Through Your Eyes: Dialogues on the Paintings of Bruce HermanWritten by G. Walter Hansen and Bruce Herman Reviewed By Jonathan A. Anderson
Bruce Herman has for many years been working in that strange cultural space between the church and the contemporary art world—indeed he is one of the most prominent figures to have made his home there. His most recent book Through Your Eyes, collaboratively written with Walter Hansen, offers a welcome contribution for further study and reflection about the work being made in that space.
Through Your Eyes is an interesting contribution on at least two counts. First, it functions as a partial retrospective of Herman’s career, offering a handsome survey of the major threads of thought and practice that have run through his work for the past three decades. Dozens of images are reproduced here—all printed in full color at large scale—which are accompanied by several short essay meditations on a selection from ten series of paintings created since the late 1980s. Readers are able to see and consider long-range developments in Herman’s work, as he has mulled over particular themes and narratives and as he wrestled with the fraught meaningful bond between the materiality of painting and the pictorial worlds somehow possible within a painted surface.
Second, as the book’s subtitle indicates, the format for reflecting upon these works is a dialogical exchange between the artist and one his collectors, New Testament scholar G. Walter Hansen. In their introductory chapter the authors frame the book as an effort to “show how an artist and one of his interpreters engage in conversation from different starting points and different interpretive assumptions” (p. xx). While the essays themselves offer helpful and illuminating engagements with Herman’s paintings, the most interesting aspect of this format is the way that the artist and commentator continually displace and yield to each other as authoritative voices, as they “venture into the potentially embarrassing business of interpretation” together (p. xix). The displacements that occur are charitable rather than violent; indeed Herman sees the entire exchange as a gesture of reciprocated hospitality: “this is the most encouraging thing that could ever happen to an artist—to have a committed and sensitive interpreter of his work turn and open the whole thing up to others” (p. xx).
Interestingly, this collaborative venture into interpretation includes an articulate artist and an articulate patron of the arts, but it conspicuously excludes members of the professional interpretive guild of art critics and historians. This isn’t a problem for the book, but it signals that a different aim is in view here (and a different kind of conversation is being sought) than one of garnering validation from the professional art discourse. The dialogue that unfolds between Herman and Hansen is more personal, even devotional, than had this been a standard retrospective catalogue. And its chief values and virtues derive from that fact: the conversation takes place within the context of long-term friendship (more than professional dialectic), and the paintings are engaged as sites for serious theological contemplation (more than through the gridwork of academic art history).
But that’s not to imply that the conversation is narrow or insular. The literary references brought into play in the essays are diverse and rewarding, ranging from Julian of Norwich to Jacques Ellul, with significant discussions along the way given to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot. The visual references in Herman’s work are also wide-ranging: his theological imagination is steeped in the visual languages of late medieval and early renaissance altarpiece painting (traditions he understands well), which are made to contend with the resolute material flatness of modernist painting—a dynamic that produces much of the generative tension in Herman’s work. The paintings present themselves as both windows and walls: holy scenes appear in surfaces that are dense and agitated, adorned with gold yet violated with scraping, scrubbing, and sanding. The figuration is often awkward and course, yet somehow delicate and sensitively rendered. The visual space oscillates between medieval gold leafing (traditionally the transcendent light of God), some version of Giotto’s blue (the endless expanse of the created order), and the uneasy geometric divisions of Richard Diebenkorn (the flat rectangular surface).
The works (and essays) produced in these tensions are often poetic and theologically rich meditations on a world that is holy and distressed. Elegy for Bonhoeffer (2001), for example, is a haunting requiem for the great pastor-theologian who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp in April 1945. In Herman’s painting the dying Bonhoeffer is inverted, falling naked and head-downward (cf. Max Beckmann’s Falling Man, 1950) past a heavy heap of Nazi architecture into a disheveled field of gold leaf—the light of God, the ground beneath all things. The martyr is absorbed into this ground, pulled by a heavier “weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:16–18). Second Adam (2007) is one of Herman’s best paintings, offering a smart reconfiguration of traditional crucifixion altarpieces. Whereas Adam’s skull traditionally appears at the base of Christ’s cross, Herman presents a full-bodied adam, a “bent” man, disfigured by labor and wickedness (a striking allusion to the Augustinian/Lutheran notion of incurvatus in se). With these and many other works, Through Your Eyes offers fruitful opportunities for further contemplation of—and within—that space Herman has occupied.
Jonathan A. Anderson
Jonathan A. Anderson
La Mirada, California, USA
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