Friday, May 27, 2016

Forgiveness: Accepted and Excepted

Copyright © Edward Riojas

For those whom I have offended, please forgive me. For those who ever sought my forgiveness, you will always have it.

That second part may, at first glance, seem presumptuous, but we all need to reminded of genuine forgiveness from others – especially from God. We must allow ourselves to indulge in that gift without exception.

I was reminded of this while attending a luncheon last week celebrating a second edition release of “The Father & His Two Sons: The Art of Forgiveness.” The book is a catalog of art collected by Larry and Mary Gerbens and bestowed on Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was commissioned to do a piece for the collection, and my piece again graces the book’s cover.

In his presentation on the collection, Gerbens noted truthfully that it is sometimes easier to forgive than to be forgiven. I have been in that boat. Perhaps you have, too.

The Lord is, of course, the Master of forgiveness, and has blessed ignorance of sin once forgiven. Christians attempt to mirror that forgiveness toward others. It always takes massive help from above to manage real forgiveness when we are on the giving end.

But being on the receiving end of forgiveness makes us uneasy. We either question the possibility that we can, indeed, be forgiven, or we entertain the equally-ugly sister that questions our need to be forgiven in the first place. And if we finally release our minds from guilt, we often feel indebted to those who are so gracious to us.

Feeling indebted to the Lord, however, can be a grave mistake. Some attempt to repay that debt by climbing gold tassels to perfection. Others beat themselves into bloody pulp or allow their own crucifixion in order to settle the score. But a gift that has strings attached is not a gift. Grace that has stipulations is not Grace at all. Forgiveness that demands restitution is not true forgiveness.

As prodigals, we are daily drawn back to the Father by His blessed forgiveness. In our ragged and haggard state, we can do nothing but accept the forgiveness He freely gives.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The World in Color

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“My favorite color is light tan.”  – Sister Encarnación, in the movie, “Nacho Libre”

Color is a funny thing. Unless the artist is one of those cutting-edge wierdies that uses light energy in his work, artists use reflective light to portray the world. That same world, however, is a constant mishmash of direct light, reflected light, diffused, refracted, and iridescent light, and on and on until the nerds in the room bring up gamma rays, x-rays, and bioluminescence. All art is illusion, and the artist choreographs color in sophisticated mimicry of reality. But, no, the colors are not pulled from a rainbow terminating in a pot of gold.

A lot of colors are pulled out of the dirt. The “earth colors” – ochre, sienna and umber – contain naturally-occurring minerals. Sienna and umber are available “raw” or “burnt.” I won’t trouble you on whether raw or burnt is darker.

Ultramarine blue also had its origins in the earth. Before being chemically-produced, the color was made by grinding semi-precious lapis lazuli stones.

Other colors are simply nasty, and artists are wise to avoid contact with skin or inhaling dust or vapors. Colors that have cobalt or cadmium in the name have been suspects in some artists’ madness. And not in a good way.

Some art supply companies cheapen their product by offering a color suffixed by the word “Hue,” which in essence means you are getting an imitation flavor, and not an extract. Things like that annoy artists.

Of course, the colors above are traditional standards of oil paint, watercolor, and pastel media. Once one ventures out of tradition, the naming convention becomes random. Luma dyes come in “Process Cyan” and “Daffodil.” Sure, cyan is one of the four ink colors in the CMYK combination that printers use, but daffodil was probably invented by a Hippie to throw everyone off.

Being a relatively new invention, colored pencils and crayons come in colors assigned to objects in reality, like “Flesh” and “Grass Green” and “Grape.” This may be fine with two-year-olds, but it gives artists hives.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are PMS colors that, no, were not invented by a gynecologist. The Pantone Matching System (Trademark, Copyright, yadda, yadda) is a carefully developed and calibrated range of colors used in the commercial realm. They are numbered entities that are consistent to the nth degree. The colors are also given nebulous names, and Pantone yearly announces the Color of the Year. For the first time in its history, Pantone released for 2016 a combination of two Colors of the year – Pantone 13-1520 (Rose Quartz) and Pantone 15-3919 (Serenity). I’m pretty sure that combination makes a light tan.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Monuments to the Fallen

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  – George Santayana

Americans are blessed to live in a land that, for the most part, has not been overrun and occupied by enemy armies. True, during the Civil War we didn’t need help in executing the horrors of war – we did a perfectly fine job on our own. Invasions by outsiders – both recent and past – were either spotty or are now considered ancient history. And, oh yes, let’s not forget that whole occupation-thing by white, non-native Americans. Whatever.

Every major city in the U.S. has its share of monuments erected to honor those who served and those who fell doing the dirty work of preserving our freedoms as a nation. One cannot miss them or dismiss their importance. A bronze Civil War soldier stands guard atop a two-story pedestal. A bronze eagle, grasping a laurel wreath, is surrounded by names etched in stone. A bronze general surveys the landscape from his bronze horse – his vista improved atop a massive stone plinth.

Until Maya Lin came along with the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., most U.S. monuments to the fallen were pulled out of a mold that had its roots in Classical antiquity. The formula was simple: A larger-than-life bronze figure on top of a large, stone base. The viewer’s eye was no higher than the middle of that base. One looked up to the noble figures. Smaller, local monuments were usually bronze plaques secured to the largest boulder in the vicinity. Memory was at least meant to be immovable.
“Majdanek Mausoleum”
Wiktor Tolkin. 1969.
(Lublin, Poland)

That formula, however, rarely conveyed the sense of loss or sacrifice. The public was expected to stiffen their upper lip and keep emotions at bay for the sake of the whole. The unspoken sentiment was that we were a determined people, no matter the cost; no matter the sacrifice.

For my part, I prefer a more visceral approach in allowing emotional loss to trump noble resolve. Lin’s Vietnam wall is a perfect example of this. Whether originally intended or not, it is the public’s reaction to an unfeeling wall of names that gives the piece it’s soul. It is the touch of a finger to a single name. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and the National 911 Memorial in New York are also examples that demand solemn respect – though it would be strange to call them “fine” or “good.”
“Warsaw Uprising Monument”
Wincenty Kućma, Jacek Budyn
1989. (Warsaw, Poland)

To see more examples of similar caliber, however, one has to look abroad. Poland is a perfect place, in that the nation has been arguably one of the most bullied countries in recent history. During WWII, Poland was beaten down as a nation, its Jewish population obliterated, and its stubborn inhabitants given a thrashing they would not forget. They did not forget. Even when Soviet control seized the nation, they did not forget.

Poland was slow to heal after the war, and it took some time before monuments were considered. One of the earliest was the mausoleum erected over a mound of human ashes at Majdanek Concentration Camp near Lublin. At first glance, it looks like a massive gun emplacement. In reality, it is a covering; a lid for a funerary urn of unimaginable horror. Its surface is covered by vague, haunting images. A single, central oculus allows the sun to transverse the exposed ashen heap.
“The Little Insurgent”
Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz. 1983.
(Warsaw, Poland)

As Communist control evaporated during the 1980s, a staggering number of monuments began appearing in Poland, each with equal amounts of emotion and creativity. The old, Classical formula was avoided – perhaps in avoidance of Soviet preferences.

The “Warsaw Uprising Monument” imposed itself on the city’s center, rising out of the ground to spew desperate, bronze figures of the underground resistance. Elements of the piece scatter beyond a massive central grouping, with figures half-emerged from the sidewalk. The monument uses a visual technique of including space beyond its actual bounds, and visitors experience an eerie presence of those beneath the pavement.

Strangely, a much smaller monument down the street carries as much emotional weight. “The Little Insurgent” is a figure of a young child toting a submachine gun and wearing a captured Nazi helmet much too large for his head. One needn’t know historic particulars to understand lost childhood, tragic heroism, and a mother’s unconsoled tears.

“Mausoleum of the Martyrdom of Polish Villages”
Mirosław Nizio. Set to open in 2016.
(Michniów, Poland)

Work is progressing today on yet more memorials.  The “Mausoleum of the Martyrdom of Polish Villages” is set to open this year near Michniów. Like many modern memorials, a theme of disjointed frames and scarred walls is employed, bringing a sense of utter loss to bear. Modern glass and fresh concrete do not lessen the feeling of a world gone haywire; of unjust, collateral damage; of entire communities calling from the ground.

But there is something to a simple wall. Like Maya Lin’s scar rising out of the Mall in Washington D.C., an unassuming, brick wall in Gdańsk leaves a lasting impression on viewers strolling the grounds of the Gdańsk Post Office. This elegantly understated tribute to the defenders of the facade during the Polish uprising belies past horror. That wall, where resistance fighters were lined up and shot by SS troops, bears small, metal bricks with symbolic hand impressions. They could easily be missed as decoration. Hands were once forced to hold the wall until they fell away lifeless. But this one atrocity – even when there were so many – was not forgotten. Nor should it be, else we be condemned to repeat it.
Memorial wall at the Gdańsk Post Office Museum c. 1979. (Gdańsk, Poland)

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Widow’s Mite: What Is and Is Not

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The use of positive and negative space is important in composition. Positive space is taken up by solid forms. Negative space surrounds those forms. Both are important in the design of a piece. It is similar to music, in which the space between the notes – the silence – is as necessary as the notes themselves.
“Le denier de la veuve” (”The Widow’s Mite”)
James Tissot. c. 1890.
(Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.)

At first glance, James Tissot’s piece, “The Widow’s Mite,” uses positive and negative space as does any other painting. Tissot, however, divided the composition into two distinct planes, compounding the image. The rear plane contains most of the painting’s figures as positive space, while the wall serves as negative space. A foreground plane contains only the widow and her child as positive space. The surrounding air is negative space.

In the rear plane, Jesus Christ sits on the left while His disciples listen nearby. With theatrical flourish, a man drops his offering in the central vessel, his voluminous costume oozing importance. Beyond, other figures acknowledge that gift. But we know that the focus – compositionally and theologically – is not anywhere near that central figure.

Paintings on the theme of the Widow’s mite lean in the direction of a young widow – often with a child or children in tow. This is certainly to underscore her dire condition and thereby undercut the Pharisaical take on tithing.

The widow in this painting is oblivious to Christ's praise. After giving all her earthly wealth, she walks away into her world of poverty. Indeed, Tissot places her on a separate plane. She is off-center. She knows her condition. She is headed out of the composition, yet she is the center of it. All eyes, save those of self-importance, are on her and her child.

Christ sets the widow on a pedestal as the paragon of giving. And notice He does not chide her for sins causing her poverty. He does not mention conditional woe. He does not encourage her to go and be successful. He does not equate piety with plenty or suggest godliness is next to affluence.

Christ, who knows a thing or two about dying without a dime or the clothes on His back, also knows about Holy generosity and Spiritual riches beyond the imagining. Those who sorely seek after the riches of this world and ignore all our gracious Lord offers will sadly end up in the most negative of spaces.