Tag Archives: Reformation

Jen McRorie’s Passion

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.

deer carcasCarcass (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.

deer carcas detail 2Given 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.

deer carcas detail 3Whereas 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 


Transfigured: Keeping the Body in Mind

This is the first of two articles on the work of the Moose Jaw-based artist Jennifer McRorie

Scars are a powerful metaphor for being profoundly impacted by a negative experience and surviving to tell about it.  However, when they are literal, they mark the place where concrete experience meets story.

Explaining how one’s scars came to be is likely one of the oldest motives for human narrative.  The common practice of soliciting and issuing a story around tragedy and triumph, exposes the fact that storytelling founds and perpetuates meaningful, social, human relationships.  It also betrays the fact that storytelling is central to the formation of personal and social identity.  In this way, scars can also be understood as a metaphor for the exact point at which fact meets fiction and fiction meets reality.  This is the way Jennifer McRorie is using scars in the body of work she entitled Transfigured.

 The Saskatchewan-based artist uses scars to allude to the fact that our historical, concrete experiences inevitably evoke interpretations.  And it is these interpretations that define and shape us, determining who we understand ourselves to be and, more importantly, determining what we will inevitably become.  As her work explores the complicated relationship between concrete human experiences and the stories and interpretations that surround them, she alludes to the role collective and individual choice plays in defining and determining who we are.  McRorie’s work embodies a form of social criticism that seeks to challenge, expand, and refine the circle of understanding that defines our identity as thoughtful individuals.  Put another way, McRorie’s work relates to good old-fashioned humanism.

For some time now, our society has been captivated by a series of stories that tell us our choices are not the salient factor in our human experience.  These stories suggest that what we do and say or how we think and act are actually the product of things beyond our control.  They suggest to us that our decisions and actions are directed by either the social realities that surround us, the sum total of the genetic factors within us, or our compulsion to either avoid what we fear and to enact what we think will bring us pleasure.  Whether these stories wrap themselves around sociology, genetics, or behaviorism, they share the desire to corral our thoughts toward the conclusion that any understanding of our self as a thinking, reasoning, choice-making individual is an illusion.  They attempt to argue that our “choices” are merely the product of determinisms that, in actuality, define us.  This suggests, of course, that our choices are not choices at all and that, ultimately, they can do very little to truly shape us.  This, to be sure, is not a very humanistic vision and is a transformation of the historical understanding of ourselves as Homo Sapiens – a term which was meant to shape our identity around our thoughts and a term which literally means “knowledgeable and wise human beings.”

GerardA previous era told us a very different story about humanity.  In it, we were oppressed by a zealous commitment to tradition and a very narrow vision of reality that insinuated itself into every interpretation of our existence.  In this story, humans were not expected to think, but to conform; not to deliberate, but obey.  In the dawn of the Reformation, Renaissance, and the Age of Reason, a flood of light washed all this darkness away and set us free to think, reason, and choose for ourselves.  This story birthed a very humanistic, democratic and optimistic vision that suggested each an every one of us possessed the flower of creation – a mind.  This story made us all peers with the heroic potential ability to use our active minds for the common good.

McRorie’s scars seek to capture many things.  Primarily, they suggest a moment in time where circumstance, in the form of calamity, befalls an individual and leaves its mark.  However, just as a scar denotes the passage of time and the evolution from trauma toward healing, her images allude to the process of thinking that follows all of our experiences.  They suggest the deliberation, consideration, and evaluation within our thinking that seeks to interpret the significance of the experiences that befall us.

The work that composed the exhibition Transfigured in the Art Gallery of Regina in 2009 was fraught with ambiguity, which is to say, it was marked by an aesthetic of paradox.  Every moment that considers this body of work, discovers a new and apparent contradiction.  The images are realist in nature and thus seem concrete and representational.  However, they are abstracted in the sense that the images provide no real locative context from which to interpret them.  The viewers of these works have no way of knowing where these scars are located on the body nor where that body containing the scars happens to be.  In this sense, we are left to wonder how big a deal these scars actually are or how significant the experience was which brought them forth.

These type of images in McRorie’s work suggest a narrative in that we know that scars are Marie IIthe product of some physical trauma.  However, we have no real details that fill in the specifics of that suggested narrative.  In this sense, we are left to wonder how much empathy and compassion the images are demanding of us. Their scale brings us into intimate proximity with the subject and provides us with excessive detail regarding one singular aspect of that person.  However, the decontextualization, combined with the very personal indication of tragedy and suffering, heightens a sense of objectification.  In this sense, we are left to wonder whether we are to be ponderous and abstract or engaged and sensual.  These are but a few of the resident ambiguities of the images that comprised this exhibition and the rest of the artist’s oeuvre.

It is this factor of McRorie’s work that is the true genius of it.  The paradoxical nature of these images is a gateway to recognizing the ultimate subject of them that I take to be open-ended thinking – the human mind pondering and not coming to rest.  The questions which McRorie’s dialectical images evoke relate strongly to the very real questions of meaning and significance which naturally arise from all concrete human experiences, especially those which emit from traumatic situations.

The dialectical nature of the images confounds the viewer and thus accurately captures the feeling or sensation of being in the throws of deciding, considering, questioning, and evaluating.  If there is any beauty in these images, it is found in the human mind thinking about them, trying to perceive an understanding that is presently eluding it.

It is, in this sense, that McRorie’s vision interfaces with the very kind of humanism that pervaded both the Reformation and the Renessaince, set the horizon for the Age of Reason, and laid the foundations of modern democratic thought.  Throughout all these eras, there was a captivation with the nature of the mind and a growing reverence for the significance of human self-consciousness, the ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts.  It was the human mind, these old worthies believed, that attached human beings to something beyond themselves and made humans something significantly more than mere bodies and ordinary beings.  In differing ways, they all suggested that the workings of the mind compelled individuals to rise above what their historical circumstances dictated to them and compelled them to create a significantly different vision of reality.  In other words, they believed that the mind was an agent of human and social transformation.

ChrisThrough her association with this kind of perspective, McRorie casts a subtle but critical eye on many of the contemporary stories that tell us that our choices and considerations are nothing more than manifestations of sociology, biology, or behaviorism.  These views, to be sure, minimize the human mind and make it nothing more than an extension of mere matter shaped by the views of other people, genes, or psychological impulses.

McRorie’s aesthetics of paradox reengages the viewer with the concept of the mind freed from dogma.  With this aesthetic, she reminds us that thought is a process leading not to certain conclusion but further, deepened, and more nuanced thought with the latter being closer to reality than the former.  In this, it is driven by the very humanist motive of emancipating us from the very confining interpretations of our recent past, interpretations that have scarred us to be sure.

Like that of her humanist forebears, McRorie’s body of work is best seen as an exploration that attempts to discover what is fundamentally human about us.  Her work seeks to convey the reality of what it means to be an actual person as opposed to a mere conceptual object or physical mass.  While doing so, it presents ambiguous images that give the opportunity for the very human response of wondering what it all might mean.

For more information about the work of Jennifer McRorie