Cover Story

Art aflame

WORLD's Daniel of the Year, Makoto Fujimura, restores art's good name among Christians and gives Christians a good name in the arts

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 17, 2005

Past the Saturday brunch-goers and overladen shoppers, beyond where old women pull leashed Bouviers from flower beds and lean young moms stride behind jogging strollers, Manhattan's historic Chelsea district gives way to what looks like the wrong side of the tracks. Near Pier 60 on the Hudson River hip Chelsea devolves to industrial Chelsea, with loading docks, transport and storage holds, and the stray Jehovah's Witness hall.

But not so fast. Sea-green plexiglass has replaced some roll-up doors. Cement-block shells of buildings sport engraved plaques bearing the latest names in high art. Here the newest galleries in the art capital of the world snap up warehouse space, transforming the district much the way artists and collectors took over SoHo and Greenwich Village before.

At Sara Tecchia Gallery painter Makoto Fujimura is standing in a room aflame. Twelve of his latest works lean against darkened walls and, inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy, depict the fires of hell. It is Sept. 10 and outside on the water Coast Guard patrol boats are queuing for the fourth anniversary of terror attacks on the city. Inside it is five days before the opening of "Water Flames," Mr. Fujimura's largest exhibition in three years and one promoted as part of a "post-9/11 journey."

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The exhibition is much-anticipated because in the art world Mr. Fujimura is both iconoclast and fixture. His works are on display worldwide (the largest, 17 feet by 23 feet, fills CNN Asia headquarters at The Oxford House in Hong Kong), yet weekends find him at church in Greenwich Village, where he is a Presbyterian Church in America elder. Founder and director of the faith-based International Arts Movement, he manages to keep and expand a following among the avant-garde.

His new exhibition is important enough, according to curator Sara Tecchia, to launch the grand opening of her Chelsea gallery. The largest canvas, over 10 feet long and nearly 8 feet in height (list price: $60,000), stokes enough fiery-looking heat for any observer to expect it to burn to the touch. Such hyper-real color derives from special imported pigments, chiefly Japanese vermillion and gold, applied using an ancient Japanese technique called nihonga, which the 45-year-old artist has carried into the world of abstract art to growing acclaim.

The flames that surround Mr. Fujimura, who paces the middle of the main gallery debating how high to hang each canvas, have a subtext. His work since 9/11-when he spent the morning trapped in a subway beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center-is about "crossing the chasm of history," he says, "back to the fallen Jerusalem that Jeremiah witnessed." The terror attacks and their aftermath prompted questions not only about the meaning of his art but the meaning of his life: "Is New York City like Babylon or Jerusalem? How do I remain faithful here, even among the rubble?"

"Water Flames" and other works since 9/11 are, Mr. Fujimura says, "my personal experience of devastation coming out in art and life with strong faith and resolute hope." While profoundly Christian works are usually shunned in New York art circles, these resonate with outsiders. "He is a profound believer and I am totally secular. But he is like a professor to me," says Ms. Tecchia. "Fujimura's paintings allow for skeptics as myself to do the one thing that secularism has labeled as a sign of weakness: to hope."

That Mr. Fujimura employs abstract forms to telegraph concrete meaning is a revelation in the realm of contemporary artists, where bedrock concepts of truth and beauty-much less biblical concepts of redemption and healing-are usually rejected, and where ironic distance has been stretched to such a limit that most non-artists regard the arts as stubbornly detached from reality and rotating in a narcissistic, varicolored universe.

Among Mr. Fujimura's fans are drama critic Terry Teachout, art critic David Gelernter, and Robert Kushner, a 1970s performance artist and acclaimed fabric painter for three decades. "The idea of forging a new kind of art, about hope, healing, redemption, refuge, while maintaining visual sophistication and intellectual integrity is a growing movement, one which finds Fujimura's work at the vanguard," wrote Mr. Kushner in a review of "Water Flames."

But what does a painter have to do with that ancient prophet of Babylon who walked through his own batch of flames, testing and besting the powerbrokers of his day? Everything, considering he walks among a culture that worships the visual and gorges on the beauty of the moment. "It's been a catastrophe for the church that we have abandoned high culture," said Greg Wolfe, editor of the arts magazine Image Journal. "One generation's high culture has a way of becoming the next generation's pop culture. And Mako is one of America's leading visual artists."

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