Daniel Donovan |
A Walk Through The Collection: Some Highlights
[from Signs of the Spirit: The Donovan Collection at St. Michael's College,
University of Toronto 2001.]
The following essay is conceived as an accompaniment to a viewing of the collection, much in the way that I talk about it with visitors to Odette Hall.
The first work in the collection that most people encounter is a cast bronze and steel sculpture by John McEwen, Rock and Body. The body is an angel, and the rock a gently rising mountain range reminiscent of Giotto. From certain angles, the angel's dramatically extended wing suggests that he has just alighted. He gazes down from his high perch unto the world. I think of him as the recording angel. Even in a secular culture, the angel, especially one as rugged as McEwen's, remains capable of evoking a sense of mystery, a sense even of providence.
Nearby is a photograph of the exterior of a stained-glass window by Luis Mallo. Beneath a partially broken, protective sheet of glass and a wire mesh is a Mary figure from a Lamentation scene. The fact that the viewer has to make a real effort to discern the image makes the work a key to how the whole collection should be approached.
Reinhard Reitzenstein's computer-generated video image stands out because of its unusual circular shape. It depicts a man apparently leaning against a tree. I first saw the piece in a show whose main work was a large bronze tree spread across the floor of the gallery. It symbolized the artist's mother who had recently died. On the walls were a series of similarly shaped works all including images of trees and all based on stills from films. I was attracted to this particular one because it seemed to suggest both vulnerability and hope. It is from a film by the Russian director Tarkovsky entitled The Sacrifice. As the film begins, an academic tells his son a story about a Russian monk who planted a dead tree and watered it every day for three years; the tree came back to life. The image in Reitzenstein's work shows the man planting a dead tree.
As the film unfolds, a nuclear war breaks out and the man tries everything in order to make it not have happened. In the end he succeeds, but to do so, he must sacrifice himself. He is taken away as if insane. In the final scene the boy waters the tree and then lies down under it. As he looks up, the leaves are already shimmering in the sun. He asks: 'What does it mean to say, in the beginning was the word?'
Opposite the Reitzenstein is the image of another tree. It is a watercolour by John Clark. A red tree is on the verge of being transformed into wings. Beneath it a figure shakes and huddles and is clearly frightened in the face of what is happening, Clark painted the work just a few months before he learned he was dying from cancer. I cannot help but think that he was intuitively aware of the radical transformation that was about to confront him.
Much of Sorel Cohen's work is photo-based. Sometimes, as in the case of Gothic Lament, the photos are of earlier works of art. The Christ figure lying on its side under a photograph from the 20s or 30s of the Brooklyn Bridge is from one of the most influential works of European religious art, the Isenheim altar of Matthias Grünewald. His portrayal of the crucifixion with its explicit, almost grotesque, depiction of the suffering Christ represents an appropriation of an earlier artistic form into the changed conditions of late medieval northern Europe. Originally the symbol of the cross was used without a body on it. The crucifixions associated with the Franciscan revival in Italy in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries portrayed an alive Christ gazing at the devout person with love and tenderness. In the north, in the face of plagues and other natural disasters, people portrayed the crucified one undergoing unspeakable torment. They wanted to show that no matter how much they were suffering, he had suffered even more and by doing so had made their suffering bearable.
By juxtaposing the Christ of Grünewald with a somewhat dark and threatening image of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan, the work continues the process of appropriation by bringing the traditional image into relationship with the suffering of modernity and of modem industrial society. Some see Christ here being crushed by the weight of the city above him. For others the juxtaposition of images affirms his sustaining but hidden presence in a secular world. The obvious formal parallel between the bridge and the lying figure evokes the priestly, bridge-building, character of Christ's death. Hart Crane in a poem on the Brooklyn Bridge speaks of it as an altar of sacrifice.
The common room houses a number of works including a quiet but eloquent grouping against its south wall. In the centre between the two windows is Ted Rettig's Contemplative Figure. Above it is a painting of a Mexican crucifix by John Hall, a Canadian now living in Mexico, and on either side of the windows two bronzes by Rettig, one a star of David and the other a somewhat stylized cross and circle. Rettig's cross-shaped standing figure is deeply rooted and very much at peace. The almond-shaped hollowing out of the chest area creates a sense of expectant emptiness.
In front of the wall and hanging opposite one another are two sentinel-like portraits by Harold Klunder and John Brown. Reminiscent of the work of Georges Rouault, Klunder's Portrait Study echoes one of the great themes of western religious art, the Ecce homo. In the story of the passion, Pilate-presents the scourged and beaten Christ to the people with the words, 'Behold the man.' While evocative of that tradition, Klunder's painting is more universal: 'Behold humanity.'
The face in Brown's painting is less immediately discernible but every bit as intense and mysterious. From a series entitled 12 Attempts to Paint a Human Face, it seems to question the very possibility of doing so. Is it suggesting that in our culture there is nothing there to paint or could it be saying that it is impossible truly to paint a face, truly to capture in paint the mystery of an individual?
There are two paintings nearby by John Hartman, Pietà and Redeemer and Child. A landscape painter in an expressionist manner who often includes figures and stories in his landscapes, Hartman has painted a number of works with explicit religious imagery. The large yellow crucified figure in Redeemer and Child is at first glance all but invisible. Once, however, it and the small white outline of a child on the lower right are recognized, it is impossible not to see them. The image of Mary and the dead Christ in Pietà floats in the sky. At the centre of the painting is a crucified figure. Other figures seem to haunt the lower right hand corner of the painting. The multiplication of images is evocative of medieval practices and of Eastern icons. Klunder's painting on burlap, entitled Convergence, also has something of an icon about it. The three figures to the left are in a relationship of communion with one another; the one on the right laments his isolation from them.
The largest work in the room is a dark but dramatic painting by Leopold Plotek entitled Akedah (The Sacrifice of Isaac). Its most obvious figurative element is a hand reaching into the painting from the upper left. One senses more than sees it staying the plunging by Abraham of the knife of sacrifice into his beloved son. Isaac leans against an altar, his arms outstretched in an unconscious reference to the crucifixion. The slash of turquoise beneath one arm suggests the sky and the space that opens up behind him a valley. Hovering over the scene is a bird-like presence, a traditional image of the Spirit. It is a serious painting, but stirring and life affirming in its emotional power.
Directly opposite the common room on a recessed wall is a large mixed media work on paper by Roland Poulin entitled Seuils (Threshold). Some time before buying it, I had seen a sculpture by Poulin involving a freestanding cross, one side of the crossbeam of which was like a tree. On the floor in front of it was a tomb of piled plywood some five feet long, twenty inches wide and four or five inches deep. There were three steps into it at one end. I talked with the artist about the obvious symbolism of death and life, of a going down into the tomb and a coming up out of it I mentioned the baptismal fonts of early Christianity with their steps on either side suggesting a going down into death to self and sin and a rising up to a new life. This kind of symbolism led to the fonts being described as both tombs and wombs.
When I first saw Seuils, Poulin said that as he was working on it he thought of my remark about tombs and wombs. In fact the piece has steps on the right hand side and an abstracted figure ascending on the left. The use of graphite gives an overall feeling of water. The broken pieces of wood are like echoes of the cross.
The theme of the cross is also suggested by Barbara Steinman's Of a Place, Solitary / Of a Sound Mute. A diptych, the photo on the right shows a fully extended arm reaching, vulnerably, longingly, out of the surrounding darkness. On the left is a close-up of the skin. Etched into the back of the glass covering it is a number evocative of the Holocaust and more generally of concentration camps. The fact that it is etched into the glass universalizes the work. My photograph could replace the one that is there and the number would remain.
At the end of the hallway is a small gallery-like space, evocative of a meditation room. In opposite corners are two limestone works by Ted Rettig. One sits on the floor like a large seed or melon. The marks on it are like the pattern that waves create on a sandy beach. It is peaceful and radiant and has a calming and focusing effect not unlike that of a Zen garden. The other sculpture is Cave of the Heart. The phrase is a Hindu mystical phrase suggesting the centre of our being where we experience both emptiness and fullness. The carved out cave draws the viewer into it. A cross and circle on its floor add a reference to the tomb of Christ. The outer skin is covered with flower shapes that suggest both Hindu luxuriance and the biblical tree of life.
The large painting by Leopold Plotek is entitled Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death. As the title of an Easter cantata of Bach, the phrase suggests not death but life. While listening to the music Plotek was moved to try to paint life overcoming death. At the top of the painting is a suggestion of the top of the tomb. At its centre is the body. Hovering just above the head is a ghost-like figure, blowing on it the breath of life. On an adjacent wall is a Regan Morris painting that has a similar emotional impact. Its light coloured surface is marked by cracks through which emerges a radiant light. Here, too, life seems to be overcoming death. The painting holds its own against its much larger and darker neighbour and echoes and reflects the radiance of the two limestone sculptures.
Opposite the Plotek painting is a print of Poulin's entitled Source noire, dark source or spring. The image is that of a cross and a tree more or less interwoven. The black of the cross is softened by a deep blue that reaches down below the horizon line created by the use of two plates. Next to the Poulin is a wood sculpture by Ron Shuebrook. He once described this piece as being inspired by an experience he had going down the stairs in the Fogg Museum at Harvard. He came across a niche that might have contained a saint or an angel but which was empty. With tongue somewhat in cheek, he added that he was not a religious person but wanted to be. That is what I see in the work. The niche is closed but not fully closed. The opening down its centre with its broadening out at the base is painted a deep blue, a colour described by Kandinsky as the spiritual colour; it is the same shade of blue as in the Poulin print.
In the stairwell at the first floor landing are two unusual but remarkably complementary works. The one by Lynn Donoghue entitled Veil, is composed of two superimposed sheets of Mylar, the back one of which is painted dark blue with a flame-like shape of deep red and is based on a detail of a painting of the pregnant Mary by the fifteenth-century master, Piero della Francesca. The top sheet is clear with the exception of a pair of hands holding a veil. It is based on a fifteenth-century Dutch altarpiece, Veronica's Veil. There was a medieval legend about a woman named Veronica who met Jesus on the way to his death and wiped his face with her veil. An image of his bloodstained and battered face was left on it. In juxtaposing the two images, Donoghue has brought together the stories of Christ's birth and death. By painting the white shape on Mary's dress red, she makes it easier for the viewer to relate it to the theme of suffering and death. It now evokes the wound made by the soldier's lance from which, according to John's Gospel, water and blood flowed. Early Christians read this symbolically as a reference to baptism and the Eucharist and concluded that the church was born from the side of Christ. In the medieval period monks and women mystics called Jesus mother because through his suffering on the cross he gave birth to us.
The Ed Zelenak piece opposite the Donoghue seems to echo her imagery. Zelenak is an artist who talks about art as a spiritual quest. Favourite symbols of his include the divining rod, water and variously shaped containers for water. Here the divining rods look suspiciously like northern European Y crosses and the amphora to which they are affixed provides a receptacle for the symbolic liquid evoked by Donoghue's piece.
On the ground floor are a number of works by John Hartman including a large watercolour, Garden / Pietà. Many, hearing 'Pietà', think of Michelangelo's youthful and almost too beautiful sculpture at the Vatican. Hartman's renditions are more evocative of the northern European tradition. There the Mary figures are often women who have lived and suffered and know something about the terrible loss a mother feels on the death of a child. Hartman does not isolate his religious images but plunges them into the midst of life. That is particularly the case here with the wide range of figures that the work contains. At the lower left is the artist himself with his brushes and palette. Another Hartman, this time a pastel, comes with a touching story. Echoing the art of Chagall, it reveals the painter at his narrative best. John lives in Lafontaine, a French Canadian farming community near Pennetang, Ontario. Some years ago he became friends with a local folk artist, Gilbert Derochers, and was able to arrange a show for him at the McMichael Gallery. Unfortunately, Gilbert died before it took place. A year later, John produced a series of paintings about Gilbert including this Study for Burial in Perkinsfield. The landscape reflects the Georgian Bay, Pennetang area. In the foreground is the small French Canadian church at Perkinsfield. The coffin is being carried to the neighbouring cemetery. What really matters, however, is what is taking place in the sky. On the left, with arm upraised, Gilbert is going up to heaven with a statue he had made of God. The central image suggests a Michelangeloesque divinity. On the right, against a deep blue background, stands a female figure. Gilbert had once told John that he had been asked to paint the statue on the roof of the church of St. Anne in Pennetang. Before doing so, he had sat in her lap. Surely, John thought, she would have been there to greet him.
The ground floor meeting room contains several works including the two Steinhardt woodcuts already mentioned. There are also two drawings by Roland Poulin, including the first work of his that I acquired. I knew him at the time primarily as a sculptor. At first glance the large dark image is vaguely evocative of an open grand piano or even of an airplane. It made me think of his coffin-like sculptures, which I tended to read as human presences. Against this background, I saw the image as a coffin and therefore as a human figure, a figure passing from darkness into light. Only then did I see the title: Noche oscura (à saint Jean de la Croix), 'Dark night (homage to St. John of the Cross)'. A sixteenth-century Spanish poet and mystic, John coined the phrase the dark night of the soul. It is only through obscure and dark and terrible purgations, the saint believed, that the mystic comes to the joy and peace of union with the divine.
The room also contains four works by Tony Urquhart, including an exquisitely patinated bronze. The door of its title is like the entrance to a tomb, in front of which is a rock; above both is a shining gilded half shell suggesting the special nature of what is unfolding within. The piece is evocative of the resurrection as is another of Urquhart's works, a painted panel entitled Threshold, Yellow-Orange. I saw this for the first time in a show that featured a series of fourteen small abstract paintings identified as Stations of the Cross. It also included two or three images of an open tomb that to me seemed too literal. Threshold pointed to the resurrection, threshold into glory. The ladder in it was a recurring motif running through the stations.
Opposite the meeting room is a painting by Greg Murdock, Amphora III, which I read immediately as a religious painting and asked Murdock what it was about. He related it to the church of San Clemente in Rome, a twelfth-century church under which is a fourth-century church and under that a first-century temple of Mithra. 'In this painting,' he said, 'I tried to express my emotional reaction to being in that place.'
There are two works on paper facing one another in the corridor which are stylistically very different but which in content are surprisingly similar. Doug Stone's mixed media drawing comes from his Cy Twombly series. Although much of the writing is indecipherable, one can make out the phrase that gives the work its title: Death Full of Possibilities. Although initially I wondered whether Doug, who at the time was facing a serious illness, was referring to the possibility of life after death, it soon occurred to me that what he probably was thinking of were the possibilities that open up for life when one truly confronts death.
The other piece by Ron Shuebrook is an abstract drawing that includes within itself a record of a part at least of the process by which the work's final state was achieved. The whiteouts reveal the difficulty of arriving at what seems to be so simple and self-evident. In an article on his work Shuebrook spoke of Heidegger and of authenticity. According to the German philosopher, the fundamental and determining fact about human life is that it is unto death. We can deny this truth or repress it or run away from it, but it always remains the case. If we confront it honestly we have at least the possibility of becoming authentic. Here Stone and Shuebrook echo one another.
The suite of nine small paintings by Gathie Falk, entitled Development of the Plot IV, is one of four variations on the same theme. The largest includes titles for the individual panels. The narrative is about the transformative power of art. The ziggurat-like stage and the chairs suggest Gathie's early performance art. The arms with light bulbs that appear and are multiplied in succeeding panels point to the power of the stage. The figure that enters the painting from the top right hand corner and gradually moves to the foreground could have stepped out of the business section of one of our national dailies. The final two panels bring the narrative to a climax and conclusion. The bulbs break loose from the arms, surround the figure and in the final painting, entitled Transformation, become flames of fire. Real art, the work suggests, has a capacity to touch and transform even the archetypal businessman if he comes too close.
Although this was my initial reading of the work, I could not help but wonder whether there might be a further and more explicitly religious meaning to it. Gathie is a Mennonite, and her work often mediates a spiritual presence. The final panel suggested that this might be the case here. The flames are like tongues of fire, an image familiar from the New Testament account of Pentecost with its gift of the Spirit. The last two panels suggest that transformation involves two factors: the illumination of the mind through the Word, and the warming and purifying of the heart through the Spirit. Starting here, the ziggurat stage becomes an altar and the arms with their bulbs are reminiscent of angels holding candles beside baroque altars. The fifth panel is strangely evocative of the burning bush. Given the overall theme of transformation, the mountain peaks in the first two panels are like the cloud out of which the voice of God comes in the story of the transfiguration. When I questioned Gathie about this, she said that the mountains are the twin peaks that she sees outside her window but added that when people are ill or when she is worried about them, that is where she puts them. Of my overall interpretation, she said: 'Serendipitous.'
There is a grouping of five works further down the corridor that constitutes a unit. The group began with, and is anchored in, a suite of four silver prints by Simon Glass. They are archival photos of the Holocaust. Dark and covered with non-glare glass, they only reveal their content to those who look closely at them. Each is lightened up, not painted over, in the form of a Hebrew letter. One can see the body parts through the letter more clearly than elsewhere. The letters spell YHWH, the Hebrew name for God.
The work is both strong and challenging. It is open to a variety of meanings. The name YHWH contains a promise of presence. Where was he in the midst of such terrible suffering, such all-pervasive death? Is this what the work is asking? Or is it an affirmation that God is with the dead or that the dead are with God? Having acquired the work, I decided to install next to it a charcoal drawing given me by Ted Rettig when he was still a student. It is a cross, a totally unpretentious and vulnerable evocation of the drama of suffering and death. For Christians the work raises some of the same questions raised by Glass's piece, questions about God and human suffering, God and death. Having installed these two works, I recalled a triptych that I had seen earlier by Sarah Nind. On orthofilm, it involves both photography and painting. The reaching hands and the candle evoke a prayer, a longing, and a sense of hope. Its formal qualities, as well as its content, make it a perfect companion to the other two pieces.
When these works were being installed, a related piece by Michael Amar became available. Someone had given him a book on the stations of the cross and he found its meditation on suffering so poignant that he produced a series of 14 pairs of lead squares entitled Stations. He did not attempt to recount the narrative but rather in each pair reflected on the same basic theme: human suffering and the response to it of Judaism and Christianity, as well of modernity with its promise of salvation through science and technology.
A photo silkscreen by Claudia Sbrissa completes the grouping. One of a series of ten such works dealing with the theme of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is about the resurrection. It shows the upper part of a male body, the shroud, the palm of a hand turned toward us and another hand preparing for a blessing. Above the photo is a phrase from Italo Calvino, a phrase that captures perfectly the relation of this affirmation of life to the themes of suffering and holocaust, of cross and prayer: 'And / I am dumbfounded.'
The two photo works by Dianne Bos and Christine Davis are indicative of how traditional religious imagery can surface in a secular culture in surprising ways. Dianne Bos's colour pinhole photograph is of the statue of Mary that stands in front of the Church of Our Lady in Guelph. Christine Davis's Cleave II is a photo of a dressmaker's mannequin onto which she has projected a detail of a painting of the Annunciation by Bellini. Here are works by two contemporary Canadian women artists who for whatever reason are interested in the Mary theme, take earlier artistic expressions of it, and transform them photographically so that they say something they want to say.
At first glance, Gerry Ferguson's enamel on canvas painting seems both abstract and almost monochromatically black. A closer look reveals the seven fish of the title. Made with a stencil and a roller, the work is surprisingly painterly, it is also mysterious and seductive. A conceptual artist who has often included traditional domestic art elements from the Maritimes in his paintings, Ferguson created a series of 12 such works which were hung 4 x 4 x 4 around a room in the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The combination of the number, their disposition and the Christian symbolism evoked the last supper. The single piece carries some of the same symbolic overtones. The fish is Christ and us; the blackness highlighted by touches of the unpainted canvas evokes despair, suffering and death, on the one hand, and hope and life, on the other.
A large Cibachrome work by Barbara Steinman stands at the end of the corridor as a kind of summary conclusion of, and response to, much that precedes it. Its upper half is an interior shot of an anthropological museum in Berlin. Its lower half involves several images including a detail of an earlier installation of the artist involving salt and water and a number of elements from a recent ice storm in Montreal. Here two of the pillars of ice have become candles and the curtain of ice covers a cave. The manipulation of the photos in this section is... obvious. It is subtler but every bit as important in the upper half. A crossbar has been removed from the central windowpane thus highlighting the flow of the light from above into the image. For me the work embodies a vision of what is involved in being human. The bottom half with its mixture of salt and water, of dark and light, of cold and warmth points to the unconscious both individual and collective. The upper image is evocative of consciousness and of culture. The central window breaks the piece open. It functions as a window onto the transcendent. There is a hint of a capacity to rise above even the most sophisticated products of culture and to reach out to the infinite. Barbara felt the movement as a flooding in of light from above; she reads it as a symbol of hope. I do not know precisely what she intended with the title Surrender. As used in the mystical tradition, the word has nothing to do with giving up or backing away. It is rather a positive and active giving of self to the mystery of life as it opens before us and as it calls us beyond ourselves.
The Xerox room contains five works, all of which have to do with language, and in three cases with the reproduction of words and texts. Directly above the Xerox machine is a manuscript-like drawing on papyrus by Tania Love. It is intended as an homage to ancient copyists and to the seriousness with which they took their task. The contrast between that kind of effort and what copying has become in our age is dramatic. Jaga Jarosiewicz's small but eloquent Figure 4 is made up of three visible levels of words, the top one of which is reversed. Angela Grauerholz's beautifully mounted photogramme of a Gothic manuscript is part of a larger series entitled Schriftbilder, scripts. She used ancient languages on the assumption that most people, unable to understand them, would see them as a form of drawing, as abstract images. A missionary bishop in the Balkans developed the written form of Gothic in the fourth century using the Greek and Latin alphabets. The work is evocative of ancient manuscripts and of modem efforts to preserve and reproduce them.
Given certain requirements of the renovated building and the placement of the windows in the old one, my office is larger than most and has become a small gallery. Among the more than twenty works in the room is a drawing on geofilm by Betty Goodwin. Like so much other work it evokes the dignity and value of human life as well as its vulnerability A young person is mounting a ladder, while beside it an older, tired and somewhat beaten figure glances away while pointing to the climber. A third figure, on the right, is falling from or swinging on another ladder. The work bursts out of its natural border on the left in order to make room for an elongated arm. It is about life, its struggles, and its continually renewed hope. The Goodwin piece hangs above a cast-iron and steel sculpture by Claude Luneau. Its ladder echoes the one above and leads from the floor to a thin but tall building sitting on a cross form. The width of the ladder in proportion to the house makes it more than a ladder. It is like a processional way leading up to what could be a monastery on a hill. The colonnade in front of the building is reminiscent of the cloister walks that separate and connect monastic churches from and to the world around them.
A large painting by John Brown comes from a series entitled Ten Attempts to Imagine the Inside of My Body. Each painting began with one or other bodily organ. As it progressed the act of painting itself took over, so that the completed works no longer reveal the image that initially inspired them. In the present case most of the paint has been scraped off, leaving the surface largely covered with shades of yellow and white. The effect is one of sheer radiance. When one recalls the title of the series, the result is not only a beautiful painting but also an optimistic affirmation about life. There is in us a radiant centre, a source of overflowing goodness.
One of the most attractive features of the Odette Hall renovation is the way in which the ground floor windows were dealt with. Deep window wells with banks of green make one forget that one is in what used to be called the basement. Two of the windows in my office have been integrated into a surprisingly unified installation. Below the windows is a long, laminated giclée print by Reinhard Reitzenstein. A row of sentinel evergreens looms out of the morning mist. They stand at the edge of a vineyard and are themselves wrapped to protect them against the winter. Spring is coming and the wrappings are starting to fall away and in doing so proclaim a promise of new life. Between the windows is a Lucio de Heusch box, entitled Avant-scène. Striking in its colours and forms, it evokes Shakespeare's image of life as a player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage. The fact that the door opens suggests the kind of self-revelation of which we are capable. Above the box, and lifting as it were the whole wall, is a bronze cross by Ted Rettig. In the windowsills are a cast glass house by Tim Whiten and a bronze sculpture by Cynthia Short. The house is a recurrent image in the collection and suggests among other things home, the self and the house of God. Tim's house becomes radiant when illuminated by the sun.
Cynthia's sculpture, like so much other work, is autobiographical. It forms a diptych with a work on the third windowsill, a bronze whirlpool in which the hand of someone being swallowed up by the water can be seen. The image reflected Cynthia's sense of being overwhelmed when she first went to New York. After that she produced a series of drawings that included an angel figure. When asked what I thought they were about, I said that they had little in common with either the messenger angels of the Bible or the soaring spirits of the Greek tradition. Their wings were more like oxygen tanks than wings. Partly on the basis of that remark she made the present work. On one side is a circle of figures with an open space suggesting how she obtained the wings. On the front, she stands with her wings / oxygen tanks before the whirlpool, ready to enter it, confident that she will not be overcome.
The photograph in Al McWilliams's work is a detail of a Gothic relief sculpture in Orvieto cathedral depicting the creation of Eve. God has drawn Eve out of Adam and is on the point of blessing her. The wax covering the photo gives it the warmth and depth of a painting.
Ted Rettig's mysterious box-like sculpture with the bronze cup sitting at its lip never fails to provoke wonder. A separate work done at the same time suggests a possible approach to it. The Chalice and Paten are quite explicit in their meaning. Gold-plated and bearing the chi-rho symbol, the first two letters for the word Christ in Greek, they have obvious Eucharistic overtones. The box piece is entitled Reticent Memento, and the cup that is part of it is the same as the more obviously liturgical cup although without the gold plating and the symbol. I suggested to Ted that Reticent Memento was a statement about religious art in a secular world; although it cannot be too obvious, it at least evokes a sense of mystery.
With this we have come back to the beginning. What holds the collection together and distinguishes it from so many other collections of contemporary Canadian art is the sense of mystery that permeates it. Although the works differ from one another in style and medium, they all, in some way, embody and give visible form to human reflectiveness, to the human spirit's capacity to put both itself and all of reality into question. Some of the works use traditional religious symbolism, others speak a language that is more personal. All are signs of the spirit.
Text: © Daniel Donovan. All rights reserved.