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