By Gaylund K. Stone
“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
Icons in Transformation juxtaposes traditional Russian icons with the contemporary abstract work of Ludmila Pawlowska, showing both the artist’s inspirational sources and the work the sources inspired. I saw the exhibit at Milwaukee’s Cathedral of All Saints, and there the icons provided multiple perspectives on worship itself and the interaction of secular and sacred space.
|St. Paul’s Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, will welcome Icons in Transformation from September 10 to November 9. Visit Ludmila Pawlowska’s website for more information on the exhibit.|
Although Pawlowska’s descriptions of her paintings focus on the technical and formal aspects of traditional iconography, the work displays an autobiographical interaction with the icons that departs from formal similarity. Pawlowska has used the work to address her own experience of personal loss and the consolation she found through meditation and prayer. The artist, rather than the icon, experiences transformation, glimpsed in turn by the viewer in a spiritual space beyond the surface of the icon.
To focus only on technical similarities trivializes Pawlowska’s work. Yes, there is a parallel iconography and a common interest in texture, color, and the frequent use of the square format. Pawlowska’s work provides a much richer and more textured surface, however, bordering on the sculptural. Even those pieces that are technically “flat” still develop the surface with layers of burlap, thick paint, metallic finishes, and incised lines that pay only a token homage to the techniques of the icon painter.
More sculpted slab than painted surface, the paintings orient themselves to space in ways that are quite different from the traditional icon. At the Cathedral of All Saints, the pieces hung along the sides of the nave were conceived three-dimensionally, with all sides and back fully developed. They appear initially to function as banners, but display an imposing and forceful sculptural presence that demands attention and response.
Some viewers may be troubled by the abstract style of the work, but spiritual realities are not so easily translated into representational imagery. Pawlowska has adapted styles and techniques related to those of the Abstract Expressionists, while including representational elements. The expressionist character of the work helps to bear the emotional state of both artist and viewer. The textures of the panels and the richness of the surfaces invite us to come closer, as we might approach an icon in an act of personal devotion.
Pawlowska’s paintings, including those that avoid distinct representational elements, would be well-suited for exhibition in most contemporary galleries. An ecclesial setting is, however, more appropriate as a reverent, meditative, and prayerful environment.
The work bears an emotional gravity and intensity, with little of the serenity found in the traditional icon. The eyes of Pawlowska’s icons capture a sense of pain and longing that belongs to the world of mortals, outside the iconographic gate. The anguish of separation produces a haunting isolation, yearning for direct access to God constrained by physicality.
Thus Pawlowska concentrates on the space that surrounds and permeates the traditional icon as a gateway to the supernatural. The artist looks intently through a narrow passage, affording only a glimpse of the other side. Looking on, we almost assume a divine point of view, facing the attempted approach of creatures longing for freedom.
Icons in Transformation dramatically demonstrates a problem common to religious artists: how to capture the spiritual within the limitations of physical material? Michelangelo, Blake, Rodin, and many others wrestle with this challenge. Pawlowska’s paintings reveal the human condition as experienced by a single individual, longing for God. As she states on a text panel, art is a form of prayer. These works illustrate the act of prayer to God who is spirit — reaching out and awaiting a response.
Any viewer who has the opportunity to see and spend time with Icons in Transformation will experience a space between body and spirit that we seldom inhabit.
Gaylund K. Stone is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University Wisconsin.