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Peeking at the ancient: Icon painting in the Russian and Coptic styles

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.rutlandherald.com/article/20090102/NEWS02/901020342 Article published Jan 2, 2009 Peeking at the ancient Icon painting in the Russian and Coptic
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 2, 2009
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      Article published Jan 2, 2009
      Peeking at the ancient
      Icon painting in the Russian and Coptic styles
      By CLARA ROSE THORNTON Herald Correspondent
      The popular concept of modern art is gnarled and
      twisting, like a dying vine. Many spectators are
      puzzled as to what currently qualifies as art,
      and where the line is drawn between "minimal" and
      "lazy," or between "conceptual" and "ragingly self-absorbed."

      It is true that a large swath of the modern art
      world contains works that 50 or 100 years ago
      would merely elicit smirks from the creative
      elite. As a visual art critic in Chicago, I was
      privy to shows at spaces such as the Museum of
      Contemporary Art downtown and Corbett vs. Dempsey
      gallery in Wicker Park where, for example, a pile
      of ripped newspaper clippings in a corner
      constituted an exhibition. Or where a single
      light bulb flashed cyclically in an empty room,
      accompanied by an occasional droning sound. Or
      where a huge, walk-in mound of clay had been
      fitted with pieces of colored glass on the inside
      and was said to represent modern religion.

      Each of these efforts was devised according to a
      code of complex metaphor on the part of the
      artist, and, thereby, should not be judged as
      trivial or "strange," as people so often find it
      easy to do. With the onslaught of the
      technological and information ages came new
      possibilities for understanding the world and for
      manifesting this understanding through creativity.

      Although taste is quite another matter.

      As is the immediate recognition of skill, labor
      and passion in art, which several modern
      creations admittedly leave to be desired. This is
      true with conceptual works such as the ones
      mentioned above, just as it is with paintings.

      At C. X. Silver Gallery in Brattleboro, a show
      inspires questions of how more traditional media
      in visual art still communicate in the
      contemporary landscape of abstraction. "Windows
      to the Divine: Icons in the Russian and Coptic
      Styles" collects recent works of four master icon
      painters — David Palmer, George Philipos, Jody
      Cole and Peter Pearson—and showcases in living
      color the resonance and power of ancient styles imbued with modern sensibility.

      Iconography is the ancient practice of depicting
      Christian figures in the stylized manner commonly
      associated with paintings from the Middle Ages,
      yet stretching as far back as the first and
      second century. Icon painting, says gallery owner
      Adam Silver, "is a painting style involving long
      traditions and canons of forms. By canons, I mean
      there are certain prescribed ways of depicting
      faces, hand gestures, aspects of the body and of
      the face, the way of rendering the eyes, and yet
      there is still much creativity to be found in it."

      A piece such as "Holy Trinity" by Palmer,
      depicting a classic biblical reference, replete
      with halos of old and the stylized facial and
      bodily proportions of medieval painting, manages
      to buzz with a fresh electricity and vividness
      and has the surreal air about it fit for a modern
      eccentric's collection. Yet iconographic works
      are not thought of as adornments by their
      creators. The art, after centuries of respected
      practice, is still held as a selfless religious
      expression following a prescribed route of technique.

      Palmer, the retired director of exhibitions at
      the Newark Museum in Newark, N.J., is the curator
      of the show. He explains, "The tradition of
      iconography has many symbolic attachments. And
      through the centuries, people have learned what
      they are, from form to color. Because of that
      historic tradition, people still, in the 21st
      century, believe in the spiritual dimension to the paintings."

      The remaining three artists are friends and
      associates of Palmer from his native
      Pennsylvania. The emergence of "Windows to the
      Divine" is quite an eye-opener to the fact that
      there is a strong, impassioned circle of artists
      working in the Northeast and internationally to
      provide these traditional works.

      Philipos is an Egyptian-born theology and
      fine-art graduate who's been painting in the
      Coptic icon style for 15 years. Cole has studied
      with Russian masters Vladislov Andreyev,
      Alexander Rosenkreuz and Valentin Streltsov, and
      has been commissioned by churches as far as
      Italy. Pearson, a former Benedictine monk, is the
      priest of St. Phillip's Church in New Hope, Pa.,
      and has created icons for private collectors and churches worldwide.

      It is fascinating to think that this art form is
      in high demand today, in a world with a value
      structure in place that is quite different from
      times when the style was dominant. But a quick
      look at any of these artists' Web sites shows
      that galleries, collectors and institutions are in dogged pursuit.

      Philipos is the sole artist in the show who
      follows the Coptic icon style as opposed to the
      Russian. "Coptic" derives from the Greek word for
      "Egyptian." It is the ancient language of Egypt,
      and a small number of people around the world
      continue to speak Coptic presently. The term
      "Coptic" today can refer to the Egyptian Orthodox
      Christian community, the style of art that
      developed as an expression of this "new"
      religion, or the ancient language itself. In the
      Coptic tradition, icon paintings are a very
      important part of daily spiritual life.

      Philipos, whose wife, Vivian, translates from the
      Arabic for him, says, "Icon painting is not just
      an art — it tells a story and it tells us about
      the Christian religion itself. Coptic icons are
      very important in church. You don't find a church
      without icons, telling stories of the old
      centuries in Christianity, the stories in the
      Bible … Their meaning is to send a message to the
      world today from the original art forms began in Egypt."

      Hearing the words spoken about the art by its
      practitioners and exhibitors, however, does not
      hint at the experience the paintings create. A
      walk through C. X. Silver's rooms showers one
      with the sensation of meaning finely honed and
      craft and technique painstakingly applied, awash
      in vivid color. Quite honestly, it offers a
      sensation lacking in many contemporary gallery
      shows, ironically manifested through a peek at the supposedly bygone.

      As Silver describes, "Through the luminosity and
      seeming simplicity of form, there lies the kind
      of work that echoes in different ways in many
      other countries and eras. Even as a contemporary
      art form, the modern icon has a connection with
      the ancient." The show continues through Jan. 4.
      For more information, see www.cxsilvergallery.com/

      Contemporary Icon Painting in the Russian and
      Coptic Styles closes Monday January 5
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