Beyond Words

Christian Worthington

Christian Worthington at Rosedale Presbyterian, Oct. 18, 2014.
If you needed another metaphor for where the Church and the faith it espouses fit into the world today, you could have joined the throngs at Art Toronto last October. More than 20,000 people trekked through a massive convention centre looking at thousands of paintings from hundreds of artists.

Like any such fair, whether for cars, boats, home décor or sports memorabilia, the art extravaganza is exhausting and overwhelming. Visual presentations in a wide variety of media, in all shapes and sizes and price ranges, are there to see and buy. There is something vulgar about the excess—as there is of our consumer society—and something exciting. So many works of creativity; yes some head scratchers, yes some egregious shocks, but for the most part, engaging and interesting.

One theme conspicuously missing was religion; there were some works that delved into the spiritual, but interestingly, not often through the tradition of Christian art. There were some that used Christian iconography or the tropes of Christian art, but often in a critical or ironic mode.

Western art, historically entwined with the Church, has moved on to other themes. Or perhaps the Church has lost interest in the contemporary world. It’s a chicken – egg debate but of this we can be certain: Artists today do not see the Church and its concerns and themes as interesting subjects for their explorations.

Not all, of course. Christian Worthington was one of the artists on the convention floor. Based in Winnipeg, this was his first time at the Toronto fair, where he showed a few paintings for a secular audience. The previous weekend he had a show at Rosedale, Toronto, where he displayed nearly two – dozen works with overtly Christian themes and depictions.

I’ve known Worthington for nearly a decade. I first met him the summer of 2006 in Winnipeg where I had a play during the Fringe Festival. My play was housed in a storefront Alliance Church in the heart of the arts district. Coincidentally, Worthington had a few paintings on display at the church.

When I say church, that’s what it was but it didn’t look like any church I’d ever seen. It was a converted store; a large plate glass window at the front, with a door. You entered into a large room; two thirds of it filled with chairs; a third the sanctuary, which was also the theatre stage. The church was busy day – long. Young people, mostly artists, came through to grab a coffee, use the wifi and chat. Along with the Fringe plays there were other arts performances—music, dance, etc.—late into the night. That’s where I met Worthington and we spent many hours talking about art and faith and how an artist experienced faith and how the church responded to art.

Eight years later we relived some of those conversations at Rosedale. (You can see a video of our chat on our website.) That street – level sanctuary provided Worthington a place to be a Christian and an artist: “It takes a very particular type of church to wrestle with artists coming to the table on a theological, spiritual level. Before I found this church, I wanted to be a part of a church community but I couldn’t find a community that quite got me, despite their best intentions and my best intentions. I was talking about art and its relationship to a modern experience of Christianity.”

Worthington, like me, and indeed all of you reading this, lives in a postmodernist world. That’s a fancy word that began as a technical term but has come to define a worldview that distrusts, well, pretty much everything. No grand theories, no institutional or cultural designs. And what that means, in the end, is a deliberate consciousness about all aspects of life.

Postmodernism does not mean all things are relative; it does absolutely mean life is not a collection of assumptions. We have before us a vast body of knowledge, experiences and feelings. All of those are constantly at play and we make our life decisions by being aware of our surroundings.

Therefore, for many Christians in the pews there is a disconnect between their lives and their faith. Outside the church, in the postmodern society, traditions, customs and communities have been dismantled and rebuilt in new forms and shapes. Inside the church—well, in some churches—time seems to have stood still. This may be solace to some for whom the world has moved too quickly. For others it is discomfort on all levels.

Or as Worthington states, “It wasn’t just Michelangelo coming up with these things and everybody going, ‘I don’t get what any of this is about.’ No, instead it was more, ‘Okay, that’s it. There is us.’ It’s expressing an age, it’s expressing values. And there was an audience to receive it and to make sense out of it.”

But no more. Worthington talks of presenting biblical stories in secular galleries. “What is this Abraham and Isaac?” people would ask. The images were no longer “us.” The cultural language, which Michelangelo could take for granted, is now forgotten.

Christian Worthington is a postmodernist thinker and a classically trained painter. He was very excited that his trip to Toronto included both a show at a church and in a secular setting. “I take showing art in a church very seriously. That’s something very valuable to me. I see my work having two roles. I have a faith – based work set at Rosedale Presbyterian, where I talk explicitly about Christianity and culture and history. Then Art Toronto, which is a wide – scale cultural, mostly commercial event. The Christian arts have a very unique perspective.”

I started our conversation at Rosedale by asking him to describe a painting of his I’ve had hanging prominently in my home for many years. (You can see it on page 39. The painting appeared on the Record’s April 2007 cover.) On his website the painting is unnamed and only described as Oil on Canvas, 15×25.

The bottom half of the canvas, the face of a man I’ve always presumed to be Christ, is described by Worthington as, “obviously influenced by certain periods of art history; Caravaggio and Rembrandt are basics of technical foundation.”

For me the inner glow, the light that seems to come from within the portrait, is reminiscent of the old masters. But it is the top half, an abstract plane of red that gives the painting a deep resonance, something more than representation to something that feels like faith. The relationship between these two, the classical and the abstract, has intrigued me for many years.

“I was very much interested in mid – 20th century abstract expressionist. They thought a lot about colour and what colour can do, removed from representation of function. Especially Rothko.

“Instead of making a painting about characters involved in something where jealously occurs, why don’t we paint what jealousy looks like? That was their ambition. So from a religion point of view, why don’t we paint something that captures the drama, the passion, and so for me, it was trying to draw these lines together. In some ways, this represents the non – figurative manifestation of God. And then the New Testament is the spirit meet flesh.”

All that in oil on canvas no more than a quarter square metre. That is the power of a brush stroke. I joked to Worthington he was surrounded by Presbyterians who pride themselves not only on being people of the Word but also of words. We love words; we don’t always appreciate images. We are an intellectual lot who don’t always appreciate or understand the abstract. He responded to my joke seriously.

“Abstract artists have tried to make the argument, and philosophers have written, that music is the purest art form and the most removed. You can value an artist from just pure realism, but you don’t judge a composer by his ability to produce sweet sounds or a cat singing or a car starting up. You judge his ability to create emotions and sounds that you never heard before. And the sounds create an impression and emotion that exists nowhere else in nature.

“And so when you hear Bach’s Mass in B Minor, you don’t go, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound like anything.’ It sounds like something you’ve never heard before and that’s the point. It’s compositionally arranged so that it takes you on an experience that’s unfamiliarly strange. It combines emotions, real life happens in emotional real time. Let’s say something bad happens, like shock, fear, anger—you experience them chronologically. But great art and music combine emotions in a cocktail that you’re not familiar with. Wonder and fear. It produces a strange sensation that only that particular art can give you.”

I found myself standing for a long time in front of another painting at the Rosedale show. It was a large canvas with feather – like swoops of warm colours. The painting was calming. The colours were familiar—yellows and blues from the colour palettes of Christian arts I have absorbed by looking at hundreds of paintings over the decades, in books and galleries. (Later on, it doesn’t take me long online to find the palette in paintings by Fra Angelico, Raphael and Rubens.)

Standing in front of the painting, however, I wasn’t thinking about the palette or Raphael. I was allowing the canvas to embrace me, letting the colours, the swoops, the strokes of a brush, carry me someplace. I felt helpless in front of that painting, as I often do in front of abstract works. Or as I do listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. My joke to Worthington that Presbyterians are people who love words was really more a personal statement. I need words for everything; but not everything has words. Thinking in terms of music—brush strokes as notes—helps me get out of my own head into the art. It ushers me into the mystery.

That abstract canvas spoke to me of grace and transcendence. Those are the words that came to me but I can’t tell you where they came from. I realize that canvas could have been at Art Toronto and a secular audience may have felt similar emotions without choosing those words. It could be a secular painting with a Christian palette, but it was a Christian painting that brought calm to the viewer. Perhaps that was what Worthington meant when he said Christian artists have a unique perspective.

The Rosedale show was called Anno Domini: Images of Faith for the New Century. That is the challenge; not just for Christian artists but all people of faith, followers of Christ. What are our images for the new century? For Worthington, instead of folding under the pressure of secular forces he views his art and his faith as moving against the grain.

“As a Christian, I’m accountable; I’m still interested in contemporary art. I’m in dialogue with it but I have certain values that are absolute and I have to work within those conditions and I have certain parameters, certain things that I will and won’t do. I am trying to find the elaboration within those tensions.

“Showing my work in a church, this is an alternative venue. Like the way Impressionists rejected the salon and opened up their own gallery across the street and weirdoes would come through it. Weirdoes by standards of the day; it’s eclectic. You have to be a very certain person to find this stuff so interesting that you come into a church to see it. They have to have a very particular value in art, culture and all those things. There’s a punk element to it.”

That idea reverberated the next week as I walked through the endless corridors of a secular art convention. For all the aesthetic pursuits, and the myriad formats, for all the neo – Marxist critiques of consumer culture, for all the assertions of humanity, there was a curious ubiquity to the majority works. There was very little accountability or transcendence and without that reach towards grace many of the canvases and sculpture felt cynical. Plastic.

And that, I suppose, is the challenge for the faithful in the new century.

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About Andrew Faiz

Andrew Faiz is the Presbyterian Record's senior editor.