“The Baptism of Christ,” sculpture by Rosalind Hore

In recent months strikes, violence and political threats have rocked Britain like naughty Corgis bashing the dickens out of the Queen’s slippers. But not all is lost in the beautiful Emerald Isle, where they have so many traditions left to console them. As long as crumpets, Pearly Kings, mushy peas and kilts exist, British identity will probably last for millennia.

The Anglican Church there also keeps to a tradition of inspiring, commissioning and installing new art as it has for centuries. A group called “Commission 4 Mission” works to keep that particular church custom alive, but uses contemporary and decidedly nontraditional art.

Vicar Jonathan Evens, secretary of the group, stresses their efforts to include visual art as “integral to mission” of the church and not merely an afterthought. Other goals are to “speak eloquently” of faith, to draw people into churches and to link churches with local arts organizations. Evens considers their work as a means to fund charities and as “a mission opportunity” for the churches involved.

An example of both fundraising and mission is their new show at Tokarska Gallery London, opening Dec. 1, 2011. “Commission4Mission” is a group effort and outreach that uses secular galleries and Churches to host Christian-themed art shows. Most of artists in this show are members of Commission4mission in the U.K. and come from varied backgrounds. Their mediums are just as diverse, including concept drawings, digital works, fused glass, pottery and sculpture.

Standing out from the rest, at least for me, is Peter Webb’s oil painting, “Supper at Emmaus”:

“Supper at Emmaus,” oild painting by Peter Webb

This scene of an intimate group at a modern café is an updated take on the story of Emmaus from the book of Luke. There the sorrowing disciples fail to recognize the Christ as they eat with him on their journey until the very last moment before he vanishes.

“Supper at Emmaus” is something like a cross between Jack Levine’s and Franz Halls’ group scenes. Like Halls, Webb captures the quick awareness of the bunch, which generally had at least one member looking dead-on at the viewer from his canvas. Webb’s central figure looks straight at us with a sort of questioning and detached expression. He is obviously outside of the other men who devour their food or the sulky waitress who doesn’t recognize him but seems frozen anyway. Like Levine, his work is somewhat somber and intense but more clearly realistic.

The Jesus in this painting is believably contemporary along with the setting, as the original scene must have appeared to onlookers at the time. Webb uses a harsh light, settling mainly on his “Jesus” and subtly illuminating him, which causes a further distinction between him and the others.

One of the more arresting pieces in Commission4mission is by Christopher Clack, who trained as a painter and studied at the Royal College of Art:

“Descent II” by Christopher Clack

“Descent II” a pigment print, is obviously digitally formed, as is almost all his current work. It looks to be a negative of a classic work on the crucifixion by Pietro Lorenzetti, greatly mashed up on a computer and merged with shots of the moon landing. The result is visually riveting, although spiritually neutral. His scene lays on paper in an oval shaped darkness, something like a Petrie dish in space, waiting for something to happen.

Clack has done other juxtapositions of space/science subjects with biblical ones, “a vacuum as if to test for some idea of an inherent value or meaning,” as he puts it. Rather than assigning an explanation himself, he allows viewers to decide whether science and religion are compatible or oppositional.

Art Way, commenting on this particular piece and its theme of space, recounts the vastly differing reactions of American and Soviet astronauts concerning God: “Yuri Gagarin famously flew into space, but, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, ‘didn’t see any god there.’ Buzz Aldrin, by contrast, consumed the Holy Sacrament while on the surface of the moon.”

I’m with Buzz on this. Perhaps Christians “see” God everywhere and attempt to place him symbolically in works of art, whether others comprehend it or not. This is bound to cause some contention in churches as they encounter newer mediums and more ambiguous works of art. It also calls for a trust in artists’ motives, which are not so clear to read as in the past.

“Tranquility,” fused glass by Caroline Richardson

The artists in Commission4mission are not all overtly religious, and a few would not exactly fit the traditional profile of professing Christianity. For instance, Christopher Clack’s website features photos of a defecating dog, which is titled “In God we Trust” for some obscure reason and with no editorial comments.

Another Clack series is photos of street signs that boldly declare, “God is Dead.” Was there supposed to be a question mark? Still Clack’s work in Commission4Mission seems relevant and is neither heretical nor mocking. What can I say?

There shouldn’t be religious eligibility tests in art shows – it smacks too much of the Inquisition. But it would be nice to know if artists are authentic in their statements and stands. It’s like the phenomena of atheists always crashing Christian blogs and events. Is atheism so utterly boring? (Undoubtedly).

Commission4Mission asks us, “Can new and contemporary symbols be found for the traditional images and doctrines of the Christian faith?”

They don’t really have an answer but hope that artists and churches will begin working together more on actual missions rather than merely be considered the decorators. When this happens, it should attract not only quality artists, but also sincere Christian artists who desire to be part of something significant and exciting in the church.

The Commission4Mission exhibit at Tokarska Gallery London runs Dec. 1-31, 2011, from Thursdays though Saturdays, 12:00 noon – 7:00 p.m.

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