Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Every Party Needs a Pooper

 Copyright © Edward Riojas

I received an invitation to participate in ArtPrize 2022 ages ago, but this artist won't be joining the competition. I know that makes me a pooper, but such comes with the territory of a self-styled art curmudgeon. I have, however, good reasons to avoid the hoopla.

For starters, my wife gave a rather impressive fist pump when I made the same decision two years ago. That was the last "normal" ArtPrize – when the competition wasn't an off-year attempt to dress up downtown Grand Rapids with ugly sweaters of iffy, public art. But I digress. 

That fist pump was in response to the massive time-suck involved in first creating a piece, then jumping through hoops to secure a venue, dragging the piece down to that venue, hanging around that same venue for two-plus weeks, and then dragging the piece back home. Oh, sure, I usually came home with a prize: A nasty case of influenza from plopping myself down in the world's biggest petri dish.

And then came Covid. 

Another reason for avoiding ArtPrize is the willy-nilly attitude of the powers that be who run the show. "Let's create a massive, yearly art spectacle for the masses in a small area. Well, let's not make it entirely for the masses – let's make it partially for art snobs. And let's spread it out a bit so hoity-toity art venues can join in the fun. And airports. Let's take some of the prize purse and give it to venues. Especially ones that will win every year. Let's be irresponsible with the funds and cut the prizes. Let's invite musicians and  street performers, because we don't understand what the visual arts really are. Artists don't need incentives like goody bags, so let's give them a goody bottle of water. Even if they can drink water from a goody drinking fountain. Let's not do it every year, because that costs too much – we'll do it every other year, and do something different on the odd years to confuse the masses. They're already confused about art, anyway."

The bottom line is: They originally created something fantastic but couldn't leave well enough alone, so now it's an embarrassment.

Speaking of embarrassments, the whole world has clearly become embarrassed for the competition, and the real international talent is now avoiding us. Sure, ArtPrize statistics show that international participation is growing, but there's nothing to stop lame artists from plopping down pesos or kronor or rubles and thereby be considered international "talent." Once a recognized international artist is forced to face off with a crappy piece of art created with 10 million sequins – and loses – it's understandable that they would rather seek a stage elsewhere on the planet.

Art competitions like the Turner Prize and the Kandinsky Prize have such prestige that inclusion in those events is a massive prize in itself. ArtPrize, on the other hand, had to throw bucket-loads of cash to lure such talented artists. But even amounts close to a quarter-million dollars won't entice them anymore – not when sequins are involved.

It's also clearly evident that art has taken a backseat to agenda in ArtPrize. If you don't support the latest stupid cause or fly a rainbow flag or are the correct shade of non-white or rally to the correct side of the political aisle, then apparently you are no artist. Especially if you don't like sequins. If, however, you vaguely represent conventionalism, representationalism, or religion, then surely you don't belong. Never mind the fact that the Church and classical art carried such sorry-excuse-of-artists, kicking and screaming, to this present day. I've heard, while standing next to my sacred "Adoremus" piece, that "Religious pieces should not be allowed." Sequins, I suspect, were somewhere behind that comment.

Some may accuse me of elevating art too far above the mundane; of expecting too much of artists; of believing that the visual arts are worthy of being held to the highest standards. I cannot, however, be accused of being a  pooper. That title goes to the septic waste that persistently oozes into the nooks and crannies of ArtPrize. When it comes down to the pitfalls of ArtPrize, some of us are simply tired of the stench.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Clarity Comes into the Picture

 Copyright © Edward Riojas

Rarely do I show photos of a piece before it is finished or delivered to the client — that includes small detail photos. When the exception is made, there is good reason for it. In this case, advice from past instructors made me reconsider what exactly it is that I am doing in a set of paintings destined for All Saints Lutheran Church, Charlotte, NC.

"Don't pull any punches," is a decades-old quip from a writing instructor. That one has always been easy. Those of you who really know me know that I don't do "subtle" very well. My artistic lines are clear and my colors are saturated. My reds are punchy. Some have even accused me of using child-like colors — whatever that means.

When creating the illusion of space, my art instructor would often tell us to make the foreground objects so clear that they would "poke you in the eye." As I was working on this current piece, that same sentiment paraphrased itself into, 'Make it so clear that you might trip over it." And that is precisely where Holy Scripture gave me a good slap.

Detail of the commissioned piece.
Copyright © Edward Riojas

You see, I was working on one of two paintings for the church, and the painted shapes on which I was working are identical in size and shape, and appear in the same place — about shin high — in each of the two paintings. The left-hand panel is of the Holy Nativity, while the right-hand panel is of the Resurrection.

The two shapes are very block-like and, had they existed outside of their two-dimensional constraints, it is true that one would be careful to walk near them for fear of tripping. They are stumbling blocks.

In the left-hand painting, a stone manger rests firmly in the foreground. In the Nativity, God became incarnate; there, He dwelt with us. But "the sign" given by the angels was a decidedly morbid one. The swaddling cloths and the manger pointed forward to an embalmed body in a sarcophagus, an all-too-soon burial, and a dead God.

In the right-hand painting, an empty ossuary serves as a footrest for the resurrected Christ. The God-Man was dead, but is never to be dead again. Without having a corrupted body, there was never a point to using an ossuary for His skeletal remains. With the Jews arguing amongst themselves over the possibility of a Resurrection, it is no wonder such blocks caused — and still cause — men to stumble. Neither is it any wonder that the philosophies of man still look at the same as utter foolishness.

It is, however, a blessing to the Children of God when the hidden reality of the Word becomes crystal clear and pokes us in the eye. It doesn't matter that we cannot logically wrap our heads around it, and it doesn't matter if it doesn't fall in line with centuries of man-made traditions. The beauty of Holy Scripture is that it forces us to admit that, in our fallen state, we are weak and vulnerable and in desperate need of a Savior. Holy Scripture pulls no punches.

Friday, February 11, 2022

"Law and Gospel:" A new piece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Yes, it's been a while since I graced this blog with my words. You had your break, but now the Curmudgeon is back – well, at least for now. This year's schedule is going to be grueling, so the words may come in at a slow trickle. What follows is a description of a new diptych, "Law and Gospel," which accompanied the piece when it was delivered to the client...

"Law and Gospel" Edward Riojas. 2021. Oil on wood.

This diptych attempts to convey, through symbolic reality, Law and Gospel. As Lutherans understand it, the two are so inseparable and so dependent on each other that it sometimes seems odd that “proper distinction” should ever enter into discussion. It is with the same spirit that this piece was created.

From its inception, shape and construction drove the piece. It was very intentional that the shapes of the panels echo the representation of the tablets of the Law which Moses carries. Moses is depicted as one who delivers the Law given by God, while Christ Jesus is depicted as THE perfect fulfillment of the same Law. The two literally hinge on each other.

In the left panel, Moses descends from the mountain. Behind him is the Shekinah – the cloud of Glory in which the Lord dwells. His presence is symbolized by the three rays emanating from an unseen source, for no one may see His face and live.

Unlike most depictions of Moses, two rays emanate from his shining face – not as the usual “horned” images of the prophet, but as a reflection of the Lord’s glory, Whom Moses has beheld. The two rays, however, have a horizontal trajectory and point to the giving of the Law to all mankind. The face of Moses was painted so that it is “uncomfortable” to look at it; His blue eyes seem to be etched with the sight of the Divine.

Moses, in his humility, does not dare touch the tablets, but holds them with the hem of his sleeves. The tablets are depicted in symbolic form, using a decidedly-Lutheran twist on the normal Hebrew interpretation. Typically, depictions of the tablets are boiled down – not to letters, but to numbers. Lutherans consider the first table to be comprised of three commandments, which tell us how we should live in relation to God, and the second table of seven commandments, which tell us how we should live in relation to our fellow man. The first table is placed on the right-hand side – the Hebraic ‘first page.’ Here it must be noted that, in its design, the crucified Jesus Christ is placed on the symbolic equivalent of the first table, confessing Him as God. Holy Scripture states that the tablets were written on front and back. Instead of simple Hebrew numbers, the opening words of each command are depicted, e.g., “You shall not murder,” etc., in Hebraic fashion. The last two commandments, as Lutherans count them, share the same opening words, giving a hint that the words must continue on the back of the tablet.

It is intentional, too, that Moses's garb prefigures a pastor’s chasuble and stole, which is adorned with pomegranates. The pomegranate’s double meaning has come down to us through the ages as symbolic of both the abundant blessings from the Lord and the Resurrection of the Lord, Who burst forth from the bonds of death, once for all.

In the right panel, Christ Jesus is depicted as the perfect Sacrifice which atones for the sins of the world and fulfills the Law’s perfect demands. His innocent blood pours down the cross. Blood and water pour from His pierced side, pointing to and confirming the waters of Holy Baptism into His death and resurrection. A skull and bones lie at the base of the cross, symbolizing not only Christ’s victory over death, but also alluding to the tomb of Adam, from whom sin was inherited.

Behind the crucified Christ, the outline of the temple can be seen. Sacrificial smoke and prayerful incense rise, but there is an end to both as Christ becomes THE sacrifice and as He becomes our only mediator through prayer. Even in death, Jesus displays His glory as a Person of the Holy Trinity through the symbolic use of the tri-radiant nimbus, echoing back to the Shekinah and the Giver of the Law.

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Giclée prints of "Law and Gospel" are now available by contacting the artist.
Sizes/Prices of prints:
40" [wide] x 28.8" / $215
36" x 26" / $180
24" x 17.3" / $120
18" x 13" / $80
To order this print or any other that I offer, please email me at edriojasartist@gmail.com



Friday, April 2, 2021

In A Garden

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When creating images relating to Holy Scripture, I like to get things right. In a way, it’s similar to the genre of history painting, in which the artist takes the time to research period costumes, location, and even the weather surrounding a specific historical event. 

Holy Scripture, however, is not simple history. The Word does not always give information that would otherwise seem like straightforward historical data. Most historical information, such as the dress of a Galilean fisherman or the construction of a Jerusalem house, must be gleaned from other sources.

Neither does Holy Scripture read like a novel. Unless there is good reason to do so, Biblical passages won’t tell the reader whether or not "the sky was ripe with rain" or if a "garment gently played in the breeze." The more romantic corners of our brain are necessarily ignored. That’s because the Bible was not written as a fine diversion for our amusement.

On those occasions when Scripture does offer narrative details, however, the reader should pay attention. Those things which we often gloss over; those words which are often left in the margins are usually significant.

St. John’s account of Christ’s burial, for example, is the only Gospel to mention a garden. It is mentioned once, then implied shortly thereafter.

“Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” John 19:41 (ESV)

“... Supposing him to be the gardener,...” John 20:15b (ESV)

Of course, we know this. Some artists make the tomb environs look well-kept, with cypress trees, vines, and perhaps a lily or two. Other artists are content to take the minimalist road and stick to a rock garden. Unfortunately, we are usually so focused on the account of Jesus’ death that we often underappreciate the horticultural detail. That is, unless you’re Adam or Eve.

With the temple curtain torn in two from top to bottom, with unsavory Goyim confessing Jesus to be the Son of God, with graves being opened and saints contained therein appearing to many, this small detail seems a Divine nod to a very different garden. I can see Adam giving the biggest fist-pump ever at John’s mention of a garden. To suffer life-long banishment of some 900 years from the Garden of Eden, only to have the Lamb of God interred in a mirrored location seems no coincidence. To have angels present, sans flaming swords, seems no coincidence, either. Yet there is more.

Into this garden was laid The Seed. It must first die before springing to life. But unlike other plants with their excruciating germination time, this Stump of Jesse not only sprang to life and became the Vine from which we branch, but It also flowered and became “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” This, in a garden.

Flanking 'garden' images from a shelved chancel project. Figures acknowledge the central cross.
(Collection of the artist)


Friday, January 15, 2021

“The Holy Ark of the Christian Church”

"Holy Ark of the Christian Church"
Edward Riojas. 2021. Oil on wood.
(Collection of the artist)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

This newly-revealed painting will be very familiar to some. Last May I offered a nearly-identical coloring page in an attempt to ease any annoyance during self-isolation. While many of the coloring pages were received with enthusiasm, that particular one grabbed considerable attention on Facebook, with more than 200 shares. Attention not only came from the Heartland of the U.S., but also from Canada, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Germany, Poland, Madagascar, Malaysia, and points beyond. Hence, I could not help but flesh out the coloring page into a painting.

I took the original image and gave it more visual breathing room in order to properly set the stage. Stylistically, there is a subtle homage to one of my favorite artists, N.C. Wyeth, with flavors of his work in the nautical margins.

The Church has been identified with a ship since ancient times, and has retained that symbolism to this day. Although a different type of nautical vessel, there is a Scriptural connection between the Church and the ark built by Noah. Matthew 24, Luke 17, and Hebrews 11 all give hints of something greater than simple historical accounts of the flood, and it’s easy to see a connection between the unbelieving, fallen state of the world during Noah’s day and the evils of our own day. 1 Peter 3 takes an extra step, connecting the ark and the flood to Holy Baptism: 

“...when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ...” (1 Peter 3: 20b-21)

It should not be surprising, therefore, that Martin Luther included the words, “the holy ark of the Christian Church,” in the Flood Prayer now used as part as the Baptismal Rite. It is from a combination of ancient imagery representing the Church and Luther’s words that I drew inspiration for this painting.

Unlike the simple sea-faring vessels from antiquity, I used a decidedly robust vessel that will not and cannot founder. It is majestic and massive. One might imagine that it does not even creak or groan under the mounting waves, but plies a steady course set by the Holy Spirit. Its stout bulwarks are formed by two sets of elders – twenty four in all – and its figurehead is the crucified Christ Himself. Two angels collect the blood and water into chalice and font. An image of the risen Christ drives the ship, blessing those who are carried along in safety. The wheelhouse – that seemingly small structure – contains the chancel and altar where our Lord, the Captain, promises to be. Three red banners identify its Master as a Person of the Holy Trinity, while a fourth banner issuing from the risen Christ underscores His sacrificial blood.

I intentionally placed the horizon at an angle, giving the impression of an unrelenting, angry sea. A foaming skull may allude to the perils of the days in which we live, but it also points to something else: Death by drowning. In Holy Baptism, the washing does not simply cleanse the outer body, but completely obliterates sin, drowns the old Adam, and raises us to life in the New Adam, Christ Jesus.

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The original painting, “Holy Ark of the Christian Church,” as well as giclée prints of the same, are available for purchase.

Sizes/Prices for giclée prints:
24” x 36” / $175
16” x 24” / $110
12” x 18” / $80

The original painting, oil on wood, 24” x 36”, unframed / $6,000 (U.S.)

Domestic (U.S.) shipping is included on prints, as well as the original painting. There will be additional shipping/duty fees on all international orders based on destination.

To order or for more information, please email me at edriojasartist@gmail.com




Friday, January 1, 2021

Old Stuff, New Stuff

"Venite" Edward Riojas. 2020. Oil on panel. (Zion Lutheran Church, Wausau, Wisconsin)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I promised myself that I would neither mention by name the previous year, nor the thing that seemed to distinguish it. I just isn’t worth the time.

It is, however, worth the time to a name a few things that distinguished a productive year for me in spite of “things,” as well as look at a few projects coming in the new year. In spite of my laziness and everything else that hindered, here are a few artistic highlights of this past year:

“The Venite”
A series of four panels, based on the Venite, were completed and delivered to Zion Lutheran Church in Wausau, Wisconsin. The piece makes use of flora and fauna of the Wausau area, and acts as a set of windows for the chapel. Incidentally, another piece of mine, the "Zion Altarpiece," resides in the same chapel.

"The Hymn Writer." Edward Riojas.
2020. Oil on panel.
(Collection of Rev. Stephen Starke)


“The Hymn Writer

Although I had to keep this piece under wraps for much of the year, the commissioned piece was finally unveiled on the occasion of Rev. Stephen Starke’s retirement. (Hint: This may very well be made available as a print during the coming year.)

“Ode to the Age of Innocence”
This large, non-sacred piece was intended for ArtPrize. Along with an endless list of other events, the art competition was cancelled. Still, I was able to indulge in yet another large “troll” painting, thereby increasing the visual clutter of my studio spaces.

Crucifixes
I made the time to create a distinctly-Lutheran processional crucifix [which still needs a good home], and also executed [pardon the pun] a commissioned altar crucifix. Both were done when the weather allowed me to work in my unheated woodshop.

“The Hardening of Israel’s Heart & The Hardening of Heart in the Church”
Technically, the cover art of this book – my sole contribution – was created in 2019, but I’ve thrown this in because the work, put together by Rev. Michael Holmen, was released this past year.

“The Ethereal Land of Heavenward Stairs”
This book, my third collaborative project with Rev. Tyrel Bramwell, takes a Seussian slant on more serious subject matter. The illustrated book was a nice stylistic change from my other work.

"Ode to the Age of Innocence."
Edward Riojas. 2020.
(collection of the artist)

“The Wolf and The Lamb”
This may be a bit premature, but the bulk of illustrative work has been completed on a yet-to-be-released book by Rev. William Weedon. I jumped style again and resorted to one of my older tricks – pen-and-ink stippling – for the children's book illustrations. Keep your eye on the horizon for this.

Ecclesiastical Sewing
I worked on various projects for the stellar – yes, I said stellar – vestment/parament company, Ecclesiastical Sewing, during the year. It’s always nice to bring my “A” game to their table. Some projects have exacting custom requirements, while others have a much broader appeal. I look forward to continually upping the game for pieces that are not only gorgeous, but are also confessionally Lutheran.

Speaking up
“Extrovert” isn’t the first thing that should come to mind when contemplating this artist, but I was asked to do an interview with KFUO’s “Concord Matters” host, Rev. Sean Smith. I gave my two cents-worth on the subject of artwork in the sanctuary, and was apparently able to string together whole sentences in the process. We’ll chalk it up to the wonders of modern radio.

What’s Coming on the Horizon
While a mountain of proposed projects are still in a fluid state, a few things are pretty much set in stone. I have one non-commissioned painting on my easel, and at least two other non-commissioned pieces are ready if time permits.

An article I wrote on sacred art has been accepted by Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, and will be published in its Easter edition. 

Following in that same vein, I’ve recently written a series of nine articles for The Lutheran Witness that deal with sacred imagery. This little project was born out of negative feedback on the December 2020 cover art. It was seen as a teaching moment, so hopefully I will straighten out some misconceptions about sacred art. At the very least, I will offer a much better target for rotten tomatoes.




Friday, December 11, 2020

“Parthians and Medes and Elamites”

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Long ago, when the Iron Curtain was a viable thing, I had a conversation with a friend about the “Evil Empire.” The phrase, “Bomb them back to the stone age,” was lobbed out in the open. Strangely, I wondered in that very macho moment if any of our enemies were praying for us.

We sometimes assume too much. Americans in particular have a knack for thinking the rest of the world wants to be like us. We often feel we are at the epicenter of many things. Freedom comes to mind. So does modernization, as well as economics and natural resources and health care. At other times, our feelings of self-aggrandizement drift into areas where they don’t at all belong – places like theology.

Perhaps we take cues from the now-emasculated British Empire in thinking we have a monopoly on the Gospel and that the Lord needs us specifically to spread “our” excellent theology. It’s important to remember that way before English speaking peoples ever had it spoken to them, the Gospel often came from Germans or Swedes, who in turn might have received it from Italians and Greeks, who possibly received it from Parthians and Medes, who received it from a handful of Jews. As recipients of the Gospel go, we are about as far from the epicenter as one can get.

I was recently tasked with converting a couple of my designs into a different language. My initial, knee-jerk reaction was to hold off on the requests and even ignore them, but that was just me being a jerk. In the end, I ignored the possible hassles of international trade, and simply focused on the request; a fellow Christian was in need of something I had, and it mattered not that they lived a bit further afield than my little bubble.

Hence, an ordination certificate was translated into Portuguese for use in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil, which is in fellowship with the LCMS. A young pastor asked, and I simply couldn’t find a reason to refuse.

A Baptismal certificate which I also created was translated into German by Rev. Peter Gürth for his congregation, and is now wending its way to the Old Latin School in Wittenberg. I donated the digital file to them so that it can be domestically printed and its proceeds directly benefit the organization.

It is a great honor to fulfill such modest requests from the Church at large. The greater honor, however, lies at the feet of our Lord, Who sees fit to spread His Gospel through the words and actions of “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” We might add Germans and Brazilians and, perhaps least of all, Americans.