Friday, July 29, 2016

Sawdust and The Savior

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Is not this the carpenter’s son?” Matthew 13:55

Before beginning His ministry, Jesus presumably worked in Joseph’s workshop. We aren’t told anything about it, but sons customarily learned the family trade while earning their keep. Most Biblical folks held jobs. It is natural to assume, therefore, that The Christ tired His hands while working wood in His earthly-father’s shop.
“Joseph the Carpenter”
Georges de la Tour. 1645.
(Louvre, Paris)

The theme of Jesus working in the woodshop has long been popular among artists. There are icons on the subject, masters have tinkered with the theme, and Bible storybook illustrators still relish the chance in showing Christ working with planes and saws. And hammers. And nails.

Georges de la Tour went minimal with his depiction, but perhaps the artist skimped a bit too much. Even the title of his piece, “Joseph the Carpenter,” denies Jesus – or at least ignores His presence. Still, the piece richly plays light against dark, and deeply models the figures. Joseph’s furrowed brow is lit by de la Tour’s signature light source – a single candle, held by Christ. The piece uses understated symbolism in painting Jesus as The Light of the world, although the reality is that carpenters would definitely want more light than a single candle when working with sharp tools.
“Christ in the House of His Parents”
John Everett Millais. 1849–50.
(Tate, London)

John Everett Millais took a stab with his controversial “Christ in the House of His Parents.” The Pre-Raphaelite artist took cues from earlier traditions in loading the margins with symbolism, but the scene is somewhat awkward and certainly schmaltzy. In the tableau, a young Jesus has gotten a wound from an errant nail, and Saint Anne, John the Forerunner, and the Mother of our Lord all come to the rescue of the stigmata. John, of course, looks a bit too much like Bam-Bam. Hyper-critical contemporary of Millais, Charles Dickens, raked the image of Mary over the coals as, “[An alcoholic] so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.” Ouch, Chuck!
“The Shadow of Death”
William Holman Hunt. 1873.
(Manchester Art Gallery, England)

Supposedly, William Holman Hunt’s take on Jesus in the carpenter’s shop was a much better success. I have a strong affinity for the Pre-Raphaelites. If, however, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was hung on this piece alone, I would detest them all. It is loaded with schmaltz, garish color, and an unbelievable pose. I can‘t think of a more ridiculous image of Christ on the planet. What is supposed to be Jesus’ post-sawing stretch exists solely to create the shadow of Christ on the cross. The only stretch is the contrivance itself. The image is hard to look at, and falls flat as a silly liturgical dancer. On velvet.

None of these examples show Christ as simply working at the vocation of carpenter, without visual gimmicks or contrived settings. It is worth noting that Jesus urged his disciples to be “Fishers of men,” while shying from that particular vocation Himself. He was a carpenter. Jesus probably wasn’t one so that future artists could show Him prophetically building a cross or impaling His foot on a nail. Perhaps He worked as a carpenter because the craft relies solely on using thoroughly dead material, and giving it new life and purpose as a totally different thing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Birthright Brothers

Copyright © Edward Riojas

There’s a little bit of Esau in me.

Ask my kids if I may take my shirt off at the beach and you will almost HEAR the eyes rolling. I’ve been called “Silverback,” “Sasquatch” – you name it. I know this might be too much information, but I have been marked with a unique, visual reminder of my imperfection. As if I need such a thing. Doctors have scrutinized the patch of goat-like hair on my left shoulder and have simply shrugged. It’s not my twin – it’s just me. So when the Biblical detail comes up of Jacob donning goat skin to snag a blessing from his blind father, I don’t need a great imagination. It makes total sense to me.
“Esau Selling His Birthright”
Hendrick ter Brugghen. c. 1627.
(Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Most artists, however, seem to have trouble with this one. There are no depictions of Esau with Hypertrichosis – the “Werewolf Syndrome – which might make things visually plausible. Some folks hint at a black Esau and white Jacob, stretching things to non-Biblical proportions. Most artists, however, make Jacob and Esau more identical than polar-opposite.

Hendrick ter Brugghen’s painting of “Esau Selling His Birthright” uses dramatic chiaroscuro lighting to play up the event. The painting is handsome, and vaguely smacks of Maxfield Parrish. Isaac’s boys look like any quarrelsome teens, but Esau should certainly have a head start on the facial hair-thing. He doesn’t. Neither does he have hairy arms, and it’s annoying.
“The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau”
Peter Paul Rubens. 1624.
(Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh)

An earlier example by Rubens doesn’t fair much better. His vision of the brotherly reconciliation shows older siblings who both sport copious facial hair, but apparently Esau has been getting his legs waxed at the spa. Perhaps the artist was too caught up in rendering his signature fat babies and curvaceous ladies to notice the obvious Scriptural detail.

In case our two Flemish paintings haven’t helped flesh out the Biblical account, here’s the score:

Esau was the hairy one. He was the outdoorsman – a man’s man whose every garment was probably cammo, including his loincloth. Physical strength was his strong suit. Patience, not so much.

Jacob was a mamma’s boy who knew his way around the kitchen. He also knew how to get things done – by shrewdness and cunning. Both Esau and Jacob paint a precise picture of the worst in each of us.

Woven into the story are familiar strands of fallen men who struggle with shortcomings and each other, a knowing father who is blessedly blind, reconciliation of enemies, and a blessing that reaches beyond mortality.

The account, however, isn’t simply a sad yarn of a dysfunctional family. This bit of ugliness from the Messianic line is both assuring and sobering, in knowing that The Christ descended from His royal throne into an unhealthy gene pool of a few to save us all through His death and resurrection. Through Baptism in the same, we become adopted children, enjoying the fruits of Jacob’s birthright and becoming heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Federal Project

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Various posters
created for the WPA
Federal Art Project

I always get nervous when the Federal government decides to get involved in my life. I get even more nervous when the intrusion involves art.

There are plenty of federally-funded arts programs kicking around today. If an artist feels the need to get help, say, in a public project involving education and art, chances are there are funds lurking behind a ream of paperwork to make the idea a reality. Of course, chances are you will also be forced to be inclusive to a fault, and be supportive of ideologies and agendas that would otherwise annoy the heck out of you. That’s Federal government for you.

Once upon a time, however, there was a massive project created by Uncle Sam to shore up the art community when buying bread was trouble enough, let alone considering art for the wall. During the Great Depression, the WPA created the Federal Art Project. The program ran from 1935-1943. Its uncreative, monochromatic title hid behind it a godsend for approximately 10,000 artists and artisans across the U.S., providing them with work, commissions, and the encouragement that someone actually cared for their interests during the leanest of times.

In spite of the program being designed by the Federal government, there were very few strings attached. There was no stipulation on style or approach. Abstract art, though not yet economically attractive to most artists, and therefore somewhat rare, was as permissible as representational art. Browsing through examples from the project, it’s easy to see influence from the Arts and Crafts movement, regionalists, ala Thomas Hart Benton, and even Mexican muralists.

Where did this artwork find itself? Everywhere. School hallways suddenly sprouted murals, painted by funded artists. Zoo posters, travel posters, health posters all showcased the talent of project artists. Pieces destined for government spaces were created by the same.

The project employed so many artists that some familiar, artsy-fartsy names ended up on the roster years before they made names for themselves. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Joseph Stella, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson, and even, hmm, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera all benefited from the Federal Art Project. That's Federal government for you.

For my part, I enjoy the flavor of pieces that had little to do with future movers and shakers in the art world. The pieces were created during a time that was less hip and more Howdy Doody in spirit, and that is what makes the artwork so genuine and charming. Then again, perhaps the “retro” label will make them even more attractive than they already are.

“The Bauxite Mines” Mural by Julius Woeltz. 1942. (U.S. Post Office, Benton, Arkansas)

Friday, July 8, 2016

Painting the Face of God

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Sometimes sacred artists are at a serious disadvantage.

Painting a face is work enough. Some art students avoid modeling the human face on paper and canvas as if it were The Plague. Mastering the properties of light and applying them to the nuances of a likeness takes years of education and practice. Sometimes even that much doesn’t help.

But what of the face of Christ? What kind of a challenge is that?

Sure, He is a man in every sense, so it follows that the same approach to recreating a visage of the average man can be applied in like manner to our Savior. Jesus Christ, however, is also true God in every sense, and therein lies the challenge.
“The King of Kings Chancel Piece”
(In progress) Edward Riojas.

Someone recently asked me of one of my sacred pieces, “Where is the light source?” A simple enough question. Whether the person was genuinely unclear or whether they were trying to find fault and increase their own artistic superiority, the question got me thinking – and not about getting more art credits under my belt.

How does one paint the face of God? The same that once killed stupid folks in a fleeting glance is now often what I stare at for hours at a time. How can the principals of light and shadow be applied to the Creator of those same principles? How can one come even remotely close to representing the visage of He who is Light of Light; He who shines with uncreated light; He in whom there is no shadow of turning; He who is the Light of the world?

Self-preservation can be a useful thing. Otherwise, I might go mad being consumed by the enormity and impossibility of portraying an infinite, multi-dimensional Christ and confining Him on a finite, two-dimensional surface. I would die the same death of Old Testament unfortunates when faced with the face of God.

Yet The Lord is gracious. I am not destroyed; He preserves me. The miracle – beyond being preserved by the Lord – is that He gently guides my hands with His own, even without my knowledge, to show what I otherwise cannot, and by it reminds those who view my work that His face is infinitely worth the seeking.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Art from the Front

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Muirhead Bone (Scottish)
1918. (Imperial War Museum

Another Fourth of July. For a lot of people that means carcinogenic tube-steaks on the grill, Chinese pyrotechnics, and complaining about the lack of sleep after a long weekend. It’s so ’Mer’can, isn’t it?

For those citizens with more than half a brain, however, the national holiday is an opportunity to reflect on our freedoms, and the high cost of having and preserving them. Today, I take a look at art from the front lines. No, not the edgy, artsy-fartsy crap that raises the hackles of regular folks – I’m talking about combat art.

Creating “plein air” art is again a trendy thing. Capturing the essence of an outdoor scene without overworking it draws heavily on the gestural and impressionistic side of an artist’s noggin. If that seems like lots of fun, then try it with bullets whizzing by your head, thump-thump-thumping of guns in the distance, and adrenaline pounding in your veins.
“March Macabre”
Kerr Eby (Canadian) c. 1943.
(U.S. Navy Combat Art Collection)

Combat artists have brought the reality of war to life for so long that the tradition of drawing on front lines surpassed photography’s introduction. Initial drawings done on the line are sometimes re-worked into well-developed pieces, but what I admire most about combat art is the gestural feel in much of it. Even when artistic ability is lacking, respect must be paid those who are able record a moment of hellish history which words could not otherwise convey.

The ranks of combat artists, which are long indeed, have included some notable names. John Trumbull, Winslow Homer, Thomas Nast, and John Singer Sargent, among others, gained fame of a different sort after their tours of duty. The artists also come from many nations, including those who were historically our enemies.
“GIs caught in a flare on a snowy road...”
Howard Brodie (American) 1945.

The pieces I’ve included here caught my attention on artistic merit alone – the quality of line; the handling of color; the sensitivity of subject – but it is the subject in combat art that always trumps presentation. The rawness of feeling, the disjointed context of place, and the drain on the human spirit better help us understand the cost of our freedoms and what it has taken – and still takes – to preserve them.

“Landing Zone”
John O. Wehrle (American)1966. (National Museum of the U.S. Army)