Body Redeemed: An Attempt to Understand Our Brokenness
Students take in subtle message of Gabankova's art show
By Andrea Hensen
I have always loved the opening of an art show at Redeemer
because it allows one to take a break from the demands of daily
meetings, schoolwork, and other preoccupations, and to enjoy some
of the richness of God's creation.
Events such as Maria Gabankova's art show provide a rich atmosphere that includes a selection of goodies, community, fellowship, music, and-best of all-an artist alongside his or her newly hung artwork.
What I appreciate the most about art shows at Redeemer is that they are provided to us at no cost. All that is required of students is a willingness both to interact with and engage in the aforementioned atmosphere and, above all else, to be drawn in by the artwork. Questions like these may guide one's interaction: What is the significance of this piece of art (or this art show) for me personally and for Redeemer communally? What is the artist communicating to me al la contemporary identity in culture? How does this art affect or challenge the way I live out or view my life in relation to living before the face of God?
I raced home after the show and blogged about Gabankova and her artwork for two main reasons. First, Gabankova is a well-known female Christian artist. Second, she has gifted the Redeemer community not only with her art, but also with her knowledge and love of art, by teaching the "hows" and "whats" in Redeemer's Art 215 course, Introduction to Painting. In short, Gabankova is big and wonderful news for the Redeemer community!
Dr. Jacob Ellens opened the evening with a word of prayer and
a short devotional, and he then invited Redeemer's full-time Art
Professor and Art Director Chris Cuthill to introduce Maria Gabankova
and offer his personal insight on her show, "Body Redeemed."
Cuthill discussed the Protestant tradition, which is sometimes too theologically abstract to make much of the here and now. Somehow John's words in Revelation-"Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them [on earth, body and soul]"-have been poorly addressed in terms of our humanity in the flesh as crafted in the image of God. More broadly, he suggested that we not only rethink the value of art's aesthetic dimension, but also exercise the imagination within our home, God's creation. God can be seen in everyday objects such as art. We should open our eyes and understand that one's life of faith cannot simply be about analyzing the conscience, nor can it be just invisible or conceptual.
Cuthill went on to say that the Catholic tradition is more successful than the Protestant tradition at acknowledging God and sacrament in human form, as well as the physical nature of creation. He mentioned artists of faith such as Caravaggio and Rubens, and he quoted men of the arts in the Reformed tradition. Cuthill referred to Calvin Seerveld, who sees human corporeal experience as "full-blooded human life"-an element of life that we at Redeemer need to strive to understand for the betterment of the worldwide church.
The word redeemed, said Cuthill, means to buy back, or to regain possession of. In the case of Gabankova's show, one could presume that she has attempted to regain or bring back into conversation the form or representation of the body. Her depiction of the mortal body is of one broken in sin, subject to decay and the different forces of the world, such as war, consumerism (the idealistic value of identity), pressures of a hallow progress (modernism), and an unstable understanding of who exactly we mean to be (postmodernism).
In her artist's statement, Gabankova says, "Art is both very physical and very spiritual, and it is always a reflection of, a response to, the reality of this present life, this present world." One of her pieces, Freedombound, shows a representation of the human body in mannequin form, contained within a wooden box and controlled by strings from above. The form runs on the spot, tirelessly going nowhere. What I see in the painting is a contemplation of our inability to break away from that to which we are bound. I remember this particular piece because a friend approached me and pointed out that it depicts how she has felt at times.
Gabankova's art is relevant in that viewers are invited to relate to themes that explore the hidden, the shadowed, and the invisible. If we try to avoid the complexities and ambiguities of the frailty of human nature, then we fail to see past the superficialities of life and into the sometimes dualistic, pain-filled, and contradictory essences of our nature.
The artwork displayed here at Redeemer, a twelve-year retrospective, consists of a selection of pieces that explore the human figure. In sum, Gabankova said that her artwork is her "attempt of what it means to be searching for God."
She has also said, "In my drawing and painting or sculpting I strive to express that which is invisible-like music-through the means of the visible. Over the years there has been a continuous development in my art in the way I use the human figure as a primary focus. An essential theme, although it continues to be elusive, includes the theme of drapery/cloth, suggestive of human form, but showing its absence. Another theme I am exploring is that of a contemporary allegory in painting, and in something I like to call conceptual realism."
She told me that, by depicting the human body in brokenness, viewers are forced to reassess their own lives in relation to the body, to engage what is being communicated, and to address the human situation on canvas that begs for interaction. I must say that tackling the bleakness and depravity of the bodies depicted in her work was quite a chore. I was forced to think long and hard about what she had painted for her viewers, because I was stuck on the repetition of dreary painting after dreary painting. What was she communicating as a Christian about our world? Where was the hope?
After much talk with Gabankova, Cuthill, and friends, I have come to realize that the desperate and broken forms in her art address bodily brokenness, mystery, and strangeness, but more importantly, they imply an opposite reality. I was ashamed to have craved something more ideal, something more flowery or pastoral, and something that would explicitly point to the hope I have in Christ.
The challenge is allowing ourselves to confront the questions regarding the unpleasant aspects of our lives. Life isn't as simple as we sometimes think. Gabankova's compilation of masterpieces becomes something extraordinary in that she can present a show like this at Redeemer. It challenges all passersby who can't help but take a few moments to gaze at the large canvases, the bold use of color, and the interesting show of form. The strange pieces of mannequin, wire, and objects mingled in with the form of the body provide a certain tension that attempts to comment on our incompleteness and, more symbolically, our brokenness. Gabankova requires her viewers to contemplate and discover what exactly it means to be a subject and an object of the human condition on the way to redemption.
Her work is unique in that it expresses the "strange" in life, the incompleteness, the feeling that somehow things here aren't what they should be. I was surprised by both the conversation her work instigated and how many times I had to revisit the gallery in order to get another look at the vivid, yet allusive, images. Gabankova has achieved what all artists strive for: she has created artwork that challenges viewers to holistically interact with her work and to consider the relationship between their experiences and what Gabankova has said about the pieces and who she is as an artist.
She gracefully invites viewers to analyze the layers and angles of her work by showcasing it and inviting discussion. She has gone as far as to personally invite all who would like to talk and learn more about her show to meet her in the art gallery during an activity period. Gabankova avoids pretension and draws an audience by taking on the responsibility of an artist who speaks about her work (a contradiction of artwork for the postmodern relativist) and makes herself available to teach people to look past concept to the rich world of imagery and symbol.
We are to be responsive viewers, to engage her seemingly indigestible work on a deeper level, and we must be willing to ask questions. The one truth that I have learned through Gabankova's art, which can be applied to quite a bit of art, is that art compels us to ask questions (and to contemplate who we are and what we are in this world), instead of simply giving us answers.
In her introduction, Gabankova made sure to express that her time spent teaching at Redeemer has been a special experience and that it is only because of her faith that she has created art and teaches here. Gabankova said that Christians need to realize that we are broken and that we can't ignore our sinfulness or the part of us that is incomplete.
Her art is important because it explores humanity's moments of desperate futility: the feelings of war-torn or justice-deprived people, of people of the modern age, and how she personally has felt. Once this state has been accepted, we can then-and only then-realize who we are in body, in nature, in God's image, and in God's creation. She is not an artist who creates art for art's sake, for mediocrity, or for cliché and sales; rather, she is one whose art addresses the challenge that we all face by living in-but not of-this world.