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Bryan Christie: Heaven Painter, Hell Painter

The Weekly Standard, March 2, 2018 (read there)

What would Leonardo have done with radiography? What might Michelangelo have accomplished had 3-D modeling been available? What heights of the mind would a neo-Platonist like Piero della Francesca have witnessed if he had lived long enough to see calculus?

Tools aren’t everything, and those men were products of their time as much as we are of ours. Yet here we are, the beneficiaries of ingenious systems and electronic contraptions that make commonplace feats that were impossible within not-very-distant memory. Meanwhile, the artistic achievements of the Renaissance have never ceased to evoke awe. Their craft and emotional effect seem somehow too mighty to emulate. When it comes to art, we are more powerful than ever before and as helpless as we’ve ever been.

Into this overlap between the centuries-old Western figurative tradition and the possibilities of technology steps Bryan Christie. Jazz musician by training, medical illustrator by vocation, and religious aspirant by temperament, as a visual artist Christie is taking part in an ancient and ongoing effort to depict the human body in a manner that expresses a reality beyond mere flesh.

His method is to pose virtual 3-D models, the ones he uses in his work as an illustrator, in positions inspired by Renaissance art. (Michelangelo is an important touchstone for him.) He then renders these poses in multiple views, rotating a fixed distance around the figure until the model has been completely spun in virtual space. Each of these views is then printed digitally onto silk, the silk is coated with an application of wax, and the wax is fused to the supporting layers using a heat gun and a blowtorch.

Visually, wax is magical stuff, its surface more greatly resembling skin than that of any other painting medium. Here, its effect is something like a hot fog. Out of that haze emerges a mostly symmetrical abstraction in which one can, with some effort, pick out a lung, a womb, or a tibia. This aspect of the project would have been recognizable to Leonardo. It’s not hard to imagine the master trying something like it, had he the computing power.

But the effect is more akin to the paintings made by the anonymous Tantra practitioners in Rajasthan, in which a geometric shape is placed in the middle of a rectangle and imbued with such energy as to imply an open channel to the divine. “It is a mistake to think that spirituality is seen only through a mist,” said Robert Henri, but as mists go these multilayer wax veils are effulgent.

In the series on display at Boston’s Matter & Light gallery, the compositions have a satisfying bottom-weighted quality. They sit like vases. But prolonged inspection reveals the forms to be built from inverted bodies—that is, most of the figures are pictured with heads down and legs up—which conveys upset, disorientation, and flux. Are they dead? Submerged? Cast out of heaven?

This amalgam of stasis and flux is a source of intriguing tension. In the work from which the exhibition takes its title, Every Angel Is Terror, one can make out skulls and brains in the protrusions at the bottom of the composite figure. Stacks of organs form its walls, topped with wispy leg bones. They surround an interior space, a kind of heart, glowing crimson. As the human is reconstructed into something otherworldly, vestiges of organ and bone remain in evidence. The transformation seems to have a holy end, but its midpoint, captured here, remains full of reminders of death.

Bodies have come almost wholly undone in Of Your Presence Just Passed. Craniums rise atop vigorously arched spinal columns that meet at a point of light that glows in a heavenly field of ultramarine. The lines that one would know from the other works in the show to have described bones or ligaments have abstracted into calligraphy and curlicues. They form a floating rooftop over the basin of backbone that holds the luminous point. In this it’s possible to see an element of H. R. Giger, who worked this sort of twisting of human anatomy with markedly different results from Christie’s. It’s equally plausible to see a kinship with Morris Graves in the line quality and the watercolor-like fields of digital color. Graves hated modern technology but was a similar type in certain ways, moved by a widely informed religious syncretism to try to depict the ineffable.

A remark made by Eric Fischl to Art in America in the mid-1990s is helpful here:

Artists connected to the church were asked to imagine four things: what heaven was like, what hell was like and what the Garden was like before and after the Fall. . . . You still can find heaven painters, hell painters, and Garden painters, but you rarely find them in the same person.

Christie is a heaven painter, with a bit of a taste for hell.

Beeswax aside, these are digitally printed images, and anything could have been done with the color. A new exhibition at the nearby Institute of Contemporary Art, Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, is the centerpiece of a collaboration between 14 organizations in the area to show art that has embraced technology’s inherent anti-naturalism. Such art is made on the RGB color model, and it heavily favors green. Consequently, Christie’s push into orange is an interesting counterpoint to the tendencies of the media on display around Boston at the moment. He seems to have taken his color cues from Fra Angelico (co-incidentally getting a thorough treatment at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). Yet Christie’s work shares with the Internet art much of the same genetic material, relying as it does on common platforms of computer graphics. Christie’s work is in the time of the Internet, but not of it.

Word count: 961

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