I’m pleased to have Preston Yancey contributing this guest post to Hieropraxis, as he shares the theological reason behind why he paints. Preston is headed to Scotland to earn his Masters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from The University of St. Andrews this autumn. A contributor to A Deeper Story, Prodigal, and Transpositions, he is also a short story writer and lover of coffee. His book, “Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again” is due out with Rhizome summer 2013. He blogs here and tweets here and sells paintings here.
The photos in this post are by Preston Yancey, and depict his recent commissioned work Corpus Mysticum. Preston is also currently working on a piece that I have commissioned, on the theme of St. Michael the Archangel engaging the sphere of Chaos – after reading this piece I am looking forward to it even more!
I have written and answered often about the process of painting and how I interact with the canvas. I tend to speak of painting as a form of exegesis. I take a passage of Scripture, a doctrine, a truth about God and mediate upon it, resulting in an expression that is usually abstract but rooted in the purpose of an interpreter of the Scripture and of His creation. Yet, as often as I answer and elaborate upon that question, it is rare to be posed the query of why I chose painting as a medium in particular.
I have spent a few weeks now mulling my response and I am extremely grateful to Dr. Ordway for the exercise. I have rendered here, as best I can, a cogent articulation of why painting as a medium is the most honest form of visual art that I personally could create.
My training in medieval intellectual history leads me to consider this question in light of such thinkers as Penny Schine Gold, whose seminal The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in Twelfth-Century France remains one of the most compelling and historically considerate works regarding the artistic representation of feminine spirituality in post-Carolingian Normandy. Schine Gold makes an offhand comment early in her manuscript regarding the placement of statuary in churches that is so obvious it is nearly dumbfounding: “The limitations on available space compelled the planners of portals to select images that embodied the most important doctrines of the church. Major changes in sculptural images thus reflect major developments in religious ideology.” (44)
Essentially, statuary was reserved for those elements of Faith already thought to be dogma, whereas if you wanted to portray fluid, debatable, and shifting norms regarding spirituality, you used media that communicated a less permanent purpose.
I encountered a similar ideological approach in a ceramics class I took my last semester at Baylor, in which the instructor opened nearly every discussion about a piece of ceramic work by posing, “Why was this made out of clay?” If the answer did not justify the piece’s endurance over the centuries and millennia that clay and stoneware is able to survive, the reason for making it out of such media was insufficient.
While I am not entirely settled on this form of criticism as such, I can in the least make a parallel to my own work as reflecting some of its sensibility.
Painting, by nature, is not a permanent art.
For me, a piece never feels essentially completed or finished, but rather close enough to finished that it can leave my sight for a time. Once it has sold, I edge the work, paint the sides, and it is in that moment of edging that I release the canvas from my grasp and commit to not altering it further. It remains, however, with a sense of open-ended incompletion.
This is a significant reality for me. One of the best paintings I have ever painted, perhaps will ever paint, I gave on permanent loan to one of my best friends with the edges purposefully incomplete. I wrote him, when I composed the letter to accompany the work, that this was a sort of vow. The artist has to stick around in order to someday paint the edges, to complete the work. For now, it is locked in a state of perpetual incompletion and I, in turn, am avowed to him to remain in his life until such a time as the painting should need completion.
This has been a bit of a rambling journey to arrive at this point, the quidditas of why I have chosen painting as my visual artistic representation.
Firstly, as I mentioned above, I paint as I form of exegesis. Human as we are, our exegesis is always lacking and in want. Christ is the only perfect exegete of the Scriptures and as we strive to conform ourselves ever and always unto His image, we remain impoverished in our language and in our attempt to express the fullness of His Scripture. My paintings, unlike statuary, reflect this sense of imperfection and uncertainty. There is a thesis asserted by my art, but it comes with the provision of presumed impermanence. Holy Ghost, with purgating fire, shall see to it that what is fit for keeping shall be kept, both on my canvas and in my spiritual furniture.
Secondly, painting reflects the nurturing nature of God. It occurs to me that in the Scripture God is portrayed as both absolute and fluid, that is, He both establishes and nurtures. He who laid the foundations of the world is also He who gently reveals His glory to the disciples up to the point of the unveiling power of the Transfiguration. Painting, for me, captures this movement of revelation. What is at stake in a painting is not the absolute end of God’s glory, but the present encounter with that glory in the ordinary moment. Painting’s impermanent quality and abstract’s emotional integrity function together to orient the observer to encounter the Divine in a moment, as opposed to an encounter with the awe of God existent outside of time.
Finally, I’ll add another word on incompletion and nurturing. Just as a painting never feels completely finished, even when edged, I see God as one who is never finished with us. This can often devolve quickly into trite sentimentality, but the Love that moves the sun and other stars is the same Love that was crucified for our sake. This Love does not have end or limit and painting, in its imperfection, its incompletion, communicates this ongoing expression and outpouring.
I am left with the conclusion that while I have nothing against a good piece of statuary, or the artist responsible for it, I find my own heart to be made enough of stone as it is. Rather, I paint because it is an expression of the slow journey to sanctification, ultimately, the journey to the completed portrait of a life hid in Christ.