Crossings: Art and Christianity Now.
9-21 March; 1 April-10 May 2018
Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire
Artists were invited to offer two consecutive works for this exhibition, which lined the walls of nave, quire aisles and chapter house of Southwell Minster. The works reflected upon the crucifixion and the resurrection, with a switch-over on Easter Eve, inviting viewers to meditate upon the crossings-over of the Holy Week experience as one action. Those particularly rooted in Christian theology sought to unite redemption and new life in one single work, with Michael Cook's Noli Me Tangere, showing Mary Magdalene entangled in thorns gradually uncovered until the figure of the risen Christ is revealed as the heavenly gardener holding secateurs ready to release her. Sophie Hacker and Jean Lamb chose the tritptych mode: Lamb's photomontage figure of the Gies Crucifixus opened through the broken body of Christ in the manner of Grunewald's Isenheim altarpiece, while Hacker's torn wooden cross opened its cupboard doors like the poet Crashaw's 'purple wardrobe' of Christ's side to reveal a lustrous Trinitarian glory. Kaori Homma made art out of suffering through her technique of fire etching in which she burned lemon juice at a fire to create images of great beauty that emerge out of a process of dissolution.
The curator, Matthew Askey's claim is that crucifixion and resurrection structure our common experience as humans, and this was certainly borne out by Paul Benny's two oils: Corpus and Tether. The former took the traditional form of a Crucifixion scene with a central Christ hanging from an invisible cross, and another two figures representing the thieves. The viewer enters the work along the left arm of the penitent thief, as if to complete the painting with his or her own body. Benney denies any specifically religious intention but refers the work back to a near-fatal accident and the subsequent period of deep reflection, so that the liturgical presentation of the theme is used to enable a participatory aesthetic. Tether shows a figure levitating, with a soft white drift of road beneath him. It is tempting to interpret this image in the light of Wittgenstein's celebrated meditation on resurrection in Culture and Value:
So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it will be 'no wonder' if you can do things that you cannot do now.
Benny's floating figure appears to be suspended from heaven in exactly this manner, as if he lived from above. The space between his form and the road seems pregnant with possibility. It is a highly liberatory image but not one of escape exactly, since a sense of relation between man and road seems still to exist. Physical and spiritual worlds seem now to coexist in a new way, which is exactly how the gospels present the resurrection life of Christ.
In this last paragraph I have begun to make sense of Benny's painting in theological terms. This is what an exhibition on this topic in a cathedral sacred setting encourages me to do, where the work is not presented in an aisle gallery but as part of the structure. I look at Thomas Hall's oil, Bluebells, and give it a religious meaning in terms of resurrection emerging out of true darkness that it may never have been intended to sustain when it was painted. By placing this work not on the cold abstract white of a gallery but the warm Mansfield stone of a cathedral, the artist opens his work to be seen iconically rather than as 'art', as both likeness and also presence, as the image before the time of secular art was understood.
Some artworks are more comfortable in their new setting than others. Enzo Marra's witty observations of spectators of religious art in galleries with their objects of gaze look doubly ironic in this context. Ray Richardson's narrow slices of masculine activity become more intense and icon-like, especially the first image of a man at the barber's, whose poised passivity and withdrawal is fully Christlike in the manner of the Jesus of the flogging scenes. Richard Meaghan's graphic private mythology with obscure rites oddly pales in the liturgical context of Holy Week.
Observing the two parts of the exhibition, it was my impression that the crucifixion experience was the easier to portray, with Lee Maelzer's broken down staircase full of the melancholy of the transience of life and Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings' Ascent beautifully articulating the formal interplay of up and down in the crucifixion scene and the deposition. Some the resurrection scenes, however, lacked a sense of the rising from the tomb and gave a generalised sense of light or positivity. Deb Covell tried really hard to connect the two events with a long gestation of The Bridge from blocks of black paint layered one by one so that eventually they could be peeled off from their backing to hang alone and effectively as representation of the journey of Christ's passion. For its resurrection embodiment, the black was chrome coated and rehung and lit. Matthew Krishanu included an off-stage crucifix in his intriguing resurrection image, Crucifix and Curtain, with a movement across the canvas from dark body to ever paler brushstrokes in the curtain, but his interest was wholly detached, so that he portrayed new life as the historical movement away from Christian themes towards abstraction.
For Christians, resurrection is also a communal reality, which is inclusive and universal. Susie Hamilton gave us two beach scenes, with crowds overcome by darkness or swirls of phosphorescent pink and violet light. The late Chris Gollon, from a sequence responding to music by Yi Yao, offered a rich fleshly resurrection life with angels, watery musicians and loving couples under the power of a dovelike Spirit in flight. Mark Cazalet's' vibrant abstract Silent Meditation spoke of a mossy resurrection of nature. 'Only love can believe the resurrection', Wittgenstein believed and this exhibition affirms his insight. It was a thought-provoking exhibition with a tension at its heart between images that could be appropriated liturgically and those that were stubbornly secular art.
Alison Milbank is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham and a trustee of A+C
Caption: Lee Maelzer, Sticks, 2016