Growing up in a non-religious family, I first learned many Bible stories not in Sunday school, but art school.
At least half of learning to paint is looking at other people's paintings, and until relatively recent times, the lion's share of Western art dealt in Judeo-Christian themes. As a student, between slide lectures and museum visits, I couldn't help but absorb a vocabulary of devotional imagery: Annunciations and Assumptions, Last Suppers, Doubting Thomases, and Noli Me Tangeres, the ecstasies and grisly demises of martyrs and saints.
Those images are hard-wired in the DNA of Western art, and artists have returned to them time and again in order to express personal religious convictions, to reinforce (or challenge) prevailing dogmas, or simply as convenient frameworks for exploring their own concerns. For some painters, the familiar motifs help maintain a connection with their medium's history.
Christian Worthington is particularly concerned with preserving that historical link. Having flounced out of art school after less than a semester, he set up shop in the world's great museums to learn the Old Masters' tricks first-hand. His exhibition at Gurevich Fine Art last November featured brooding, brown-toned canvases peopled with contemporary stand-ins for Old Testament prophets. His techniques, which involve building layered, translucent shadows punctuated by decisive passages of opaque highlight, were straight-up 16th century.
The most interesting pieces in that show, aptly (if a bit touchily) titled Painting is History, were those left seemingly unfinished. Without highlights to pull them forward, the loosely but deftly painted figures receded into the transparent depths of their backgrounds, seemingly frozen in a half-remembered states. By stripping away the polish and illusionism typical of glaze paintings, the works ironically foregrounded technique. Worthington's current exhibition, also at Gurevich, furthers his exploration of craft and his commitment to ambiguity, all the while deepening his focus on religious themes.
Invoking the Christian Trinity in its title, III picks up where History left off. The sienna and umber glazes that overtook his figures have grown more colourful and more pronounced, with pools of amber and turquoise threatening to obliterate sketchy angels and formless, luminous piets.
Worthington follows the trajectory to its conclusion in fully abstract canvases, which, rather than Rembrandt or Caravaggio, look to more recent "masters" of colour-field painting like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, with a few rough scrapes cribbed from fellow hyperrealist/abstractionist Gerhard Richter for good measure. The result is a clever, compelling pastiche of Renaissance and Modernist ideas of religious expression that has as much to do with art history as piety.
In addition to a trio of ceramic reliefs, III features a number of rough-hewn, large-scale oilbar drawings. These mark Worthington's most decisive (and most gratifying) departure from form. As elsewhere, the figures in the towering, unframed works are unnamed and featureless, but the scenes are instantly recognizable as Madonnas and Child and Descents from the Cross. Though Worthington's skill for representation remains evident, the drawings trade cleverness for conviction, and their rawness and lack of restraint mark a welcome change of pace.
III's surprising blend of styles, techniques and sensibilities makes for a robust and nuanced exploration of faith and art history, whichever appeals to you more.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.