Friday, September 30, 2016

Getting Grumpy Over Avant Garde

The main gallery space at Kendall College's ArtPrize venue.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The docent on duty handed me a slick, tri-fold brochure explaining the exhibit. Instinctively, I held it in my hand without opening it. The brochure was ballast for an artist intent on looking at art.

The long hallway heading into the bowels of the Kendall College gallery space was a disappointment, with little more than small, “Artifacts from the Future” evenly placed on a long, white shelf. The future looked boring.

The first room – a main gallery space – was equally-uninspired. At one end of it, a small group of people feverishly worked at sewing machines, occasionally piling their completed efforts in a corner. At the opposite end of the gallery, a projected image of constantly-moving icons showed progress of objects, in real time, via social media. No one told them social media-supported art was so two minutes ago – and has been for five years. Between the two installations was another comprised of white tumors crawling up the wall and onto the ceiling. Snore.

A second, smaller room was hung with objects. None grabbed my attention. The drone of a video loop playing somewhere could barely be heard above the ambient noise. A docent wondered aloud if the volume should be boosted a bit.

A third room held plants and growing apparatus. Some of the plants – ornamental kale – sang and nodded their heads. A white-frocked lab technician stood awkwardly at a counter devoid of anything interesting.

The last room was hung with percussion instruments, each fitted with electro-mechanical devices to play, in turn, a chaotic string of noise. More droning.

It took me less than three minutes to scan the stately ArtPrize venue, and I was not impressed. At all. Nothing stood out as visually-captivating or cerebrally-relevant. It was avant garde at its worst.

I get grumpy when others try to play games with art. It’s called the VISUAL arts, and no brochure; no tastefully-placed artist statement; no rambling discussion by an artist can do what the art itself should do. In the end, I don’t really care about the watershed experience or the traumatic background or the connectivity to the world at large. I don’t want any artist to tell me about their work. I want them to SHOW me; I want their work to speak for itself.

Most every artist wants, in some way, to be on the cutting edge. Recent art school graduates want it the most, and credential-toting high brows tell us that new eyes are the promising stars of art.  They are, we are told, the advance guard. Few – very few – are actually that. The blessed actually use their young noggins and raw talent to push their own boundaries, excelling in the process and creating a passion for their work. That sort of recipe is obvious when the results are placed on the table for all to enjoy.

But there are those who ride along on the shirttails of greater minds, and masquerade as esoteric avant-garde. They are no advance guard. They do not pave the way with promise; they only jettison flotsam and jetsam of ill-conceived art, allowing it to grow as singing, ornamental kale; as illogically-placed tailors; as uninspired video loops in the galleries of our time.

Friday, September 23, 2016

ArtPrize 2016: Pieces To Watch (Or Not)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I get hopeful every year that ArtPrize comes around. No, not that I’ll win the big prize. Neither do I put much hope in selling my piece, although that would be splendid. What I do hope is that this year will be much better than the last; that entries worthy of praise will actually get praise; that thoughtful, well-executed pieces will rise above the mundane and pedestrian and hideous.

For the uninitiated, ArtPrize is the largest open art competition in the world. Its prize purse dwarfs all other art competitions across the globe. As a competition, it’s still wearing diapers, and as such it can be as beautiful or stinky as can be. For a more in-depth explanation of the contest, you might consider one of my posts from a previous year. Suffice it to say, it’s hard to ignore the scope of this extravaganza.

I will try to refrain from my usual harsh diatribes about which [stupid] piece is getting the most votes, or which [anal-retentive] venue is promoting what [ghastly] piece. I simply won’t do it. What I will do, instead, is give you a sampling of this year’s pieces to watch. They won’t necessarily be anywhere on my list of favorites. They might not be prize-winning material, but they all have an ingredient or two that makes them “different.”

Pieces to watch (or not)
“A Walk in the Woods” by Armin Mersmann, showing at DeVos Place Convention Center.
This large drawing of a gnarled tree has the ingredients – size and massive amounts of labor – necessary to win a prize. Never mind the fact that the tree itself is in serious need of a chainsaw manicure.

“These Days of Maiuma” by Robert ParkeHarrison, showing at the GRAM
I only picked this one because it shows the state of the arts – and that saddens me. The artist’s statement is unending ramble of verbal vomit, which apparently justifies the large, but irrelevant, photo of a pile of crap.

“Wars and Rumors of Wars” by Eric Dickson, showing at the UICA.
Installations like this intrigue me, but the sound and video systems must be spot-on to make it work. I have a feeling it will be far more creepy than eye-opening, which might be a plus for the subject.
“One Thousand Shacks”
Tracy Snelling.

“One Thousand Shacks” by Tracy Snelling, showing at the UICA.
Scale is so important for sculptural pieces. This one will make an impression on viewers. Plus, the artist didn’t skimp on detail. Its only downfall is that strong visual interest might detract from any intended social statement.

“250 prepared ac-motors, 325kg roof laths, 1.0km rope” by Zimoun, hosted by SiTE:LAB’s Rumsey St. Project.
Finally! SiTE:LAB has sorely disappointed me for years by bending rules to the breaking point and then showing little for their efforts, but this particular entry looks fantastic. Yes it’s weird, but what’s not to like about all that electrical/mechanical stuff doing its “thing” within the confines of elegant simplicity?

“Wounded Warrior Dogs” by James Mellick, showing at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
Sculpturally, a standing dog looking straight ahead is as boring as H-E-hockey sticks, but never mind basic principals of art. This entry pulls at the right heartstrings – wounded dogs, American heroes and fine woodworking. Just watch the votes pile up for Fido.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Visual Stinkers

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Woodcut for Luther’s tract against the Papacy.
Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1521.

Maybe it’s the German-thing. Maybe it’s nailing a bunch of points of debate on a church door that does it. Whatever the case, Lutherans have a history of being stinkers inside and outside the sanctuary doors. In many cases, stubborn points were driven home with visuals.

An early printed example of this is a Lutheran tract against the papacy illustrated by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach showed Christ, on the one hand, clearing the money changers’ tables, but he didn‘t pull any punches with his other hand when showing the Pope collecting money for indulgeances. And if the viewer didn’t make the connection, a label of “Antichristi” was put in smallish text above the Pope. Nice. Another woodcut gracing the cover of a 1545 tract shows an enthroned Pope teetering over the jaws of Hell.
Cover woodcut for Luther tract.

Lutherans have taken umbrage with more than just the papacy. They had no qualms in protesting against Protestants when doctrine came into question. When those who insisted the Eucharist contained mere symbols of Christ’s blood and the wine, therefore, should be red, Lutherans immediately changed to white wine to show it was not a mere symbol. Many still use white wine exclusively. In like manner, Lutheran pastors stopped breaking the Host in view of the congregation, reacting to Calvinists who conspicuously broke the Host as a demonstration that the bread could not possibly be the body of Christ because “Not one of His bones was broken.” Whatever.

There have been instances, however, when most of Christendom managed to get on the same visual page. Not long ago, Muslim radicals in Syria decided to push a few persecution buttons and painted the Arabic letter “N” on homes of Christians. It is shorthand for “Nasara,” a defamatory Arabic word applied to Christians. It had the same effect on Christians living in Syria as small, yellow stars did for Jews living in WWII Germany. No sooner did word of it hit the newsstands when half the Christian populace of Facebook adopted the symbol as profile photos. It has become a symbol of solidarity, and a not-so-subtle thumbing of noses toward what Luther called “The Turk.”
Islamic “N” symbol
used to identify Christians.

Looking at the larger picture, there may very well come a time when visually displaying our Faith becomes taboo. It is already so in Islamic countries and, given our own country’s penchant for not wanting to offend anyone, laws regarding public display of the cross might one day be underwritten by government policy. (Oops, too late.) And if hiding the cross ever becomes mandated across the board, then the call to make a big stink will be deafening. Forget pain. I will be one of the first in line for the biggest possible cross tattoo – saving room, of course, for tattoos of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, the entire contents of the Book of Concord, the Unaltered...

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Rose by Another Name

Copyright © Edward Riojas
An early woodcut of Luther’s Rose
that includes the reformer’s initials

Luther’s Seal has come down to us as a time-honored emblem of Lutheran identity. For nearly 500 years, it has shown up in publications, on school walls, church banners, jewelry, and seemingly every nook and cranny of the denomination’s existence. It is who we are. And it is old.

Perhaps it is too old. After a while, folks become immune to its significance and ignorant of its meaning. Consider this, therefore, a refresher course in the symbolism of Luther’s Seal, otherwise known as Luther’s Rose.

Martin Luther didn’t have the benefit of a multi-billion dollar agency specializing in corporate identity branding to develop a logo. There were no focus groups or test markets. The reformer only had his wits, a designer friend, and a knowledge of heraldry.
This artist’s interpretation of the early
woodcut, produced for a lectionary
series, available at

Being one to keenly recognize the finer differences between tradition and truth, Luther didn’t totally ignore visual traditions of the day. Family coats of arms – identifiers on the battlefield – had been in use for generations, and were not only emblazoned on ‘team uniforms,’ but were also used as visual proof of ancestral lineage. There were countless, individual heraldic images, but it was the combination and permutation of those individual images that meant something.

From 1461 to 1485, Edward IV wore as his badge the White Rose of York, known then as the royal rose. After the War of the Roses, the Tudor Rose came into prominence, with its combination of a red Lancaster rose superimposed by the white York rose. Luther certainly knew of these heraldic devices, and borrowed the white rose for his seal.

In a letter to Lazarus Spengler, who apparently designed the seal in the first place at the request of John Frederik of Saxony, Luther explained, “[It] places the believer into a white, joyous rose, for this faith does not give peace and joy like the world gives (John 14:27). That is why the rose should be white and not red, for white is the color of the spirits and the angels.”
A contemporary version
painted on wood by Tanya Nevin,
available from the artist at
or through

The white rose, however, is not central to Luther’s Seal – the cross is. A black cross “Mortifies and ... should also cause pain.” Luther’s explanation here uses the older meaning of “mortify” – the cross does not embarrass us, but instead subdues the old Adam and subjugates us to our Father’s Will.

It is curious that the heart on which the cross is placed was originally closer in shape to a natural organ and not of the schmaltzy, Valentine variety. Luther emphasized this in his choice of color: “[The black cross] leaves the heart in its natural color. It does not corrupt nature, that is, it does not kill but keeps alive. "The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17) but by faith in the crucified.” Thus, the heart represents a beating one.

Luther placed his rose on a field of blue, signifying “That such joy in spirit and faith is a beginning of the heavenly future joy, which begins already, but is grasped in hope, not yet revealed.” We look not simply at the blue sky, but at what lies beyond.

The reformer then encircled the whole with “A golden ring, symbolizing that such blessedness in Heaven lasts forever and has no end. Such blessedness is exquisite, beyond all joy and goods, just as gold is the most valuable, most precious and best metal.”

It is well that Luther’s letter to Spengler laid out the meaning of his own symbol as a theological one that “Hit the mark.” Luther’s application of color even side-stepped the traditional meaning of heraldic tinctures and pressed them into use to his own advantage. In doing so, he made a profound statement through what he referred to as his “Compendium theologiae.” While contemporary devices claimed lineage through sometimes-questionable ancestry, Luther claimed sonship in Christ through The Savior’s Redemptive act, and adoption into the royal family of God. By Grace, we [still] do the same.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Peace on the Edge

"Fridur" (Peace), is this year's ArtPrize entry by Edward Riojas.

Copyright © Edward Riojas

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Never was there such a fallacy; never was there such heresy wrapped up in so much warmth and fuzziness. As impressionable youth, we sang it while swaying, arm in arm, around campfires after the spiritless Kumbaya left us wanting. Perhaps we didn’t yet realize that the only thing that begins with me is discord and strife and war.

Though we fret over it and yearn for it, we will never have the absence of war this side of Paradise. Christ prophesied that there would be wars and rumors of wars when the end was near. What we often fail to realize is that the end – compared to eternity – has always been near.

Peace, indeed, is an elusive thing. Perhaps that is why I chose “Peace” as a theme for this year’s entry for ArtPrize.

At first blush, my painting, “Fridur,” is about anything but peace. Visiting another theme from recent years, this painting again uses trolls. They aren’t quite as folkloric as in entries of years past; they are nasty, quarrelsome and itching for a fight. The trolls are a thinly-veiled metaphor for humankind. “Why can’t we all get along” is not in their repertoire.

A major focal point in the composition has nothing to do with any of the figures – it is a single crocus poking out of the snow. That flower is a metaphor for earthly peace. It is fragile. It is fleeting, and it will surely die. The opposing powers stop to consider this delicate symbol of hope.

Thankfully, there is a different peace than what this world has to offer, and that is where “Fridur” – the Icelandic word for “Peace” – turns on its edge. Framing the painting and embracing it is an ancient prayer of the Church, dating from as early as the 5th century and translated into Icelandic:

“O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.”

The God-given wisdom of ancient Church fathers is evident in this “Collect for Peace.” It doesn’t hope in anything this world has to offer; it doesn’t hope in mutual understanding between peoples; it doesn’t hope in ‘peace beginning with me.’ It DOES hope in a much different kind of Peace – one which the world cannot give – and that is the Peace that passes all human understanding; the Peace of obtaining heaven already through the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior; the Peace no army can conquer.

May this peace – the one that began with Him – be ours.

ArtPrize 2016 opens Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 9. This year, 1,453 entries will be hosted at 171 venues in and near downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. It boasts a prize purse of more than $500,000 decided by popular vote and jurors. Riojas's "Fridur" will be hosted by Fifth Third Bank/Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, 111 Lyon St. NW. The voting number for "Fridur" is 62683. Voting may be done online at, but registration must first be done in person at designated ArtPrize sites in Grand Rapids.

To order giclee prints of "Fridur," please go to for more information, or contact the artist at