In the absence of Christianity, Art would be my religion. It fills much of the criteria - a high regard for the creative spark, the concept of deeper meaning, the notion of the individual placed in beautiful paradox alongside the idea of audience/community, the embracing of mystery, the belief that life is more than calculated science. Of course there are forms of art (as there should be) that critique each of these notions, but art as an encompassing ocean - the world of art - is often inseparable from these elements. Art is a seeking, searching, a questing for meaning, explanation and significance sort of thing that jump-starts and touches on desire. It fiercely flies in the face of the possibility that we are merely primates governed by chemicals and electrical impulses.
Like most of western culture, art has long had a relationship with Christianity. Around the world there is inevitably some reference to religion in the history of art. Because of this history, and because it deals with most of the same existential questions of religion, the terminology and references intermingle. I often experience the snugness of theology and art - and discover experiences of equal weight within the context of a sermon as in an art gallery.
Today I went to church. I went to an art gallery. I don't want to over-sentimentalise this. I don't want to beatify a simple experience of seeing brush strokes on canvas or falsely elevate the ideas of the artist. On Sundays, I go to a church (with a sermon, worship and other Christians) that meets in a rugby clubroom where stale beer is sticky underfoot and provides the dominant aroma. I believe in a spirituality that is at once sacred and rarefied while being simultaneously in touch with body odour and this banal place in which we find ourselves. I am comfortable to say that I came away from the art gallery today with a similar (or perhaps an identical) feeling as I have when I come away from a good sermon, without suggesting that art galleries are set apart as the holy of holies or that the artist is our new priest. But sometimes they certainly function that way.
That's as far as this line of reasoning will go for now. My ardour for that [spiritual/emotional] experience can overwhelm the simplicity of the original experience itself. I don't want to let my desire for meaning to eclipse the event itself. So now let me strip it back.
Gretchen Albrecht is one of New Zealand's foremost abstract artists, and today I went and heard her speak about her paintings. Like most visual artists, she was uncomfortable at first with the idea of standing in front of an audience, but she warmed to it. Eloquent and utterly in touch with her own artistic concept and practice, she was able to speak about the work with the familiarity of the creator but also with the detachment of someone viewing an object that is an entity in its own right. As she spoke, the content, ideas and meaning which you had suspected where woven into the fabric of the painting began to emerge.
By way of a prologue to her talk, she spoke about revelations - large and small - and about the importance of these to her work. Discovering something - wherever that thing may be, in a pohutukawa leaf, in a european cathedral, in heart-rending loss - then bringing it into the art. She isolated this as a defining concept of her practice.
Then she addressed the large piece 'In a Shower of Gold' (two hemispheres of belgian canvas together measuring 2.5m high and 5m wide - a canvas so large that she built a sort of scaffolding over it during the painting process so that she could complete the wide arcs of paint across the centre of the semi-circle). Originally informed by the myth of Zeus coming to Danaë as a shower of gold, the divine encroaches on the pink red flesh in a burst of energy. Sexual? Yes. Spiritual? Yes. An artistic revelation? Yes.
She talks about another large piece inspired during a bike ride along Tamaki Drive to St Heliers with her friend, when the pohutukawas were in bloom. The red of the pohutukawa became a circular whirl or dance around the equalising horizontals of grey and green that were the colours of the leaf. Here she referenced two poems - one of which was by TS Eliot (who, by the way, as a side note to what Gretchen said, ultimately identifies the still point around which everything whirls as being the Word, Christ).
The most poignant moment came when she turned our attention to another large rectangular canvas - a large pink rose shape almost obliterated in black - a super black line and a pure white line described horizontally through the middle of her familiar oval motif. "I have to tell you," she says, "that in 2010 our daughter-in-law died very suddenly." Her son returned from a trip to the dairy to find his wife deceased upon their bed. The revelation of this autobiographical context travels up the back of your neck and over the top of your head in a spontaneous identification with the emotion. When Gretchen first heard this news, she had a painting of a pink rose form - a work in progress - on the floor of her studio. It was too bright and cheerful for the situation, she said, so she covered it in black paint, allowing the pink to show through in places, and put the dark black and bright white horizontal lines through the middle. Her meditation on death.
The first privilege is to see the paintings. The second is to encounter the artist. The third is to have the paintings elucidated. The fourth is to not have remained unmoved. And here I'm lifted beyond my own little world once again.