systems, the other artists featured here would seem to be saying the same.

Joe Tilson at Rosslyn Chapel, Marlborough Galleries London, 25 June – 1 September 2021

Max Gimblett: The Sun Also Rises, Page Gallery, Wellington, 16 September – 19 October 2021

Santuario, Heidi Vaughan Fine Art, Houston, 11 September – 16 October 2021

Diaphanous Bodies, 33 Contemporary, Chicago, 17 July – 31 August 2021

Quodlibet, Aleph Contemporary, London, 3 – 29 September 2021

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