McClain Gallery presents Edge of the Divine: a group exhibition featuring artists whose creative process and introspection touches on contemporary notions of the divine. The seven artists include Seth Cameron, Christian Eckart, Sheila Hicks, Dorothy Hood, Sam Gilliam, Robert Polidori, and Ai Weiwei. Edge of the Divine coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the Rothko Chapel, its lasting impact on Houston, and the concurrent exhibition Artists and the Rothko Chapel: 50 Years of Inspiration at Moody Center for the Arts, Rice University.
During his first European tour in 1950, Mark Rothko discovered profound inspiration in Fra Angelico's frescoes in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy. Painted in the fifteenth century, Fra Angelico's ecclesiastical commissions were also manifestations of his faith and devotion. Rothko was taken with the artist's delicate application of light and color, and how his frescoes welcomed a contemplative viewing. It was this meditative and inward atmosphere that Rothko hoped to reproduce. The frescoes mirrored for Rothko what Hegel described as the invention of "artistic interiority." The experience provided Rothko a portal to emotional transcendence, forming the impetus for his own work.
In Edge of the Divine, Robert Polidori's (b.1951) large-scale photographs place the viewer into the friar's cells at San Marco, intimately capturing a private devotional space and Fra Angelico's Last Supper just viewable beyond an arched doorway. Henry James, while denouncing his own religious upbringing, could not ignore the spiritual awakening one experienced while in the presence of the frescoes. He would later write in Italian Hours, “You may be as little of a formal Christian as Fra Angelico was much of one; you yet feel admonished by spiritual decency to let so yearning a view of the Christian story work its utmost will on you.” Even Angelico’s colors, he added, seem divinely infinite, “dissolved in tears that drop and drop, however softly, through all time.”
Clues to reading Christian Eckart's (b. 1959) work often appear in his titles: Andachtsbild is a German term used for a devotional object, especially Northern Gothic art around the 14th and 15th centuries. In this series, Eckart deconstructs form, applies tonal principles, and employs techniques traditionally found in religious artworks since the beginning of the Renaissance, presented in combination with contemporary materials that connect it to an ongoing dialogue surrounding minimalism, shaped painting, monochromes, and the sublime. Seth Cameron (b. 1982) navigates similar territory in his Suns series. With an indebtedness to Ad Reinhardt, Cameron’s watercolor fields in blue-violet hues gradually reveal underlying geometric forms to a contemplative gaze. As Cameron elaborates “A square of paint or paper is both real and a representation, receding or advancing, asserting itself or dissolving. Paintings of all epochs and cultures command real space and fictional space to coexist.”
Living in Mexico in the 1940s-50s, Dorothy Hood (1918-2000) absorbed the ancient and primal mysticism of its rich history. Combining that early influence with her personal exploration of dreams, memory, and landscape, Hood’s paintings of broad color punctuated by hard-edged forms bridge earthly and heavenly realms. Sheila Hicks (b. 1934) believes, “textiles are the universal language.” With an incessant curiosity for the material world, Sheila Hicks sources the tradition of ancient weaving from various cultures. In the process, Hick’s intent transforms craft from the utilitarian to the contemplative. Hicks’ ethos is grounded in being devoted to a life centered around creation. Her awareness of sacred weaving practices may be viewed as a sort of enlightenment; an homage to a humble art form that spans millennia.
Jazz and its improvisational spirit have greatly influenced Sam Gilliam (b. 1933). With its roots in African-American communities of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz is the unrestrained evolution of gospel and blues. While the relationship between music and Gilliam’s work is not direct, the way each has been pushed mirrors the other. Just as jazz pushed gospel to its limits, John Coltrane’s Love Supreme professed his and jazz music’s exploration of the divine. Gilliam has pushed his medium to its limits, applying a fearless approach and spontaneity in liberating painting from a traditional support. With its high keyed colors, Do You Swing features heavily impastoed fragments pieced together like a quilt, juxtaposed against smooth enamel on aluminum to create a dynamic visual rhythm.
Ai Weiwei’s (b. 1957) works source traditional Chinese paper cutouts. Paper-cutting in Chinese art may date back to the 2nd century CE when paper was invented in the Eastern Han Dynasty. The colorful, intricately cut paper works were used for prayers, story-telling and as decoration for celebrations such as festivals and weddings. The cutout voids, stencil-like, reveal familiar images from the zodiac to symbols of industry, common man, and New York City skyline. Red, synonymous with luck and happiness, reminds us of an ancient and mystic China.