We may not quite believe in angels anymore, but we recognize them when we see them. Their natural habitat is the arts. And artists have, quite naturally, created these perfect beings in their own image and likeness, with the symbolic additions of certain cosmic appendages.
Exhibited in conjunction with A Gathering of Angels, a conference of the Fellows of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, the photograph-based relief paintings of transmortalized angels by Esther Solondz provided an oddly human counterpoint to the aspiring transcendency of the weekend's discussions. The Transformed Icon, curated by Jutta Clifford of Dallas' Clifford Gallery, opened February 24 and continues at the Dallas Institute, 2719 Routh, 9 to 5 daily, through March 18.
Despite their angelic trappings, beatific poses and stylized, often ornate frames, Solondz' multi-racial subjects comprise a low common denominator of humanity. They are not pitiable. Their gold wings, halos, and powdery auras give them a forceful spiritual presence that transcends their mundane existence. If they are God's messengers, their message is joy.
The artist builds her images up on photographs of real people, either on the streets of New York, where Solondz used to live, or in Amos House, the shelter in Providence, Rhode Island where she volunteers in the soup kitchen. The RISD graduate usually brings her camera, a Pentax 645-the largest format she can comfortably hand-carry-to work. She doesn't use a tripod but relies on what she calls a "gigantic flash."
Each of the persons portrayed "chose to participate," she said. "I'd suggest poses" then "ask them 'what do you think an angel looks like?'" Their responses provide her best images. "Often their own self worth is not great, so they're intrigued by the perception of themselves as angels."
Solondz prints the images on matte-surface silver mural paper as large as the masonite or fiberboard it is mounted on. They are not cut out or collaged. The photographs are "the same size and on the same surface as the rest of the painted image," she explained. Hair, hands and faces are hand-colored with transparent oils. Clothes are patterned or smoothed over with acrylic, as are backgrounds. The mediums are not mixed. "It is important," she says, "to be able to see through the paint in some areas, and to be brought back to the surface on others."
Dimensionally articulated wings, halos and frames are built up with an undersurface of bee's wax, topped with red bole, then layered with Dutch gold. Geometric patterns and jewelry are stamped into the bright metallic surface. Finally, the gold-like leaf is aged a few months, then protected from further tarnishing.
Throughout the history of angelography, feathery dorsal appendages have been the primary visual signal of ascension to the celestial. With these bird-like extensions, an otherwise human image reads quickly and directly as super-human, powerful and free. Animalistic, wings are specific of movement. They remind us of a unbounded mobility and, metaphorically, of unbridled intellect.
Southern Methodist University art department chair Mary Vernon, said the "angel convention" is based on "ancient Assyrian images of powerful male beings with wings." According to Vernon, "an angel doesn't have to be one of these pin-dancing guys with a long dress on." And "We don't make little winged boys with nightgowns on very much anymore." But Solondz does.
One flamboyant but untitled triptych that looks like a Gothic cathedral, correlates blues and gold, youth and age, innocence and experience, simple and the complex. A two slender girls, footless in flowing white robes and splendid gold wings, flank an old man. Roofing the girls are thick doughy gold chevrons glittering with tiny pink, blue and clear jewels. The man, with his sublime circle halo in the position of the church's rose window, is stable beneath a round arch. Three long, thin human ghosts smear upward in the pitched blue hallow above. Both mirrored gables and the gold scalloped pinnacle rise to four-pointed, star-like finials.
In serene red and gold contrast, Hope has eyes closed and pale arms crossed over her chest. An angular, peaked Eastern Orthodox frame of solid red counterpoints a V of shirt below her black, acrylic gown. The thin frame echoes the broad, glistening, shaped Dutch gold field, which is tooled with concentric halos and inset with "rubies."
Not all Solondz angels have wings.
Many are blessed with more miraculous flight, swooping heavenward, legs and feet blurred, or simply hovering in prayer. But all but the most recent have halos in one form or another. Beatrice has smaller, gold wings and matching frame, a gaudy yellowish leopard-print coat, circle earrings, and a scraggly silver beard. Except for the coat, pale cheek rouge, lipstick and flesh, this androgynous angel is monochromatic in blacks and grays. Only the outer frame is edged in blue. The colorless souls of four adults and two children shade around her head.
These angels inhabit an immaterial realm. Organic, contour-following frames leave only enough room for radiant auras of color. In the small, flame-framed Larry in the Snow, a lone vestigial-winged spirit buoys amid spots of cosmic snow on a dark emptiness. A larger, untitled piece, with a simple gold rectangle and messy red inner band contains a black, painterly purgatory streaked with red and occasional blue. Head and shoulders, a boy, stares ahead from the lower left. A garish thin gold slash shadows bits of red across his forehead into the dark. Above his left shoulder a small, prim black guarding angel in a long white dress floats. At the outer edges, predatory wolves wait. Top right, a black and white snapshot silhouette reminds a quiet neighborhood at sunset.
According to lecturer Dr. Robert Romanyshyn, "linear perspective vision disappeared angels." When we traded apparent depth for levels of existence, "the creatures displaced became our unconscious." Solondz cites early Egyptian and European Medieval artists who also passed over perspective, because it "was never valued in their concept of reality; that is, the material world was seen as an illusion. The spiritual world was the reality."
"In a culture such as ours, where 'reality' is synonymously understood as 'the material world,' photographic images are valued for the description that they give of that world," Solondz said. "The rendering of detail is valued as an end in itself. Our culture is so steeped in this world view that it is difficult to imagine another one. Yet other cultures have existed that saw 'reality' not as the world of matter, but as the world of spirit."
The questions of reality are important to Solondz. But she has few answers. "It's not very clear to me," she says. "Occasionally, this is frustrating, but mostly I see it as part of the process." Dallas poet Robert Trammell approached the essence of this difficulty when he reminded the conference, "God knows, making art is better than thinking, anytime."
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