Monday, September 22, 2008

When Catholic Art Really Sucks...

...then somebody's gotta call it out.

This is just horrible:

According to the 'artist', JOHN COLLIER:
"This Annunciation is set in suburbia, but the symbolism is quite traditional. Mary is reading from Isaiah about the Virgin who conceives and bears a son. The lily represents her purity, and she is welcoming St. Gabriel."
This painting sucks on so many levels that I-- in charitable love for the fellow human being who 'painted' it; my own brother in Christ --am forced to merely name only a dozen or so ways in which it so utterly offends the eyes of body and mind, not to mention the loosening effect it has on one's gastroesophageal valve, instead of the 4 hour tirade that I would go on if there were no shadow of the conventions of manners or societal niceties looming over me.

Look, I have no problem representing biblical events anachronistically. That is certainly within tradition, and appropriate when done correctly (unlike the tapestries in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, which were most incorrectly done). The Renaissance artists put Mary in Renaissance clothing in Renaissance settings. Baroque artists put Mary in Baroque clothing in Baroque settings. That's all fine and good. But only because they did it well. Doing it to 'update it for updating sake' is merely trite, and muddling the decades makes it look like you weren't paying attention to details.

I'm sorry, but the claim that 'the symbolism is quite traditional' is just bull. Why is it traditional? Because there's some semblance of classical architecture? Because the composition makes some reference to the great work of Fra Angelico and his Annunciations? Because it uses (read: misuses) accepted symbolic references? Look, dumping 14 uncracked eggs, 2 drops of milk, a cup of water, 7 pounds of butter, 3lbs. of sugar, and two specks of flour into a bowl, mixing it up, and then chucking the goopy mess into an unheated oven doesn't mean you will necessarily end up with a quite traditional cake.

Using a denim frock and a red book is not the same as clothing our lady in red and blue to represent the queen of earth and heaven, respectively. Merely having the colors 'close' to her, or in her props, doesn't count. Symbolism is tied to the intrinsic meaning of the thing. If the book is red, it means something about the book, not the person holding it.

Arbitrarily placing a misshapen potted lily right in the foreground (and where no homeowner would ever, ever put it- because it's in the middle of the freakin' entrance walkway) shows that the artist was merely meeting the basic quota of simplistic symbols that just must be present in any Marian image, rather than composing a scene that is first believable and only then also symbolic.

What's with the brown dove on the right? What's he sitting on? Why is he brown and not white? It looks as if it was just jammed in there because no other place in the composition would afford it, and yet the "Painting Religious Art for Dummies" checklist clearly stated a dove was required in an annunciation scene. The only other option it's just some bird, and doesn't symbolize anything, but that would be stupid because 'traditional symbolism' never wastes effort misleading the viewer with a meaningless object.

The picayune skill level of the artist can not even be categorized as acceptable for religious art, let alone sacred art, if that was the intent. Craft is a prerequisite for art. The ability to understand basic color theory and composition is necessary, but not sufficient, to be considered art. In this case, the level of craft isn't even sufficient. Part of the craft of painting is understanding and being well practiced in the structure of bodies and the forces that act upon them, so that when you depict dynamism or action, it doesn't look retarded. With that in mind, ask yourself why the zephyr acting on Mary's frock isn't affecting anything else. Maybe because it's not a breeze at all...maybe she's moving? That's just not what her body mechanics and weight distribution are saying. So then, why is the frock distorted? What does it mean? I'm afraid it doesn't mean anything. Great symbol, Johnny.

Again, if you're depicting static motion, and you're going to paint or draw figures, study the human body and its proportions. The form of Mary's body does not respond to normal anatomy and bone structure. While Our Girl has the calves and ankles of a 3 year old, the face of a tween, and the posture of an octagenarian, the poor Arcangel Gabriel is a pygmalean. And while I cannot say with certitude that the angels anthropomorph into the same scale universe that we material bodies are tied to, we can at least say Gabriel has a proportional integrity about him, as do model railroads in the basement of 8 year old boys and 45 year old men, both living at home with mother. But before you think I'm complimenting this piece (of something), note that Gabriel is covered in the same mauve color as the wall beyond, and thus fades into the wall because of a utter lack of contrast in form or color so that his bodily form is missed. If you refuse to study human anatomy, then at least learn the principles of projective geometry so that your shadows don't look like they're constructed by a freshman Fine Arts major. Seriously, I count no less than 5 different directions that shadows are being cast. If this was unintended, then that's a shame. If intended, then I will be forced into interpreting your use multiple points of origin for your light sources as just that: multiple sources of 'light', and in 'traditional symbology' that always has and always will represent a polytheist cosmology, which last time I checked is something us Trinitarian Monotheists known as Roman Catholics frown upon.

Most importantly, what makes me know the little girl's reading Isaiah and not Judy Blume? Just because the artist says so in his blurb about the painting online? Oh wait, I see. It must be because the only people who wear hideously ugly frocks are traditional Catholic girls who are borderline Stoics and Manicheists who read Isaiah at sunrise on their front porch. Why this reading? Because there is no actual symbol there; only a sign: the sign for 'this object is a book'. 'Traditional symbolism' doesn't need a companion brochure to explain itself. It is, by itself and by convention, able to convey meaning. If it doesn't, then it's a symbol of either nothing, or a symbol of the inability of the artist to communicate, both of which result in the reality of not being a symbol at all.

For those of you who will have now become shocked by the pounding I'm angrily heaping on this poor defenseless guy, please keep in mind two things: 1) I've heard of several otherwise rational, cultured adults who nevertheless like Mr. Collier's representation of the Annunciation, which is a shame that shows our current Catholic culture is uncultured; and 2) The real trouble with this, and why I'm so very critical, is because ever since FR. COUTURIER'S, irrational but influential ideology concerning the value of religiosity vs. the value of talent in artists, Catholic artists have had to work incredibly hard to earn back even the most trifling patronage from our own Church, and ilk like this painting just makes it that much harder to convince Bishops not to hire atheists more talented with a brush or chisel in deference to those artists with real Faith. So I'm angry and taking it out on this guy because, well, not merely because this work deserves it, but because it's important to recognize that while in the big picture it's not as offensive to the True, Good, and Beatiful as Jackson Pollack's SPLATTERING, we should nevertheless be demanding more from our artists than mere inoffensiveness, especially if they are claiming to be within the tradition. Besides, according to the Vatican, ART SHOULD INTRODUCE US TO THE SAINTS. What kind of friendship are we being introduced to if the art stinks, or even worse, misleads?

So in all of this let's keep in mind that Blessed Fra Angelico painted no less than 7 VERSIONS of the same or very similar composition of the Annunciation. Why? Because he was never satisfied with the previous one, and it was such an important theme that he wanted it to be perfect. (Even though they were all really good) Let's hope Mr. Collier takes at least this one page from Bl. Fra Angelico's playbook: thinking if not realizing your last painting wasn't that good, and that you need to redo it, for Christ's sake.


Baron Korf said...

I think he had a good idea at first, but the execution was terrible. The part that bugs me the most, aside from the good points you raise, is the face of the Madonna. She looks more constipated than contemplative.

And even though it's modern, would it have killed him to use a halo or two?

If I didn't know it was the Annunciation, I would never have guessed it.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Duck,
I did the best I could. Perhaps you might like to see my sculptural version of the Annunciation?
John Collier

Bette Sohm said...

I like this picture. As a United Methodist, I had no trouble recognizing this as the Annunciation. I do have a problem with the idea that teenage girls may not have thicker ankles and calves. I do not find her legs nor her posture inappropriate for a teenager. The girls I have known come in all shapes and sizes.
I like the shadow of the lily on the angel. I like Mary's face: I would not be contemplative if at that age an angel appeared to me and told me I was going to have a baby. I think I would have a "I'm sorry, WHAT did you say?" look too.