Up the long incline to Science Hill, through the labyrinthine pathways to the Yale Divinity School, a pristine new space opens to a fiery canvas born from the depths of Ground Zero.
Artist Makoto Fujimura‘s studio was only blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan back in September 2001.
With that local apocalypse in mind he created a painting that a decade later has become the frontispiece for the Gospel of Mark in a new publication to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first printing.
On a recent visit to plan a lecture there Professor Denys Turner (pictured) paused before the large fiery expanse of the Mark painting. He pronounced it fitting because of the four Synoptic Gospels, Mark is the most judgmental.
Or as he put it, “Mark is a tough cookie.”
The exhibition, Makoto Fujimura: The Four Holy Gospels and the Golden Sea, is on view until March 8.
To enjoy this space and the works within it I recommend you travel on foot up Prospect. Ponder what it means to climb the long incline named Science (which means knowledge in Latin) Hill, then negotiate the labyrinthine buildings and pathways of the Yale Divinity School.
From there you follow signs to the ISM Gallery, where you enter a pristine space constructed with new portable partitions inside the Divinity School’s old refectory building.
The result is that arrival becomes a kind of meditative destination in this cool yet fiery new space.
There’s a nice black bench you can sit on. You’ll need it, and not only to catch your breath.
For when you look at the Fujimura paintings, you are drawn in by a richness —sprinkled or layered gold everywhere and drops of crimson red that might be falling from a cosmic wound.
Now what has drawn you in also pushes you back and away. Is this depth? An artist’s visual form of yearning where gorgeous images of destruction and generation play visual hide and seek with each other? Or merely beauty that borders on the decorative? Or all of the above?
You got me.
Result: You have just climbed Science Hill but you really know nothing for certain. Yet you keep looking, and looking, as the paintings have a keep-your-mouth-shut effect, at least on this viewer.
Which I guess is the point of art that strives to be spiritual, as does Fujimura’s. He has written widely on how important he feels art is as an expression of his Christian faith in what he has termed a fallen world where every place is a kind of “ground zero.”
Four of the large paintings were commissioned to be used as frontispieces for the gospels in a new publication of the Bible, in 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James translation.
Also on display are 89 small paintings of letters used to illustrate the beginning letter of each of the 89 chapters of the four gospels in the Bible, printed by Crossway Publishing in 2011.
These are Fujimura’s contribution to the tradition of illuminated manuscripts and turning letters into entire visual worlds. In them, and all his work, he brings, as the medieval artist monks did, the richest materials you can use.
In Fujimura’s case, the American-born and educated artist draws on Japanese traditions of painting, called Nihonga, that emphasize the use of rich materials, including pulverized gold and other raw minerals and pigments that get sprinkled onto painted layers.
According to Katharine Luce, the associate for outreach and publications at ISM, Fujimura therefore often works with his canvases face-up, as he sprinkles them with “holy,” if you will, materials.
If, through time travel, Jackson Pollock were commissioned by a Byzantine monastery to paint an iconostasis, the wall of richly gilded icons adorning the churches of Eastern Christianity, the result might be the works ISM gallery is displaying.
Along with these are more recent canvases, all large and again richly painted, titled “Golden Sea” and “Walking on Water.”
The point is that you don’t need to know any of this background to be drawn into the work because the paintings, along with the cobalt-blue space, exercise a quiet power on the viewer.
Before he left, Professor Turner said it would be a challenge to come up with a lecture topic appropriate to the work and location.
In the end he said he’d choose a reading about silence. Maybe from the end of Dante’s Paradiso, where “ultimately all speech [that is, even artistic expression in all its forms] fails in the face of God,” he said.