Visual Experiences: Icons in Transformation
Erie Reader art critic Luke Gehring weighs in on a controversial art show that he claims is offensive to certain local religious communities. Do you agree with him?
It is impossible to truly understand and appreciate holy icons unless you are an Orthodox Christian – so much do they go to the heart, soul, and worship of the Orthodox people. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an Orthodox Christian with more than a passing knowledge of iconography, and I was initially called to the Church by the icon and was named for the first iconographer. I cannot approach the subject neutrally.
I have always declined teaching how to "write an icon" to the non-Orthodox not knowing what the spiritual consequences might be for me and those meddling with a spirituality that is not their own.
Holy icons belong to the Orthodox Church, period.
This show is puzzling, beginning with the title; for using "icons" and "transformation" together is redundant. You can't talk about the theology of the icon without talking about transfiguration and transformation. However, speaking of transforming the icon into something else is a different matter entirely.
The artist's name certainly is Orthodox sounding, and the fact that she was born in Kazakhstan likewise suggests an Orthodox connection. But why the show at an Episcopal Cathedral? True, Anglican churches all seem to have an icon these days, but they lost this Tradition after 1066 when England was invaded by papal forces and communion with Constantinople was broken. Like most Westerners, Episcopalians don't seem to have any true understanding of icons. The private reception is a viewing and cocktail party – could anything be more inappropriate for holy things? – held insensitively on a church night during the Nativity Fast when alcohol, certain foods, and frivolous entertainments are avoided by the Orthodox. The opening remarks are by the Cathedral's dean, who seemingly has no credentials to do so. The second reception is in conjunction with the service of Lessons and Carols, a distinctly Episcopalian event that the Orthodox cannot canonically attend.
My misgivings mounted and the more I learned about the artist, her art, and the history of this show, the more I disquieted I became. One informant told me he had been a consultant to this show, and finding in Ms. Ludmila Pawlowska's art nothing iconographic, tried to warn the show's committee that they risked offending an entire religious community, which they disregarded.
St. John of Damascus said, "Show me the icons you venerate, and I will tell you what you believe." This show is the dichotomy of holy icons put on display by a people who typically do not use or venerate them, juxtaposed to art supposedly icon-derived – though what the justification is for demoting the universal and Devine to the ego-centric and secular is not apparent.
Ms. Pawlowska says, "Icons have a spiritual power – you see the eyes and are hypnotized." The sad gaze of the Virgin of Vladimir, the great masterpiece attributed to St. Luke, comes to mind here, and Ms. Pawlowska, who has detached eyes strewn all over the gallery, may have had this image in mind when she created "Your Face I am Looking For," a pair of monochrome isolated eyes slapped onto a field of orangey nothingness. Lack of compositional skill aside, these dewy peepers have little in common with the icon. Theologically speaking, the eyes of the icon always appears dry, because "God Himself will wipe away every tear" (Apoc. 7:17).
These eyes look more like the final shot from the horror classic "The Pit and the Pendulum," with Vincent Price, where such eyes stare out from an iron maiden.
There are two fundamental and different ways to think of iconography, which actually say the same thing. Photios Kontoglou, who single handedly brought back Greek iconography from the Western degeneration that had infected it, said, "Byzantine art, for me, is the art of arts. Only this art nourishes my soul with its deep and mysterious powers; it alone quenches the thirst that I feel in the arid desert that surrounds me."
The Rt. Rev. Bishop Daniel of Erie, who was a master and in the forefront of shaking off Westernization from Russian iconography said, "Icons are not an art form or some kind of decoration to hang on the wall and then notice only occasionally. It goes beyond any function of art and allows us to glimpse into heavenly places. This is why they are central to our temples and homes, the reason we venerate them, not because they need it, but because we do."
So here we have fundamental differences. On the one hand a number of icons from the Vasilevsky Monastery in Suzdal, Russia are displayed here, though why they would submit to such an indignity is incomprehensible. As the Hiero schema-monk John once said to me, "There is nothing sadder than icons on a museum wall with bright lights shining in their eyes." But the pride of place in the exhibition is given to the painterly renderings of Ms. Pawlowska.
As St. John of Damascus says, "We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our Fathers have set, but keep the Tradition, just as we received it." In ballet there are a set number of positions, but it is in the use of the established rules that make the difference between "Swan Lake" and "Coppelia." Set rules account for the "sameness" of the icons across cultures, but the iconographer is free within the rules, accounting for the differences between the schools of iconography. Personal creativity as such is of no particular value, and "westernization" and "innovation" are pejoratives when referring to icons that have left these sacred boundaries. Ms. Pawlowska has eliminated these sacred borders altogether, opportunistically connecting her paintings to iconography to compensate for its mediocrity. St. Paul's seems to have been hoodwinked, and in turn are using their congregation as a captive audience.
But given freedom of speech, doesn't Ms. Pawlowska have the right to tie her paintings to icons? Yes, just as I would have the right to put on black face to recite King's "I Have a Dream" speech. If you think this comparison is exaggerated, I would refer you to my opening statement.
So here I am going to say something unimaginable: this show is best avoided, and those who love icons and respect the Orthodox community will do so.
This exhibition runs December 2 through January 20 at the Cathedral of St. Paul, 134 W. Seventh St. and will be featured during the Gallery Night held Friday, Dec. 7 from 7 to 10 p.m. Exhibit Opening with the service of Lessons and Carols, Sunday, Dec. 2 at 4 p.m. Guided tours and discussion by the artist Monday, Dec. 3 at 4 p.m. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sacred Space hours Friday, Dec. 14 and Jan. 18, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and tours are available by appointment.
Luke Gehring can be contacted at lGehring@ErieReader.com.