Meditations on Fear, Reverence and Revolt: ‘Portraits of Power’

By BEN BEESE

SILVIA CANTU BAUTISTA/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
A few of the pieces displayed in the gallery show entitled “Portraits of Power.”

In the heart of the brutalist bunker that is the Johnson Memorial Building, a small collection of thought-provoking paintings and ceramics can be found. “Portraits of Power” is a formidable exhibition of work by the students of Jim Butler’s Portraiture in Ceramics and Oil Paint class. The works span a range of topics, from violence to religion, and a myriad of styles, from abstract impressionism to realism. They are united by their representation of that which is uncontrollable yet which controls, that which may inspire fear or reverence or revolt, in short, that which is powerful. 

Take, for instance, one painting hung on the south side of the gallery. It portrays an expressionless Christ as he condemns a man to hanging and damnation. Unlike in traditional representations of a vengeful god, here the man found guilty is no obvious sinner, no demonic form of evil, but an average, sweater-and-jeans-wearing guy. Despite his apparent lack of incriminating evidence, there is no hope for appeal, no ability to persuade the blank face of his judge. The man’s fate is in the hands of the supernatural.

 And yet, even Christ has a hint of powerlessness. The leaping flames, a violence reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, are mirrored by the streaks of fresh blood running from Christ’s own wounds reminding viewers that he too was executed by vengeful judges. In this depiction, even the son of God cannot escape the seemingly arbitrary judgement that plagues humankind. One wonders who controls our destinies — is it the god from whose hand we dangle or from some other, unforeseen force that punishes our gods?

On the opposite side of the gallery sits another image, less concrete in its depictions and yet perhaps more primal than the first. A serene expanse of blue, like the night sky as seen through a distant metropolis, spreads across the canvas, interrupted by a fiery intrusion of hot pink and yellow. There is a tension that ebbs between these two forces, and an electric dynamism plays across the image. Each field is poised to overpower the other, and yet they are balanced. The colors take up nearly even amounts of the canvas with equal force. They seem to be perpetually in turmoil and yet always held in equilibrium.  

SILVIA CANTU BAUTISTA/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

Although modern in look, this piece seems to draw from the same primal idea from whence came the Yin and Yang and the Tao Te Ching. Conflict and turmoil, it seems, is an omnipresent fact of reality. Always in balance, always present, yet constantly shifting and changing. Nothing stays the same. As Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold stays,” or in the immortal words of Marx and Engels, “All that is solid melts into air.” This piece seems to be a glimpse of a truly frightening yet familiar sense of the universe that makes one wonder: what can be done when the whole of reality is always churning in an equally destructive and productive rage? How do we weather the perpetual storm?

In the back, on the east wall, stands another image of a slightly different nature. Both realistic and abstract, it leaves behind the tension and drama of the aforementioned pieces for the sort of calm of promised but insofar unspoken wisdom. 

A young woman, perhaps a student (the distinctive boots suggest a member of our own campus) leans against the frame, gently clutching a novel at the edge of a field of constellations. It is a simple, contemplative piece that resides in the gray area between uncertainty and certainty. Is she lost in the disorder of an ever-churning universe or has she come to peace with her place among the stars? Is the title of her book a plea for “just ‘A Little Life!’ Please?” or is it a contented acknowledgment of the little life that we each have? Do the stars stretch between her fingers at her command or has she simply come to grasp her place in relation to them? These questions remain unanswered, but the possibility of answers is enough to give one hope that there is indeed a way to make peace with the powerful forces that overshadow our lives.

The diverse pieces in this exhibition number just a few, each representing its own unique perspective on life, power and ourselves. These artists have inventively combined various media including oil paint, ceramics, and paper, to form truly wonderful pieces of art. Beyond that, they have embraced vulnerability, peered into often uncomfortable truths and created an exhibition that, if not directly instructive, is certainly inspiring.

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Meditations on Fear, Reverence and Revolt: ‘Portraits of Power’