It was in the winter of 2011, during a studio visit with the artist Jennifer McRorie, that I first laid eyes on the painting Carcass (Deer). It evoked such a deep, immediate and visceral reaction that I have been haunted ever since.
This painting is one of a handful of images that McRorie made in response to the beauty she saw in her encounter with a carcass hung in a garage. In the end, however, this well-executed painting is a manifestation of a grand artistic vision that reaches into aesthetic and philosophical history in order to imagine the possibility of a new vision for self-understanding. It is a poetic call to reformation and renaissance that accesses the rich cultural ethos of Dutch history in order to express an aesthetic intuition regarding the very nature of human knowing.
Carcass (Deer) replicates the general practice of the memento mori and vanitas tradition. This aesthetic practice, which was fueled in the Netherlands by a Calvinist impetus, presented still life as emblematic objects symbolizing human mortality. Human skulls, burning candles, decaying flowers and soap bubbles stood in as symbols for the transience and impermanence of the material world and as a representation of human temporality. This tradition presented images that intended to be a reminder of the need to live life with more of a spiritual and eternal perspective. The images of this tradition manifested a moral lesson that emphasized the limits of temporality and living a life driven by immediacy and moral decadence. The point was to promote the virtues of the eternal as the supreme, ultimate, and legitimate object of human concern and devotion. Put in other terms, the images of the memento mori and vanitas tradition suggested the need for transcendence.
McRorie’s meticulous and skilled depictions of a deer carcass are a paradox of attraction and revulsion. The artist deliberately blurs the aesthetic line that draws harsh distinction between the beautiful and the grotesque. Her conscious deliberate application of chiaroscuro (the distribution of light and shade in a painting) is reminiscent of the Dutch master Rembrandt and echoes the aesthetic of transcendent sublimity that pervaded 17th century Dutch Calvinist humanism. This aesthetic quality serves to attract the viewer to the image. However, the irony of its application to an image of a deer carcass hanging in a garage over-whelms the viewer with the felt experience of contradiction between this historical style and the blunt, harsh, violence, and matter-of-factness of 21st century modernist secular materialism.
Carcass (Deer) does not come to bring peace but a sword. The genius of the painting is manifest in its initial offense. Those that cannot get past the surface of the painting’s subject are pushed from its presence by revulsion, leaving behind only those with the humble hope that there is more substance to the image than what lies on its surface. This means that the image serves to identify those who suspect that there is about something more to it than its initial effect. It is those that remain present to the image that hope to find something beyond its initial impact and who see it as a legitimate, potential means to profound understanding.
Given the work’s origins in the aesthetic ethos of Dutch Calvinism, one cannot entirely dissociate the image and its aesthetic from religion. And, from my vantage point of training in historical theology, I cannot help but relate the hanging deer carcass to the Passion of Christ. Though I do not mean to suggest that the image itself intends to be Christian, I would dare to suggest that it is a Christian allusion. And, even if this notion were disregarded or dismissed as reading into the image, I would still contend that the image is enhanced by a view from historical theology. By this, I mean to say that the issues and considerations evoked by Carcass (Deer) are strongly associated with long-standing problems in ancient and modern religious thoughts.
Ancient religious history was shrouded with assumptions regarding the relation of matter to the highest levels of proper knowing. The ancient world was Manichean and Gnostic in nature, assuming an inherent evil regarding matter and an essential goodness regarding the realm beyond it. In this perception, aspects such as divinity, spirituality, and proper ways of knowing were accessed by the deprecation of physicality, making the abandonment of our carnality the very means of spirituality or wisdom.
In stark contrast to these assumptions of cosmology, the Jewish theology of a God actively creating and engaging with the very matter of nature was profoundly out of place. Judaism’s philosophy of a God who made the physical world and which associated that creation with goodness (i.e. and the Lord saw that it was good) was unthinkable in the context of its surrounding philosophical climate. A creation narrative in which a Divine Being formed and shaped earth and then intimately breathed into it to in order to initiate human experience also evoked theological confusion for those with Manichean and Gnostic thinking.
The cultural distinction of Judaism’s creation narrative was only intensified by the Christian theology of incarnation. This strange notion placed the expression and being of divinity literally within the carnal world. Even amidst the early Christians, the very idea of incarnation was a conceptual conundrum that caused intense debate and consideration. This debate rotated around the central desire to understand the exact nature of Jesus as both a human and divine being. Like the Jewish creation narrative, the Christian conception of manifest divinity in the physical and human person of Jesus profoundly challenged the conventional wisdom of the time.
Whereas Manichean and Gnostic thought held the physical and spiritual in stark conceptual contrast, the Jewish creation narrative and Christian theology of incarnation brought them into a profound proximity. The Christian theology of the incarnation, however, also fused salvation and transformation to the physical.
The most iconic Christian imagery related to the incarnation of Christ is the Passion (i.e. crucifixion imagery). As an archetypal image, the Passion presents a similitude that is saturated with a highly nuanced complexity. In this single image, a simultaneously divine and human figure is suspended between earth and sky as an expression of both the horror and the beauty to be found at the precise moment in which justice meets love and judgment meets forgiveness. In this sense, Passion images are the ultimate nexus of the spiritual and the physical – the sinful and the good.
I present all this history because I think that it is present, in some way, to McRorie’s work. Her image Carcass (Deer) echoes the general aesthetic qualities of the Passion. As in the Passion, there is a sacrificed figure suspended between earth and sky. Like all Passion imagery, her rendition of the carcass expresses beauty and horror simultaneously. And, like Passion imagery, it suggests a complex relation between representation, contemplation, and human “salvation” and transformation.
McRorie’s brilliant use of the aesthetics of the Dutch Calvinists lends a strong religious flavor to her work, lending a symbolic or iconic nature to it. Like religious imagery, this painting attempts to present an object for contemplation with the intension to either evoke or further a change and transformation in regard to perception and values.
In McRorie’s version of the Passion, “Christ” is stripped of human representation and is rendered as “pure meat.” She presents an unblinking stare at a harsh physicality void of both person and life. I would argue that one could see this is an artistic hyperbole – an aesthetic over-statement to make the strongest of points. From this vantage, I would suggest that her view is focused on attacking the very notion of our historical tendency toward dichotomy. In this way, she is siding with the Jewish and Christian trajectories of thinking that attempt to resist, challenge or moderate such a dichotomy. In so doing, she sides herself with elements within this trajectory which call for modalities of thought which fuse the physical to the spiritual or which make the physical the very means of understanding the spiritual. I would definitely contend that some point like this is being made in the work.
Given this image’s origins in the rich aesthetic ethos of Dutch history, it seems clear that it is attempting to make some commentary on materiality and the spirituality of human contemplation. And, like the Dutch masters, it would appear that McRorie is attempting to set our thinking on a path that would enrich us by drawing out attention to ultimate and transcendent things and away from things that would distract. By presenting a blunt depiction of “pure meat,” this image seems to be alluding to a very specific point regarding her understanding of the relationship of the body and all material to the knowing process. By nature of the bluntness of this image, it would seem that this Moose Jaw-based artist is denying the special presence of a higher truth above it or of a hidden truth behind it, suggesting a form of truth that is somehow in it.
It is not my desire to banish the mystery of the point McRorie is making. It is complex, heavily-nuanced, and highly-charged. However, it is my desire to suggest that a dismissal of the image because of its initial repugnance is a denial of the very kind of salvation the image attempts to bring.
You can see more of Jennifer McRorie’s work here.
In December of 2011, the Art Gallery of Regina included Carcass (Deer) in the exhibition AfterLife