Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wagging the dogma

Christian Worthington looks across art history to explore matters of faith

  • Print

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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2013 C7

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Total Body Tune-Up: Farmer's Carry

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 060710 The full moon rises above the prairie south of Winnipeg Monday evening.
  • STDUP ‚Äì Beautiful West End  begins it's summer of bloom with boulevard s, front yards  and even back lane gardens ,  coming alive with flowers , daisies and poppies  dress up a backyard lane on Camden St near Wolseley Ave  KEN GIGLIOTTI  / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  /  June 26 2012

View More Gallery Photos

About Steven Leyden Cochrane

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google