Cover Story

Art aflame

"Art aflame" Continued...

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

Editor Wolfe says that few appreciate the discipline it involved: "Mako slowed his life down and submitted to this time-consuming process, mastering a technique that is pre-technology." For striving young artists in an on-demand age, said Mr. Wolfe, "there's something prophetic to this-learning an ancient system that requires real human investment in time, money, and patience."

Nihonga, Fujimura-style, uses pulverized pigment mixed with water and an animal-hide glue, then applies it to handmade paper. The pigments come from minerals-azurite, malachite, cinnabar, Japanese vermillion, gold powder, cochineal derived from beetles in India, and more. Craftsmen make the paper by hand in Japan, and some with Mr. Fujimura used hemp and the Japanese mulberry tree to invent a new variety that is now called Fujimura paper. For "Water Flames" he had a paper called Kumohada specially made.

Mr. Fujimura admits the works do not reproduce well in photos, but he likes to create something "only the naked eye can experience." The elements combine to create a one-of-a-kind dimension, a layering effect, which has to be seen to be believed. One work in the "Water Flames" exhibit takes pulverized oyster shell layered with silver to create a flame form that is treelike, its background tied to Japanese woodcuts and Buddhistic scrolls, its foreground afire with burning-bush imagery.

Mr. Fujimura is as much drawn to the process as to its finished product. He has been known to videotape the paint as it dries. Unlike abstract expressionists who say their work must be interpreted inside its own created sphere, he often writes about his works in progress, noting in one piece, "As the light becomes trapped within pigments, a 'grace arena' is created." In "Water Flames" he captures the tension flowing through Christian life in a fallen world: Using water he creates fire, and with minerals from a solid earth he creates movement. By adapting ancient Eastern techniques he produces Western masterpieces that-according to Mr. Wolfe-"refute the idea that certain styles are incompatible or disqualified from reflecting Christian truths."

Mr. Fujimura's work is not universally appreciated. Several newspapers chose not to cover the new exhibit because of its blatant religious content. "We are really closer to the 'fire' here, and even such a reluctance may be a good sign that I am on the right path," said Mr. Fujimura. "They don't know what shelf to categorize my works on. They do see the obvious religious dimension, but, even if they like it, it is out of their semantics as contemporary critics."

Mr. Fujimura faces two sets of potential critics, Mr. Wolfe notes: He teaches the mainstream culture that "art which grapples with the reality of traditional experience in a biblical context can be as good as anything anyone is doing in visual arts." He also challenges Christians "to be more discerning as we are called by the Apostle Paul to learn the signs of the times." Mr. Fujimura is content to have it that way, noting that, "we as Christians are far from having perfected our own condition or having arrived at any perfection." He hopes both to "grieve with the world but also serve the world that needs love."

Abstract art and the Bible

Biblical aesthetics are grounded in "creation," in which the artist is doing something analogous to God

By Gene Edward Veith

Cultural conservatives tend to cast a dim eye on abstract art, insisting that true art should "look like something." But nonrepresentational art has roots deep in the Bible.

According to the Ten Commandments, "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4-5). This commandment forbids idolatry-striking at the essence of all humanly constructed religions then and now-but it specifically mentions making a "likeness."

This does not forbid all representational art, since God soon after commands that He be worshipped in a Tabernacle adorned with images of cherubim, almond blossoms, and pomegranates (Exodus 25). In the Temple, God commanded making representations of lions, palm trees, and bulls (1 Kings 7:2-37).

But the ancient Hebrews were still leery about making "likenesses" of the sort that their nature-worshipping neighbors venerated as manifestations of their gods. This did not mean, as is often charged, that they made no art. Whereas the pagans adorned their pottery and other artifacts with pictures of animals, human beings, and deities, the Hebrews favored nonrepresentational designs: intricate patterns, interlocking shapes, and pleasing colors.

Such monotheistic abstraction finds its highest expression today in Islamic art, which strictly forbids "likenesses" but which gives us the beautifully complex patterns of mosque decorations and Persian carpets.

The classical aesthetics of the Greeks were grounded in "mimesis"; that is, imitation, both of nature and of the ideal forms thought to lie behind nature. This was in accord with the Greek worldview, which saw the physical world itself as nothing more than an imitation of a previously existent ideal.

Biblical aesthetics, though, are grounded in "creation," in which the artist is doing something analogous to God, who created the universe in all of its beauty, from nothing. Thus, the Christian tradition, while accommodating also classical imitation, has given rise to art forms such as fiction, fantasy, and pure design.

The Reformers attacked the Roman Catholic veneration of religious images as idolatry, but they too channeled art into a more purely aesthetic direction. Calvin said that "only those things are to be sculpted or painted which the eyes are capable of seeing" (Institutes I.11.12). This, ironically, meant the "likenesses" of a new artistic realism. But when the Dutch Reformed artists painted landscapes, portraits, and still lifes of tableware and fruit, their interest was in purely aesthetic effects.

This tradition was carried into America by Dutch settlers. Artists of the "Hudson River school," America's first artistic movement, painted landscapes because they considered nature to be God's art.

Just as we take pleasure in the complex pattern of a tree's branches, we can take pleasure in the visual impression created by an abstract painting.

Much modern art, with its black canvases or random drippings, can be Gnostic or nihilistic. But it can carry meaning. The art of Makoto Fujimura, with its natural materials and the words attached to it, reflects Reformed theology. His "Water Flames" are abstract, but their portrayal of fire in water evokes not only 9/11 and hell, but baptism and the Holy Spirit. Judgment is real, but extinguished. Now both fire and water are cleansing. Mr. Fujimura's art is abstract but redemptive, carrying on the great tradition of biblical art.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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