Brush With Death Inspires New Strokes

Allan Appel PhotoA few years ago artist Jon Seals was taking a course entitled “Worship in the Face of Death.” Seals was still trying to come to terms with the sudden death of his younger brother David in a motorcycle accident in 2006. He hoped the class would help.

It did. It also led to an art exhibition, on view now through June 2 at the long corridor atYale Divinity’s School’s quadrangular campus on Prospect Street.

Gallery photo“When I lost David, it sent me on a course to think about faith and art. I went to the arts for therapy,” Seals said. That experience also sent him to the master’s program in art and religion at ISM, from which he graduated last year.

Seals said he was surprised to take away from the class the notion, somewhat radical in its simplicity, that “it’s okay to deal with loss your whole life.”

What else emerged from that class was the seed for a fascinating exhibition on what the visual arts have to say about mortality, which Seals harvested at the thronged recent opening reception of “Between Clock and Bed.” (The class Seals was taking was at the divinity school’s Institute for Sacred Music (ISM).)

The title for the show comes from the title of one of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch‘s last works, Self Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which Seals was studying in the course, along with another Munch work, Frieze of Life, on which he wrote a paper.

“It was a lousy research paper, and a better show,” he said in self-effacing introductory remarks to ISM’s students at the reception Thursday afternoon.

The show features the work of artists who were Seals’s professors at the Savannah College of Art and Design and his colleagues down in Florida, where he currently teaches: Laura Mosquera, Natalija Mitjatovic, Kirsten Moran, Stephen Knudsen, and Kenny Jensen. Also in the show are the Goya-esque graphic works of New Haven artist Ronnie Rysz.

The six artists’ works are mainly paintings, with some mixed media and Knudsen’s continuous loop video of a hunter stalking a deer through a murky forest. 

What’s surprising about the show is how un-grim it is. Seals said he was pleased by how different the works are and the “conversations” about responding to death that occur through the juxtapositions.

Knudsen’s take in the arresting video and its accompanying paintings — that humans are not only the recipients of death but also among its creators — was one that Seals felt was essential to include. He was also determined to include an artist whose response to death is neither scary, morbid, nor melancholy, but positively joyous.

That’s why Laura Mosquera’s brightly painted geometric compositions fill up the very center of the long, ramped corridor along which the works are deployed.

“They seem to tumble and jumble down the ramp, falling with energy and vibrancy. You can’t tell form from volume. Her pieces say mankind, people dance,” Seals said, as if to suggest that the inescapability of death can and should add to the preciousness and enjoyment of life, not diminish it.

A very different take on the matter is Kenny Jensen’s rescuing of anonymous discarded photos and family memorabilia from the Florida swamps where he goes foraging. “For him the swamp is a liminal place, where things are being born and die. He goes into spots [on, for example, the rescued and appropriated photographs] termites have damaged and he cleans them with cotton swabs. It’s very intentional,” Seals added.

Ronnie Rysz, whose previous show triggered by the home foreclosure crisis was at the DaSilva Gallery in Westville in October, features this time via collage and drawings a response to the Sandy Hook massacre.

The works try to achieve an ambitious goal, according to his artist’s statement: “summon rage toward the perpetrators and empathy toward the victims.”

ISM student Tyler Gathro stood in front of one of Rysz’s works in the show, “Cluster Effect,” and looked. He told a reporter that unlike a contemporary trend not to read labels of art works, he likes to read the labels and try to understand or respond to the work with the accompanying words as guide.

Like Seals, Gathro, a Mormon, went through a kind of crisis as to whether art could play a real role in people’s lives. After his first undergraduate year at Cooper Union in New York, Gathro, who is a photographer and filmmaker, said he went on an LDS mission among Latino communities in Los Angeles. That took him on a journey dealing with marriages and divorces and the nitty gritty of life. When he returned he wondered what role art might have in dealing with crises, which, of course, include death.

After an emotional visit to the Mormon temple in New York City, where he sought guidance on the matter, he said he emerged with the conviction that “there are a lot of different tools that God can use to affect someone’s life.”

And yet as he pondered Rysz’s work, he wondered if Rysz had achieved all his stated aims. “There are sharp, hard lines, a very aggressive image. There’s obvious anguish” in the images, but he didn’t seem to find the other of the artist’s goal in evidence the empathy.

“God uses very material things to affect our lives, and art is one of them,” Gathro concluded.

If art’s two great subjects are, as many wags have written, love and death, “Between Clock and Bed,” although a small show, makes a contribution far bigger than its modest size to covering half that territory.

“Between Clock and Bed” runs through June 2 at the Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St. Admission is free. Visit the Divinity School’s website for more information.

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