By: John Christman, SSS (Art Director), May/June 2018 Issue, Emmanuel Magazine
Certain ideas can take hold of an artist’s imagination for a lifetime. Some visual arrangement, aesthetic theory, theme, or subject can linger in an artist’s mind through the years compelling further and further thought and exploration. Cézanne became obsessed with seeing geometric forms in nature. Mary Cassatt returned again and again to the image of a mother with a child. Jasper Johns had a dream about making a painting of the American Flag and subsequently painted images of the stars and stripes for the rest of his life. Ideas take hold.
As viewers of these works of art, we are invited to contemplate not just a singular work, but to also bring that work into conversation with the artist’s entire engagement with an idea over time. Certainly each piece of art stands upon its own merits, but acknowledging the wider context in which an art work is made can shed light upon the meaning of a work of art and enrich interpretation.
The acclaimed artist Ioan Chisu has explored a wide array of subjects, styles, and ideas over his long career as an artist and a teacher. Born in Romania in 1939, his life has witnessed a great deal of change in the world of art, and he has thoughtfully engaged this ever-changing aesthetic milieu. From figurative work to abstract work, Cubist and Futurist influences, to more symbolic and naturalistic representations, all have factored into his artistic vision and exploration.
Amidst the brightly-colored patterned abstract paintings that have consumed much of his attention over the years, another interesting subject has engaged his attention: the still life. Many a young art student has learned their craft by painting still life paintings, patiently mixing colors and attempting to reproduce on a two-dimensional surface the simple objects placed on a table before them. Dutch and Flemish painters in the 1600s and 1700s raised still life painting to incredible heights with “fool-the-eye” naturalistic detail. Post-Impressionists and Cubists alike used still life painting to explore aesthetic styles and concepts influenced by modernity. The still life has proven to be a versatile vehicle for artistic expression and exploration.
Intriguingly, Chisu approaches still life subjects in both naturalistic and abstract styles. In his more naturalistic representations, Chisu often depicts voluptuous red, yellow, and green fruits set atop a table scattered with books and vessels. In his abstract still life paintings, the objects are flattened and reduced to essential geometric characteristics. One very clever painting, Still Life with Two Books (2014), playfully integrates both styles into one painting, with the naturalistic still life in the foreground and the abstract painting in the background. The painting makes a visual argument against any “either/or” position of stylistic representation. Unlike so many artists and critics who have taken sides as to the greater value of either abstraction or naturalism, Chisu’s painting proposes that artists can explore naturalism and abstraction together without contradiction.
Another intriguing development in his still life work takes a theological direction. In 1977, Chisu painted a still life entitled Still Life 2 (see Figure 1). A dynamic composition in earthy browns and warm yellow ochers, the painting in its complex geometry evokes a table densely covered with wine bottles, fruit, fish, books, and wine glasses.
Through a Catholic lens, a viewer might easily make Eucharistic connections. An abundant table, the Eucharistic symbols of wine and fish, warm colors stirring thoughts of hospitality and meals shared. The image itself is open to wide interpretation, some not religious at all. Nevertheless, as Jesus indiscriminately shared meals with saint and sinner alike, such a table seen through a Christian lens can be a profound place of encounter. Secular or sacred, Chisu’s Still Life 2 presents a meal ripe with the possibility of transformative encounter.
Flash forward 35 years and Chisu presents us with another theologically-rich still life entitled The Dove (see front cover). In some ways, The Doveis strikingly similar to Still Life 2. The shape of the table is the same in both paintings and some of the primary compositional elements are the same. And yet, the differences in the painting are both aesthetically and theologically remarkable.
Whereas Still Life 2 is busy with numerous shapes and objects, The Doveis less cluttered, without losing any dynamism. Gone are all the books and the fruit. Instead, we find a solitary cup, with a circle floating above. The plenteous wine bottles are nowhere to be found. In their place, we find instead a more sober presentation of what could be a single bottle of wine or perhaps a shape evoking a piano key and rhythm. The black rectangle that delineated the image of fishes in Still Life 2 is in the same place here; however, it is now a strong, clear uninterrupted blue rectangle, with the abstracted form of a dove in its center.
If Still Life 2 stirs the Catholic imagination to ideas of Jesus’ meal ministry and latent possibilities of building communion through the sharing of food, The Dove evokes the liturgy of the Eucharist. With its chalice and elevated host. With its balance of transcendent sky-blue otherness and inviting Mediterranean blue warmth. With its deliberate, reverent clarity counterpoised with rhythmic curves and lively angles. With its ingenious title The Dove sparking in our minds not only the freedom and presence of the Holy Spirit, but also that awe-inspiring moment of epiclesistransforming our lives and liturgy. With all of this, Chisu’s The Dove rises to theological grandeur.
How long does it take to distill an idea to its essence? Does it take a lifetime? Or is that the wrong question to ask? Is each expression of an idea appropriate to its time and rich in its own meaning? Thirty-five years separate Still Life 2 and The Dove and yet placed together each enriches the other. Through these still life paintings, Chisu gives us just a small glimpse of what our tables are capable of. He presents us with beautiful possibilities and perhaps stirs a more challenging self-reflective question, “What kind of spirit can be found at my table?”
Please note that this art review was originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of Emmanuel Magazine and is re-published here with their kind permission.